SWANSEA — Today’s Christmas time at Martin House Farm, a quaint 18th century farmhouse, might have a few familiar elements that it had in 1856 when celebrating Christmas finally became legal in Massachusetts.
Martin House Farm — a property on the National Register of Historic Places since 1979 — is located in Swansea, which is rich in colonial history. What would Christmas have been like in the earlier days of the colony, compared to how it looked in the 1850s, and now?
There are a dozen Christmas tree farms within a 50-mile radius of Martin House, most of them planted their first saplings between early to late 1900s. The settlers could have planted Christmas trees earlier, if Christmas wasn’t banned for the better part of the 1800s. It is quite possible the later Christmas trees at Martin House came from one of these nearby farms, if the Martin residents didn’t take advantage of its 63-acres field that has been continuously cultivated for over 300 years.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony ordinance of 1659 made it illegal to celebrate Christmas in that specific colony because the Pilgrims felt it was a time the English filled with debauchery and excess. When the ban was in effect, residents in Massachusetts could be charged a fine for even acknowledging Christmas. The holiday was considered to be more narcissistic than religious by the critics at the time. Some later felt that celebrating Christmas also wasn’t patriotic, since it was viewed as a remaining tradition from England. The holiday was eventually legalized in 1856, but there were still some anti-Christmas notions remaining from the area’s Puritan English roots. For instance, students could still be expelled for not attending school on Christmas Day until Christmas was officially made a national holiday in 1870. If you’re thankful for the winter break, thank President Ulysses S. Grant for signing that bill.
Despite the overall anti-Christmas mentality that was still present in the 1800s, the society at that time gradually accepted aspects of the celebration that continue to be the Christmas we know today. Santa Claus was a newer name for St. Nicholas and became a well loved character long before Christmas was declared legal. A man owning a sleigh and reindeer appeared in a children’s poem in 1821, and that imagery was solidified two years later, with the publication of The Night Before Christmas. Santa is, to this day, a man children love and wonder about; a man even adults consider a dear friend.
In other colonies around the U.S., by 1836, Christmas had taken on “its familiar modern form” with Santa Claus gaining popularity and holiday shopping. Christopher Klein, author of the History channel’s article “When Massachusetts Banned Christmas,” noted that even though Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday until 1870, it was by no means illegal in the rest of the U.S.
Although the Christmas tree wasn’t a household staple in the 1800s yet, other decorative plants popped up. Some people would hang small items such as holly and mistletoe around their homes. Hanging of stockings also began to make an appearance in the mid-1800s, which was a tradition that originated from Dutch settlers in New England. In 1841, the Christmas tree began to rise in popularity after Prince Albert decided to have one on display in Windsor Castle (though news of it did not reach the United States until the late 1940s). There are however, previous documented cases of two Harvard professors from Germany — Charles Follen and Herman Bokum — who both decorated Christmas trees in their homes during the 1830s.
Christmas carols have been around for longer than many may realize. But, did you know, Massachusetts has a few writers that could have received “Christmas Grammys”. Boston native James Pierpont published his popular song “One Horse Open Sleigh,” now known more commonly as “Jingle Bells,” in 1857. Another Massachusetts native was Phillips Brooks, who wrote the lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868. Brooks was briefly the Bishop of Massachusetts and also the Rector of Boston’s Trinity Church. “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” was published by Edmund Sears, an American Unitarian parish minister in Wayland , MA in 1849. I’m sure many of these are your family’s favorites.
Charles Dickens’ story, “A Christmas Carol,” also shaped the cultural view of Christmas following its publication in 1843, presenting a more wholesome family feel to the holiday. When the book reached the United States a year after its publication, it rose to popularity fairly quickly. This introduced qualities such as charity, quality time, and gift giving to the holiday.
In 1890, Santa made his first appearance right here in Massachusetts at The Boston Store in Brockton. Children arrived by train from Boston, Providence, Worcester and even New York to see James Edgar portraying Santa. The Martin family very well could have visited jolly old Saint Nicholas via the Old Colony Railroad Company. Within a decade of Edgars first Santa visiting his dry goods stores, every major department store followed suit! Although retail giant Macys also claims to be the first department store Santa visited, it is a matter of dress. James Edgar portrayed the jolly pot bellied version made popular by artist Thomas Nast for the cover of Harper’s Weekly in 1862.
What were some of the items early New Englanders feasted on for the joyous holiday? Red meats, potatoes, and bakery items were popular Christmas dishes. Mincemeat, meat pies, and fruitcakes are mentioned quite often in literature from the time period. These dishes were not easy to prepare, and took a fair amount of planning. The well-to-do would often get oysters around the holidays as well. If the Martins were lucky enough to have oysters at Christmas, chances are that they came from Narragansett Bay. Since the Martins lived in Martin House during the late 1700s and early 1800s, they would have used their indoor beehive oven — so called due to its domed shape — to bake meals for the holiday season. Baked goods can be easily preserved, so they were popular among the colonies. Even though Christmas celebrations came slowly, Gingerbread recipes were written down as early as 1764. Christopher Ludwick, the Baker General of the Continental Army during the American Revolution, used a gingerbread mold that bakeries still recreate today.
Another Christmas tradition we see today, lighting candles, goes back far and wide in history. In ancient times, Romans celebrated their Saturnalia with displays of lights. The first written reference to a candle-lit Christmas tree was in 17th century Strasbourg. In 1890s Boston, businesses that were open for the holidays and some households would place a single lighted candle in their windows, from Christmas Eve all the way to New Year’s Eve. In the 1940s, the area around Colonial Williamsburg, Virginia, would clear out candles in stores before Christmas Eve. These are where the candle-by-the-window tradition originated. Although lighting candles for Christmas seems like a fun activity today, these sources of lights were probably a necessity when Martin House residents started celebrating Christmas in the 1800s. The effort to provide electricity for households in Massachusetts didn’t start until the 1880s, so people depended on candles.
Though the holiday was treated differently in years past, we can recognize traces of our current holiday looking back. Feasting, treats, caroling, and family and friends gathering, all remain common threads from the colonial period. Additionally, celebrating the birth of Christ has always been the meaning behind the significance of Christmas. Joining friends and family at church remains a constant to this day, the Martins probably attended The First Baptist as it was the closest to their house. This birthday jubilation carried through the years, has brought us traditions filled with Christmas festivities. These joyous days allow us to take a breather, and celebrate the season. Reflecting on these traditions shared through hundreds of years is cause to raise a glass on Dec. 25.
Martin House Farm is owned, operated, and preserved by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It will hopefully reopen next July for house tours through September. Please visit the website for schedules.