Christmas in Early America

In Europe, holiday traditions during the Christmas season go back hundreds of years; however, here in New England such traditions have a much shorter history. In early 17th-centruy Europe, the period around Christmas was marked by festive merriment. Celebrants decorated churches, exchanged gifts, caroled, feasted, and drank. 

In diametric contrast, the Puritans, who came to the New World in 1620, did not engage in such frivolity. Although many of the holiday activities enjoyed in Europe were veiled in Christianity, the Puritans believed that such festivities were based on decadent pagan rituals that distracted people from a pious life and God’s word.  In Boston, the observation of Christmas was actually outlawed from 1659 to 1681, and those who dared to defy the law by exchanging gifts and greetings, dressing in fine clothing, feasting, and similar “satanical practices” were fined.   

Many people in the United States did not celebrate Christmas well into the 19th century. Case in point, in the 1850s, a teenage farm boy from West Woodstock named Charles Cobb notes in his journal that he went to school on December 25 because there was a spelling bee. Some fifteen years later he notes in his December 25, 1867, diary entry: "Worked for George E. Lox in saw mill." While in his December 25, 1874, entry he states: "Split wood about 5 hours, John and Lois gone to Royalton to stay all night. Henry here."

While Charles did not take the day off to celebrate Christmas, nor did he mention having given or received presents on these days, others living in Woodstock did celebrate the holiday. In 1878, an eleven-year-old girl from Woodstock named Minnie Gilbert was excited about the “splendid time” she had on Christmas and all the amazing things that she did and received. Her gifts, which included aprons, a 1/2 yard of cloth, gloves, and some candy, cost a total of 44 cents, or about $10.48 in today’s money.

If you want to learn more about Minnie and other Woodstockremembrances/traditions, please visit the backside of the Town Crier on Elm Street where there will be a special mini display during the Wassail festivities.

Wishing you all a safe and happy holiday season!

SpotlightMatthew Powers