Skip to Content
http://www.wgbh.org/authenticate/login
wgbh News

Listen
Curiosity Desk | Dec. 19. 2018

Christmas In Boston: From Puritan To Presents Under Pine Trees

christmas boston history.png
Photograph by Birgit Korber via Getty Images, illustration by Emily Judem/WGBH News
Listen
Curiosity Desk | Dec. 19. 2018

‘Tis the season, as they say, and around here there is, as usual, no shortage of festivities.

Tree lighting spectaculars? Check. The Holiday Pops? They're at Symphony Hall a-poppin'. The Christmas Revels? Over at Sanders Theatre, reveling. Of course, Christmas, perhaps more than any other holiday, is about traditions. Nostalgia and days of yore are as crucial to the spirit of the season as ol' Donner and Blitzen. But if you want to get real "old-timey" and party like it's Christmas 1630, you might want to leave the "merry" out of it.

"Anything that was interesting and fun and festive about Christmas was banned," explained author and public historian Susan Wilson about New England's earliest Christmases.

In fairness to our Puritan forefathers, celebrating Christmas was officially a crime around here only from from 1659 to 1681.

For starters, the Puritans rejected the notion that Dec. 25 could possibly be identified as Christ’s birthday. And even if they were inclined to celebrate it, there would have been no colored glass in the church, no decorations and certainly no singing. Add to this the bad taste left in their mouths by the way Christmas was celebrated back in the England they left for a new world.

"Christmas back then wasn’t like it was today," Wilson said. "It was filled with all kinds of drunkenness, revelry and sometimes destruction and violence."

So how did Christmas in Massachusetts go from Puritan to a partridge in a pear tree? Wilson said the transformation developed largely through the 1800s, and it had some notable nudges along the way. First and foremost was that eternal driver of change in America: immigration.

"People [came] from Germany and Ireland and a variety of places, especially in Northern Europe," Wilson said. "Episcopalians, Roman Catholics — people who do have music in their churches, people who do have wonderful things happening at Christmastime."

By the first half of the 1800s, popular American writer Washington Irving, of Sleepy Hollow fame, began writing about European Christmas traditions with a far kinder eye than the Puritans, and promoted a version of St. Nicholas that helped pave the way for our modern notion of Santa Claus. German traditions, like the Christmas tree, started finding favor throughout the American South and Mid-Atlantic. New England, Wilson said, was a tougher nut to crack.

"New England took a longer time because, we do that," she said.

Two big boosts came mid-century, a time when Americans — particularly here — were looking back to England with renewed fondness and admiration. In the 1850s, Queen Victoria and her German husband Albert embraced the Christmas tree. Drawings of the royal family gathered around it, presents tucked underneath, were printed annually in popular American magazines.

"People went, 'Whoa, Victoria and Albert, look at that tree. That’s beautiful,'" Wilson said. "We already had German immigrants here and they were doing the same thing, and suddenly the population at large got enchanted by this."

And so, the groundwork for a wholehearted embrace of a new kind of Christmas in New England was firmly laid by 1867, when Dickens-mania came to Boston.

"[Charles] Dickens was a whole lot like a modern day rock star," Wilson said. "It was easy for him to have 2,000 people in his audience to do just a reading. If he walked down the street, people ran after him to try and grab a piece of his fur coat."

Dickens could claim a number of hit novels, but the centerpiece of this second American tour was live readings from "A Christmas Carol." For five months, Dickens would call the Parker House Hotel, now the Omni Parker House, on Tremont Street his home. In his suite, he would practice his craft.

"He would do Tiny Tim and he would do Scrooge [in character]," Wilson said. "They had to have guards there outside his room because people would try to get in to see him practicing because it was so cool."

On Dec. 2 1867, at Boston's Tremont Temple, America got its first glimpse of Charles Dickens himself reading his beloved classic live.

"People we brought to tears. They adored it, they were blown away," Wilson said. "His whole message in 'A Christmas Carol' was kindness, loving, and people with means helping people without means. So it was a whole different thing than raucous revelry and it fit in to the direction Boston was growing at that time, and New England in general."

The themes of "A Christmas Carol" are cherished today by many as universal and timeless. But in truth, they weren’t always — and that should serve as a reminder that there is also no guarantee they always will be.

WGBH News coverage is a resource provided by member-supported public radio. We can’t do it without you.
Expand