211223ind Cranston

It may feel like Christmas has always been an ingrained part of life in New England but the annual holiday, in its current form, has only been celebrated for around 150 years says historian Tim Cranston.

Most folks don’t realize it, but New England, a region with nearly 400 years of history dating back to the early 17th century colonial period, has only been celebrating Christmas as we know it for about 150 years.  You see, our Puritan forefathers; the Pilgrims of Plymouth Plantation and those of that ilk, viewed Christmas as an abomination, as abhorrent “residual Papist idolatry”.  Feelings towards December 25th, a day hijacked by the early founders of the Roman Catholic Church from Roman pagan ritual according to Puritan thinking, was perhaps one of the only things shared by Roger Williams, Anne Hutchinson, and their followers with the Massachusetts Bay and Plymouth colony leaders that drove them into exile and the eventual founding of the tolerant colony of Rhode Island and Providence Plantations.   Tolerant of just about everything that is, except the celebration of Christmas.  All of the founders of the New England colonies believed wholeheartedly that the only biblically sanctioned holy day was the Sabbath day. This Rhode Island, Massachusetts, and Connecticut constraint was so deeply ingrained in the New England psyche, and the leaders of these three new states were so powerful at the time of the Revolution, that Congress was in official session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas to occur under America’s new constitution. The Puritan idea that the trappings of Christmas were simply pagan celebrations covered by a Roman Catholic veneer was so prevalent in neighboring Massachusetts that classes were scheduled in the Boston public schools on Christmas Day as late as 1870. Evergreen decoration of churches, meeting houses and even private homes, also considered a “nod” to pagan idolatry, was expressly forbidden by Puritan doctrine and punishment was doled out to those who dared to stay home beneath the Christmas tree.

So what changed more than two centuries of Puritan “Scroogery” and “Bah humbug!” you might ask? Well, two simple but pervasive factors made the difference. The first factor was all about mid-19th media influences, specifically the power of word and image and their influences upon behavior. The words involved were the poetic nuances of Clement Clark Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicolas” more commonly known as “The Night before Christmas”, and the image was the artistry of political cartoonist Thomas Nast and his vision for Santa Claus, which combined traditional imagery from the Old English Father Christmas with the Dutch tradition of St Nicolas. Indeed everything about Santa and his associated traditions spring from the imagination of Moore and Nast, not Coca-Cola as some folks think. So now the world of the middle 19th century New England had a new Christmas concept, thanks to Moore and Nast, but no takers due to the fact that that deeply ingrained New England Puritan psyche still held a powerful sway, the audience for Christmas needed to change; a demographic shift was in order. And then, lo and behold, along comes the Industrial Revolution, which in South County took the form of the Textile Age. Textile mills sprang up on every river and stream in southern Rhode Island; at first small to medium concerns found adequate employees among the Puritan/Baptist/Protestant folks (read between the lines – Christmas deniers) that were already here. But soon that workforce pool was exhausted, Big mills in Peace Dale, Belleville, Westerly, Hamilton, Lafayette, Wakefield, and the like required more workers than the local deeply rooted populace could provide. So along come droves of uprooted French Canadian farmers, scores of displaced Irish Catholics, and a long line of eager European immigrants; all of them hungry for work, motivated to get their piece of the American dream and every one of them already invested in the lovely comforting “pagan” pageantry that is now our uniquely American melting pot Christmas.  These folks grabbed a hold of the vision created by Moore and Nast and added their own traditions to it; and in the process dragged the grumpy old Swamp Yankees of South County into the light of a Christmas morning. Merry Christmas South County!

The author is the North Kingstown town historian. The views expressed here are his own.

(1) comment

Mark Thompson

Fascinating...thanks, G.T.!

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