The New England Christmas started out as an ordinary work day for Puritans who frowned on the papist revelry of their Anglican neighbors. Over the years it evolved, with the help of Charles Dickens, into a celebration of charity and goodwill.
Of course, Anglicans and Catholics did celebrate Christmas in New England -- only they had to do it quietly if Puritans were around.
The 1st New England Christmas
In 1604, French Catholics and Huguenots celebrated the first New England Christmas ever -- in Maine, with no Puritans in sight.
The previous June they had arrived on St. Croix Island, now on the border between New Brunswick and Maine. They built a small settlement, and during the wintry Christmas that year they attended services in a new chapel. Then they gathered inside next to a roaring fire, told stories, joked and reminisced about France. They had a feast -- perhaps roast venison or rabbit stew.
They moved the colony to Annapolis Royal, Nova Scotia, because so many of them died during the winter.
No New England Christmas in Plimoth, 1621
Gov. William Bradford famously put down the Christmas celebration at Plimoth Plantation in 1621. He called out his non-Puritan colonists to work, but they told him they couldn't as a matter of conscience. Bradford let them off the hook, but they had the effrontery to play at sports. At noon he found them, and tells what happens in his diary:
...he found them in ye streete at play, openly; some pitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.
Business As Usual in MA and CT
A century later, Salem witch trial judge Samuel Sewall tried to visit an old friend on Christmas. Unfortunately, the friend was 'goon to h[eaven].' The old Puritan was no doubt pleased to see business as usual in the streets of Boston that day. He wrote in his diary on Tuesday Dec. 25.
The Shops were open, and Carts came to Town with Wood, Hoop-poles, Hay &c. as at other Times; Being a pleasant day, the street was fill'd with Carts and Horses -- visited Mr. Cooper, who is much better.
But even a Puritan like Joshua Hempstead in New London, Conn., couldn't ignore the significance of Christmas. In 1730 on Christmas Day, a cloudy and windy Friday, Hempstead reported in his diary that he conducted business as usual. A 'Capt. Douglass' paid him interest and gave him and other selectmen a supper. Then:
...a Great Concourse of of people at the Church to hear Mr Seabury preach a Christmas Sermon & to See fashions. it being New many went. he hath preachy but 2 Sabath days (Since he Recd orders) here.
The Puritan Hold Loosens
Forty miles north in Newburyport, Mass., Sarah Smith Emery noted the young people weren't quite as good at following the Puritan strictures on Christmas. The weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas brought plenty of food, a time for feasting and hope before the long, cold winter. It would have been hard for Sarah to ignore the non-Puritan celebration of Christmas. As an old lady she remembered New England Christmas in the late 18th century:
Thanksgiving brought a social season. There was much visiting and distribution of good cheer for a week or two after that holiday. Towards Christmas the fat hogs were killed, the pork salted, the hams hung in the wide chimney to cure, and the sausages made. The women began to comb flax and spin linen thread; the men went daily to cut and haul the year's firewood. We were too good Puritans to make much account of Christmas, though sometimes the young people at the main road got up a ball on Christmas eve, but at New Year, there was a general interchange of good wishes, with gifts and festivity.
Christmas in Maine, 1791
On the Maine frontier in 1786, Martha Ballard may not have had much choice but to work on Christmas. On Dec. 25, 1791, the midwife made famous by historian Laurel Thacher Ulrich had to help her neighbor deliver a child. In her diary, she wrote:
Snowd & was Cold. mrs Lithgow was very unwell all Day. her women were Calld in towards Evng & Shee was Safe Delivrd of a fine Son at 10 h Evn, and is Cleverly. mrs Pettee, Stackpool, Thomas & Collar taried all night.
In 1807, Congress Works on Christmas!
Christmas still wasn't much of a holiday after the turn of the century. Congress worked in Washington, D.C. , on Dec. 25, 1807. It didn't bother Sen. John Quincy Adams, who came from old Puritan stock:
25th. Christmas day; but the committee of enquiry met at ten this morning. Mr. James Taylor attended, and made his statements in the presence of Mr. Smith, who wished until tomorrow morning to put his questions; which was agreed to. The committee sat until near three o'clock, still discussing the principles of my report. Part of what was yesterday struck out was this day reinserted.
A Merry Christmas at Sea, 1828
Times were changing, though, and the non-Puritan and the non-pious strove for a festive holiday. Capt. Solomon H. Davis, a 24-year-old Gloucester, Mass., sea captain, recorded in his diary in 1828.
Christmas Day -- merry one. Rainy weather. Mr F--- drinking Merry Christmas and trying to murder the time, conversing on various subjects -- very interesting to females, if they could hear it. At meridian, a small stir. passed us with American colors flying. Who knows, says I, but that she will have letters for me?
A Poky Christmas, 1869
Charles Dickens left his stamp on Christmas with his 1867-68 U.S. tour reading A Christmas Carol. Another writer, Sarah Orne Jewett, recorded in her diary that Christmas that year didn't live up to the ideal holiday as envisioned by her British counterpart:
Saturday 25.A very poky Christmas. All my presents except a cushion for Carrie either came before or are to come after today. & that I dont like. Read and was at Grandma's in the afternoon & also in the evening. Walked with Sara[h] Lord most all the evening.
A Charitable Christmas, 1875
Louisa May Alcott embraced the Dickensian notion of Christmas as a time of charity and gift giving by spending Christmas in 1875 visiting the poor and sick in New York City with Quaker activist Abby Hopper Gibbons. In a letter to her family in Concord, Mass., she wrote:
Dear Family,– ...we drove to the hospital, and there the heart-ache began, for me at least, so sad it was to see these poor babies, born of want and sin, suffering every sort of deformity, disease, and pain. Cripples half blind, scarred with scrofula, burns, and abuse,–it was simply awful and indescribable!
...One poor mite, so eaten up with sores that its whole face was painted with some white salve,–its head covered with an oilskin cap; one eye gone, and the other half filmed over; hands bandaged, and ears bleeding,–could only moan and move its feet till I put a gay red dolly in one hand and a pink candy in the other; then the dim eye brightened, the hoarse voice said feebly, "Tanky, lady!" and I left it contentedly sucking the sweetie, and trying to see its dear new toy. It can't see another Christmas, and I like to think I helped make this one happy, even for a minute…
A New England Christmas, 1911
By 1911, Christmas in Maine had changed considerably since the days of Martha Ballard. Mrs. A.H. Bowden was a 68-year-old widow living on the farm her husband left her in Cape Neddick. He had extensive land holdings in York. She spent the days leading up to Christmas dressing poultry, doing laundry and redecorating her setting room. On Christmas Day she wrote in her diary (with thanks to Cape Neddick, Maine):
A nice day Wind SW nice day for Chris (Christmas) Moderate And had quite A lot of Presents Went to see my sister found her very low Frank Main Chapman Called this Evening So tired I Can’t Write mailed A letter to A L Whittle And Wife and Also Adeline Gillchrist
Robert Frost Nails It, 1915
By 1915, Robert Frost captured the nostalgia that was becoming part of Christmas, a yearning for a simpler time. From Franconia, N.H., Frost wrote a letter to a friend that included an early version of the poem Christmas Trees. He wrote,
The city had withdrawn into itself
And left at last the country to the country,
When between whirls of snow not come to lie
And whirls of faded foliage not yet laid
There drove one day a stranger to my door
Who did in country-fashion in that there
He sat and waited till he drew us out,
A-buttoning coats, to ask him who he was.
He proed to be the town come back to look
For something in the country it had left
And could not do without and keep its Christmas.
He asked if I would sell my Christmas trees.
With thanks to the Public Domain Review. This story about the evolution of New England Christmas was updated in 2017.