Archive for December, 2013
To think about Christmas in Colonial New England, we first must remember that colonial New England encompasses a region over a very long time. The Plymouth Colony began in 1620, Salem, Massachusetts was settled in 1627, and Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. Colonialism ends with the beginnings of the American Revolution in 1775. That is one-hundred and fifty years, give or take a few. Nothing stays the same for seven generations, not even in New England.
In the seventeenth century the devout Protestants who settled these places, did not celebrate Christmas. There are a few reasons for this. For instance, Cotton Mather, one of Boston’s leading Puritan ministers of the time, expressed the opinion of most when he preached that Christ’s birth should be celebrated every day. But really these first ministers were worried and opposed to the dual pagan holidays of Yule and Saturnia. Yule being the Anglo-Saxon worship of the darkest days of the year, and the return to lengthening days and increasing light. In other words the winter solstice. Saturnalias were what we now associate with New Years, the loud raucous -drunken worship of the god Saturn; the end of one year and beginning of another.
So Christmas worship was frowned upon. In many places it was another work-day, in others it was a day of prayer and contemplation.
But Colonial New England extends over one-hundred years, and many things changed over a century and a half, among them Christmas celebrations. Yes change even happened among the most religious New Englanders. It happened slowly, with the Anglofication of New England, and quickly as new people with different and more light hearted ways of doing things moved in to the region.
It is well known that America was never more English than it was just at the time of the Revolution. Colonists had adopted many English customs as travel time lessened, and more English goods were available in the marketplace. Those customs began to include boughs of evergreen and holly in the house, Christmas parties and church services dedicated to the birth of the Christ child.
At the same time America was becoming more English, more Germans immigrated to America, making up the second largest immigrant group in colonial America. Although most settled in the mid-Atlantic region, many moved north and settled in New England towns. These newcomers brought many of the things we today associate with Christmas, such as candles in the windows, gingerbread houses and men, the work cookie, and eventually – in another one-hundred years, the Christmas tree. (The first of these was erected in 1832 in Lexington Massachusetts, so the story goes, by a Unitarian minister, a German named Charles Follen.)
So the quick answer to: how was Christmas celebrated in Colonial New England? Is that it wasn’t, and then it was.
December 16 two-hundred and forty years ago, that’s 1773, a gang of seamen and mechanics, Boston harbor’s working men, after listening to debates and lectures for nearly four weeks, dumped million’s of dollars worth of East India Company tea into Boston Harbor. This event was originally called ‘the destruction of the tea,’ and over the years it has come to be known as The Boston Tea Party. (Not to be confused with a former rock ‘n roll venue of the same name.)
The arguments the men, women, and children heard, involved much talk of ‘taxation without representation’, and a governor who was out of touch with the needs of the Province. He, of course, was an employee of the King, and knew it. The issue being discussed was over three ships in the harbor. By statute, they had to be moved that night, and it was Governor Hutchinson’s decision either to land the tea, that was unload it, or allow the ships to sail out of the harbor and back to London.
Most of Boston wanted the tea sent back. By itself that was contentious. Boston was the largest and busiest port west of Plymouth, England, and busy, profitable ports are not in the habit of sending ships back where they came from without an exchange of goods. But that was exactly what the citizens of Boston were clamoring for. And it wasn’t even over the tea.
Not over the tea? No, non-importation agreements had been in place for years by then. These were agreements that town meetings had voted on and signed throughout New England, promising that British made goods would not be sold, purchased or consumed. Tea had been politically and socially too hot to drink or handle for a decade, and no one protesting the tea-ships had sipped a cup for years.
What then? Thomas Hutchinson, the man who was to decide if the ships were to stay or go, had already decreed that only a few shops in Boston would sell the East India Company tea sitting in the harbor. And not surprisingly the owners of those few shops were friends and relations of Gov. Thomas Hutchinson. So when the Governor sent word that the ships should be brought in, unloaded, and the tea brought to the approved-merchants’ warehouses; no one was surprised. It was after Hutchinson’s order was given, that Samuel Adams stood at the pulpit at Boston’s Old South meetinghouse and gave the sign that sent the disguised workmen down Milk Street to the harbor to dunk the tea.
Adams said: “This meeting can do nothing more to save the country!” the men responded “huzzah” and “Boston harbor a tea pot tonight”. And off they went.
People from Rhode Island and North Carolina have pointed out on Facebook and other places, that it happened at their ports too. They are correct. But it wasn’t what Bostonians did that night that started the American Revolution, it was what Parliament did in response to the tea’s destruction that started the war. It was Parliament’s efforts to punish Boston with a series of laws now referred to as the Insufferable Acts, which caused worry in the Massachusetts countryside, and in the other twelve colonies. Their worry, and their efforts to save the townsfolk of Boston, changed gangs of young rebels, into a unified nation of Patriots. Patriots, who with a common cause, organized against the government of King George III and started something amazing.