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Old New England Holidays We No Longer Celebrate

Early New Englanders, influenced by the Puritans, were reluctant celebrants for most holidays. Religious festivals, they felt, were un-Christian and pagan. Yet as the 1600s progressed New Englanders began incorporating a number of festivals and celebrations into their calendar. Some survived but others, like these five, have faded into history.

old new england holidays

Muster Day by Charles Henry Granger (National Gallery of Art)

Training day. The earliest colonists had a training day six times a year. It was a serious occasion used for maintaining arms and practicing shooting skills. Over time it evolved into an annual event. Prizes, such as a silver cup or handkerchief, were given for the best shot. Dinners were held in public squares. Eventually training day gave way to muster day, which retained some military training functions but took on a carnival spirit with much food and drink consumed.

Anniversary Day was a special festival for ministers. They would travel to the larger towns of New England for a day long discussion of spiritual matters, which extended to political and legal matters. The day ended with a fine dinner.

Forefather's Day. Even the earliest, flinty New Englanders weren’t above a bit of self-aggrandizement. They held Forefathers' Day on the anniversary of the landing of the Mayflower at Plymouth. It featured dinners, prayer, and religious ceremonies praising their success in their new land.

Shad Spawning. The arrival of the shad in the local rivers, making their way upstream to spawn, became another traditional festival. There was no set date for the celebration, as it occurred only when the shad determined that the spring river waters had grown warm enough for them to come up from the ocean to lay their eggs. But there arrival was cause for celebration. American Indians held festivals to mark the event and the colonists adopted the idea for themselves. People would travel many miles to harvest the fish, which, like salmon, were so plentiful they were thought best fit for the poor and working classes.

Corn Husking Day. A number of agricultural harvest events were turned into festivals. Sheep shearing, apple peeling, maple-sugar making, and timber-rollings all provided reasons to gather and celebrate. Perhaps the most ubiquitous was the autumn corn husking gatherings when people would travel to their neighbor's farm to help with the task of shucking corn to put up for the winter.

Thanks to: Customs and Fashions in Old New England by Alice Morse Earle.

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