“So Many Social and Joyous Associations”
Thoughts on Christmas in Taunton, 1639–1856
by William F. Hanna
On Christmas Day 1856, J.W.D. Hall, editor of The American Whig, published in Taunton, sat down to write a Christmas message to his subscribers. Earlier in the year, the state of Massachusetts had finally recognized Christmas, along with Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July, as a public holiday and the editor wanted to extend the newspaper’s best wishes to its readers. “At early dawn the ‘wish you a merry Christmas,’ leaps from the tongue of childhood,” wrote Hall, “but to be responded to by all, and the young and old are made happier by its cheerful influences.”
Season’s greetings may have summoned warm feelings among his 19th century readers, but because he was a historian as well as a newsman, Editor Hall certainly knew that his Christmas message would have caused his Puritan ancestors to spin in their graves. Seven generations earlier, George and Mary Hall had been among Taunton’s original forty-six purchasers, settling with other first comers on present-day Dean Street, alongside the river. With the Deans and the Williamses and other early families, the Halls helped found the Puritan church in Taunton and they also organized the stock company that built the successful iron works on the banks of the Two-Mile River. None of the family’s history was forgotten, and indeed John Williams Dean Hall — the initialized J.W.D. earning him the affectionate moniker “Alphabet” — proudly carried the names of those early pioneers with him throughout his own life.
The two centuries separating the Puritan Halls from their Christmas-loving descendant tell an interesting story of how December 25th slowly took its place as one of America’s most cherished holidays. Today, those who find themselves in the middle of online gift shopping, or perhaps lamenting the seasonal parties lost to COVID-19, would hardly recognize the battles that were once fought over the observation of Christmas.
Editor Hall’s Puritan ancestors despised Christmas and used every available means to suppress its public celebration. Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas is the best study of the antipathy directed at the holiday by these early Yankees. He writes that Puritans saw no biblical or historical basis for designating December 25 as the birthday of Jesus. Moreover, they objected to the many pagan elements that had been co-opted by some Christian sects in celebrating the feast. Coinciding with the winter solstice, the ancients anticipated the lengthening hours of daylight and the advent of warmer weather with celebrations made more joyous by plentiful food and copious wine.
While Puritans saw no theological merit in keeping Christmas, they steadfastly abhorred the way the holiday was celebrated in England. They charged that religious observances served only as a thinly veiled excuse for gluttony, drunkenness, and sexual license, and in this they were joined by many non-Puritans, who were also apprehensive with the spirit of lawlessness and intemperance that often accompanied the holiday. This sometimes involved threats of violence as members of the lower classes, appearing as masked and costumed “mummers,” visited their more affluent neighbors and demanded food and drink.
Once arrived in New England, religious conservatives were determined that such behavior would never be tolerated here. The earliest recorded incident in the Plymouth Colony came in 1621, when Governor William Bradford, leading a Pilgrim work party into the forest on Christmas Day, came upon some newly-arrived settlers playing ball and engaging in other sports. When the young men told him that their consciences would not allow them to work on the holy day, the governor ordered them to go to their houses and spend the day in reflective prayer. Later, returning with the others, Bradford once more found the newcomers involved in games. This time he confiscated their sporting equipment and for a second time ordered them to go home.
Taunton, founded in 1639, was located on the western boundary of the Old Colony, but most of its early settlers had first lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and they had an affinity with Boston Puritans. The Taunton church, with Editor Hall’s ancestors foremost among the congregation, chose William Hooke as its first minister and Nicholas Street as the second. Both were dyed-in-the-wool Puritans who would have heartily approved of the 1659 law passed by the colony’s legislature banning the celebration of Christmas under pain of a 5 shilling fine. This law remained in effect until 1681.
Bruce Colin Daniels, in his book Puritans at Play: Leisure and Recreation in Colonial New England, noted that while Puritans may have derisively called Christmas “Foolstide,” other Christian sects, including Anglicans, Dutch Reformed and Roman Catholics, looked forward to the December holy day. Throughout the 18th century, as New England’s population grew and diversified, the Puritan hold on the region gradually relaxed. Although its popularity increased, and many families quietly observed Christmas, December 25 remained a regular work day with few public ceremonies.
By the Revolutionary period, Christmas-keeping had gained a quiet respectability, though some still found it a novelty. Writing to her uncle in Taunton on Christmas Day 1777, Abigail Greenleaf first gave Robert Treat Paine her recipe for barberry shrub, a popular drink of the time, and then she shared a bit of news. “I have been to church today,” she wrote, “the first time I ever saw Christmas in my life.” In 1800 it would be Paine’s old friend, John Adams, who as president would host the first Christmas party ever celebrated in the White House.
Throughout the first half of the 19th century, the Christmas holiday placed second after Thanksgiving in the hearts of many New Englanders, and even those families who did observe the holiday usually did so quietly at home after a full day’s work. It was clearly not yet something of great consequence. George R. Babbitt, of Berkley, for example, kept a diary from December 1832 until the end of 1844. While he made mention of Thanksgiving throughout the period, he noted Christmas Day only once. Equally disinterested was John Reynolds Hixon, who accompanied his wife Martha to the Episcopal church in Taunton on Christmas Day in 1838. With all the detachment of an entomologist, Hixon wrote that the celebration “seems to be very appreciated and calculated to benefit the professed Christian and to make a good impression upon the crowds who throng the churches . . ..” In 1841, a young Raynham resident, Sarah G. Hathaway, attended a Christmas week service in the same Episcopal church where Hixon had been mystified three years earlier. Although she later wrote that she found the music “charming,” she also found it important enough to note that school had been cancelled on Christmas Day because the teacher had to attend a funeral.
But times change and the past becomes less cumbersome. The first half of the 19th century saw a proliferation of newspapers throughout the region, and it is here that we most clearly see the building sentiment in favor of the full recognition of the Christmas holiday. On Christmas Day in 1839, a writer for the Taunton Whig (probably named J.W.D. Hall) lamented the fact that the holiday passed unheeded in many Christian communities, even though these were the same people “ . . . who are ready to give a hearty periodical gratulation to the birthday of a merely temporal potentate . . ..” While it was true, said the writer, that in the past Christmas might have been “dishonored by unmeaning mummery, or superstitious rites of observance by large bodies of the nominal Christian church,” it was still a wonderful holiday that deserved celebration by the righteous.
Newspapers also pointed out that a robust Christmas season would help local businesses. By the 1840s stores were advertising stock that had been newly laid-in just in time for the holiday. In December 1848, for example, the Taunton Daily Gazette ran an advertisement for a downtown store that offered a full line of “Christmas Presents,” everything from alabaster ornaments to parlor thermometers. Any item could be purchased, promised the ad, “for sale as cheap as the cheapest.” If a customer had forgotten to buy something special, the store would be open all day on December 25.
As time passed, advocates of a more prominent Christmas holiday also emphasized the generosity that the season inspired. Christmas parties were often dedicated to raising money for charitable causes, for example a local library or the town’s less fortunate residents. To counter fears of bad behavior, local churches sometimes held their own Christmas Eve celebrations. In December 1852 the Unitarian Society of Taunton held a festival for students who attended its Sunday School. Lest anyone fear debauchery among the scholars, the notice clearly stated that the “parents and members of the society will visit the young folks during the evening.”
By the mid-1850s, the future was becoming more apparent. “We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England,” wrote the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
“The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.”
That transition was quickened in April 1856, when the Massachusetts Legislature officially recognized Christmas as a state holiday. (Federal recognition wouldn’t come until 1870.) But the New England Farmer, published in Boston, gave voice to many Bay Staters when it said that Christmas “is every year coming more into favor as a holiday, among children of the Puritans. We trust the time is coming when it will be observed among us with something of the good cheer and good spirit with which it is made illustrious in Old England.”
It was in this spirit that Editor Hall risked the wrath of his ancestors as he sat down to write his own holiday message. He spoke not only for himself and for his time, he spoke as well for all of us at the OCHM when he wrote:
“Let the day be perpetuated in New England homes, let its associations be treasured as the brightest hours of our earthly pilgrimage. Readers and friends, we wish you all a merry Christmas!”