Road to a merrier Christmas in Mass. ran through Berkshires

COMMENTARY

In the same state, Christmas was both outlawed and shaped into the images children treasure and adults aspire to recreate. A Massachusetts Christmas was once eschewed and later envied.

In 1621, Massachusetts Bay Colony Gov. William Bradford declared Dec. 25 a workday. Some proclaimed their refusal to follow the work order a matter of conscience, and yet, at noon, Bradford saw the same men playing games in the street. He was angry.

“If they made the keeping [of Christmas] a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.” Bradford declared.

A REAL WAR ON CHRISTMAS

Thirty-eight years later, on May 11, 1659, Bradford’s sentiments became law. The General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony proclaimed: “It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whoever shall be found observing, by abstinence of labor, feasting, or in any other way, any such day as Christmas… shall pay for every such offense five shillings as a fine.”

The General Court’s intent in outlawing Christmas was to prevent “disorders arising in several places within the jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivities, as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the dishonor of God and the offense of others.” The new colonists were differentiating themselves from England; they were making a stand against excess and guarding against drunkenness, fights and wassailing (a British custom in which any house could be entered and, in exchange for caroling, the intruders could demand food and drink). The road from outlawing the celebration of Christmas to Christmas as we know it was a long one. The first step took place twenty-two years later in 1681 when the law against Christmas was repealed. The action did not result in the immediate celebration of Christmas. Many Massachusetts almanacs still did not even mark Dec. 25 a holiday.

Two centuries after Bradford took umbrage with reveling on Christmas Day, author Catharine Sedgwick, of Stockbridge, wrote her niece: “Tomorrow will be Christmas here and we will have merry music with the ringing of the bells.”

However, that 1824 letter was written not from Massachusetts but from the home of her brother in New York City. At that time, New York City did celebrate Christmas, but back in Massachusetts there would be a church service but still no celebration. Folks in Massachusetts celebrated New Year’s Day not Christmas Day. It was on New Year’s Day that there was visiting, feasting, games and gifts.

Sedgwick’s experience in New York City was important to the development of a Massachusetts Christmas. She was a popular writer of fiction and, through her books and short stories over the next 10 years, it was she who drew the indelible picture of rosy-cheeked children, eyes alight on Christmas morning, receiving gifts and singing songs.

ANOTHER BERKSHIRE CONNECTION

It was a German immigrant, Charles Follen, who introduced the Christmas tree to Massachusetts. From his home in Stockbridge, he wrote of his many friends in the village. He told them of his childhood in Germany, Christmas day and his greatest joy: the Christmas tree.

In 1856, Christmas was declared a legal holiday in Massachusetts. The Boston Post editorial staff wrote: “If any event ever happened in the world that deserves to be commemorated … it is Christmas … it behooves us then to reduce our behavior to a conformity to religion … As Christians we have the highest cause to rejoice, let not our joy hurry us into inconsistency of character … this is incumbent upon us so we do not prejudice others against celebrating Christmas.”

Finally, they were celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts, but evidently they were meant to do it with reserve and hauteur. Surely not! It took 50 years, but folks lightened up.

In Stockbridge, at the turn of the century, Rachel Field wrote, “Christmas meant snow … a Saturday excursion to the woods where we gathered pine to make wreaths … our mittens frozen stiff … the library lamps lighted early casting golden oblongs … the watering trough stiff with icicles … the church smelling of peppermint candy, pine, frankincense and myrrh … the sound of caroling and then the squeak of the sleigh runners and clearness of the bells as we went home.”

Those were Field’s memories of a child’s Christmas in Stockbridge. Those were the idealized images of what a New England Christmas finally became. Fifty years after that, those word-pictures became Norman Rockwell illustrations — for all and for all time the picture of the New England Christmas.

From Bradford’s disdain for the doings on a Massachusetts street on Christmas Day 1621 to Rockwell’s “Home for Christmas” recreating Stockbridge Main Street in the 20th century, a Massachusetts Christmas was many things. To each and every one of you, may your Christmas be merry and bright, filled with the indelible images crafted by Sedgwick, Field, Follen and Rockwell.

Carole Owens, a writer and historian, is a regular Eagle contributor.