Dedicated to the History of Maine and the People and Places That Preserve It

Bah, Humbug!

Why Early Mainers Didn’t Make Merry at Christmas Time


By Aimée N. Lanteigne

At Christmas time in 1912, the Dean Brothers Shoe Company was located on 455 Congress St. in Portland, Maine. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www.VintageMaineImages.com.
What’s Christmas without a jolly Santa to leave cookies for? Or a ceramic crèche resting peacefully above a crackling fire? Can you imagine getting up with the alarm on Christmas morning and heading out for yet another day at the office? Or having a math test at school on Christmas Eve? Why, we would consider such travesties nothing short of heresy today! But early Mainers did not view Christmas as the religious, and sadly overtly commercialized, tradition it has become. In fact, they hardly recognized it at all.

Among Maine’s early settlers were the Puritans. These hardy Englishmen left Europe because they fundamentally disagreed with the practices of the Anglican Church. They sought to simplify, or purify, how they worshiped their Creator, yet freedom of religion was not a valued right in seventeenthcentury England, thus the reason the Puritans migrated to America seeking a place to worship as they saw fit.

These hard-working, austere immigrants frowned upon idolatry, idleness, and frivolity of any kind.

Puritans claimed that no one truly knew when Jesus was born. They argued that the choice of December 25 as Christmas Day was made primarily to coincide with the ancient Roman festival of Saturnalia, a pagan observation that celebrated the winter solstice. To the Puritans, there were three things wrong with this festival: one, it was meant to be raucously wild and fun, two, the wine flowed limitlessly, and three, it truly had nothing to do with honoring the birth of Jesus Christ. Furthermore, the Puritans wanted to break all ties with any English customs, particularly the celebration of holidays. Since the term Christmas actually meant "mass of Christ", they had even more reason to shun the day since this was clearly a Catholic observation and they wished to separate themselves totally from Roman Catholicism. Every day was holy to them, thus there could be no special holidays. The New England Puritans went so far as to officially ban the celebration of Christmas in 1659, a law that would stay on the books for twenty-two years. This act could be considered as much of a political pushback as it was religious.

According to a May 11, 1659, statement recorded by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony fines were actually levied for anyone caught making merry on December the 25th.

"For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county."


This was taken on the Willard property on the end of Deake Street in South Portland. In the foreground is a Model T Ford loaded with Christmas gifts. The sign on the side of the Model T identifies it as the "Willard Express," owned and operated by Charles Willard, who is seated behind the wheel. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www.VintageMaineImages.com.

The Porteous, Mitchell & Braun Department Store at 522-528 Congress Street in Portland was decked out for Christmas in about 1912. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www.VintageMaineImages.com.

Christmas trees in front of the U.S. Post Office in Portland, ca. 1900. The building was at the corner of Exchange and Middle streets. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www.VintageMaineImages.com.

For nearly two hundred years, Christmas was virtually ignored in Puritan New England, including right here in Maine. Businesses, courts, schools, government offices, and banks were all open for business on the twenty-fifth of December. In fact, it wasn’t until 1836 that the Maine legislature declared legal holidays in our state thereby ordering the state’s court system to be closed on said days. What holidays would state employees have off? Well, let’s just say you couldn’t do business on the Fourth of July or Election Day, but you certainly could pay your taxes on Christmas Day. One year later in 1837, the Portland Transcript noted that it seemed unfair that Maine’s Catholics and Episcopalians, a minority at the time, were having all the fun at Christmas time. Perhaps, the paper suggested, more people should start the tradition of exchanging gifts as their non-Protestant neighbors were doing. With the influx of French Canadian and German immigrants to our state in the 1860’s came a deeper appreciation for the holiday as a day of rest, a day of merriment, and perhaps even a day of magic. The lure of Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and St. Nicholas were too much to resist. And at last, a Christmas tree, a German tradition, was erected in Farmington in 1840. O, Tannenbaum, O Tannenbaum! By 1841, Thanksgiving had made it on Maine’s short list of recognized holidays, but still not Christmas. Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, published in 1843, began ever so slowly to shift the cultural acceptance of Christmas as a holiday in the minds of New Englanders. According to a Portland Press Herald article by Paul H. Mills, the Maine Legislature declared in 1852 that citizens with bank notes and other debts with a three-day grace period may receive a two-day grace period if the third day fell on Christmas. Translation: If you owed money that came due on Christmas, you had to pay if off a day early. Bah, humbug!

Mayor Louis B. Lausier kicks off the Salvation Army’s Christmas collection in Biddeford, 1941. Lausier, a democrat, served for 15 consecutive years as mayor, from 1941-1955. He sought a 16th term, but was defeated in a primary election. Nicknamed “Papa” Lausier by some, he was a well-known and sometimes controversial figure in Biddeford politics and a lifelong resident of the city. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www.VintageMaineImages.com.

A U.S. Post Office mail delivery truck, loaded with holiday mail at Christmas time in 1926 in Portland. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www.VintageMaineImages.com.

Christmas was finally officially recognized by the state of Maine as a holiday in 1858. The state court system would be henceforth closed on this day. As the years passed by and Christmas traditions became more and more a part of the fabric of American culture, other businesses, retail stores, educational institutions, and government offices closed up shop on December 25th. That is, until recent years, when the enticement of a blockbuster sale or the need to return that stupid scarf and get something you will actually like became more important. Who knows? Maybe someday a generation of Mainers will look back and wonder how we could have survived when the malls and restaurants and banks were all closed on Christmas Day. Aside from the presence of a few cars and cell phones, the Puritans wouldn’t think a thing has changed.


Portland Police officers, from left, Charles Dolan, Sgt. William F. Long, William Skerrett, and Thomas Bruns, help the Evening Express Christmas Happiness Campaign for needy children in Portland in 1926. Collections of Maine Historical Society, images online at www. VintageMaineImages.com.