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prune away" all trappings and trimmings of a "traditional Christmas." In the years

from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in the ...

It Happened Here

Just Another Day

For Dorchester's First Two Centuries, Christmas Was No Holiday

December 6, 2001

(First of a Three-Part Series on the History of Christmas in Dorchester)

By Peter F. Stevens

For nearly the first two centuries of Dorchester's existence, there was not a Christmas tree to found on December 25. Nor a Christmas candle, stockings hung by the fireplace, carols, nor holiday decorations of any sort. The reason was simple enough: the Puritans of New England loathed Christmas, denouncing it as a "Papist," or Roman Catholic, pastime that had no place in a proper New England community.

The settlers who arrived aboard the Mary and John brought their deeply held religious tenets with them, and as the settlement of Dorchester continued throughout the seventeenth century, locals embraced the "Christmas" views of fellow New Englanders such as Pilgrim stalwart Governor William Bradford, who had a large hand in shaping the colony's opposition to any Yuletide celebration of any sort. In 1621, Bradford quashed any thoughts of a Yuletide observance. "On the day called Christmas Day, he noted that a few newcomers to the community asked to be excused from work, and he tolerantly said that he 'would spare them until they were better informed.' But he then discovered that they were determined to celebrate 'at play, openly,' as they traditionally had in England. He took away their implements of sport and sent them indoors.'

Bradford wrote that he labored to crush "pagan mockery" of the observance. Back in England, Oliver Cromwell, from whom many New Englanders took their social and religious cue, ranted against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any "idolatry" that desecrated "that sacred event."

Cromwell's and Bradford's actions would have earned staunch support from the Minots, Clapps, Blakes, and other founding families of Dorchester. They decried Christmas out of their abiding conviction that December 25 was a "Catholic holiday." In contrast to the Catholics' traditionally exuberant celebrations of Christmas, the men and women of the Mary and John "were determined to purify and simplify religious belief and practice." They wanted to "prune away" all trappings and trimmings of a "traditional Christmas." In the years from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in the region. The General Court of Massachusetts decreed that any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) constituted a crime, and locals were fined for hanging decorations.

In early 19th-century Dorchester, the "bah, humbug" approach toward Christmas remained strong, as most residents still did not recognize Christmas as a holy day or celebrate it with any semblance of gift-giving, parties, or decorations. One look at the era's diaries, letters, and account books reveal that for most people in Dorchester and surrounding towns, December 25 was just another cold winter day. Unless the 25th fell on a Sunday and people attended their regular services at the town's churches, it was business as usual on Christmas: "Stores, shops, and taverns stayed open, and children went to school."

In the 1840s, as the Victorian Era hit New England full-bore, Christmas in Dorchester began to change. A social historian notes: "But with the beginning of the nineteenth century, the need for a festival to have some commemorative time made the Americans embrace Christmas as a perfect family holiday. Christmas was declared as a national holiday for celebration on June 26, 1870. And that was not all; Americans even re-invented the Christmas celebration and transformed it from a mere carnival into a family-oriented day of feast, fun and frolic."

Dorchester, a town that was built on family and community virtues, soon embraced the holiday that previous generations of locals had abhorred. In Dorchester, the influx of Irish immigrants, who celebrated Christmas, also changed the holiday landscape &emdash; literally.

One of that Yuletide landscape's most vivid symbols &emdash; the Christmas tree &emdash; began appearing in some genteel Dorchester homes in the 1840s in large part because they had the personal stamp of approval of Britain's Queen Victoria: "In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree....what was done at court immediately became fashionable not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived." Notwithstanding the queen's social influence, when it came to the now-popular Christmas tree, Dorchester residents did things the "American way": "It was noted that Europeans used small trees about four feet in height, while Americans liked their Christmas trees to reach from floor to ceiling."

Other European Christmas touches sprouted in Dorchester by the 1890s, with Christmas ornaments arriving from Germany and household holiday decorations now the norm.

A historian writes: "The early 20th century saw Americans decorating their trees mainly with homemade ornaments, while the German-American sect continued to use apples, nuts, and marzipan cookies. Popcorn joined in after being dyed bright colors and interlaced with berries and nuts. Electricity brought about Christmas lights, making it possible for Christmas trees to glow for days on end. With this, Christmas trees began to appear in town squares across the country and having a Christmas tree in the home became an American tradition."

Those words describe the Christmas scene of turn-of-the-century Dorchester. In the town where locals had once frowned on the holiday, it was "beginning to look a lot like Christmas."


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