|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."
| 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.