By Kirsten Aucoin
Raise a glass for traditions….
Christmas time at the William Hickling Prescott House, located at 55 Beacon St., looked rather different when Boston merchant James Smith Colburn lived there in the early 1800s and also during most of the time Prescott lived there from 1845 to 1859.
The Christmas holiday was not legalized until after 1856. Luckily, William Hickling was able to enjoy a few “legal” Christmas holidays before his death in 1859, and Prescott House must have been elegantly adorned to match its gracious style most recently depicted in Greta Gerwig’s 2019 Christmas Day film release of “Little Women.”
You might be surprised to learn that Christmas celebrations were not the norm in New England overall during the earlier 1800s. Though the wealthy had celebrations and many others would take note of the holiday, there also were some anti-Christmas perspectives remaining from the area’s Puritan English roots. The Massachusetts-Bay Colony ordinance of 1659, made it illegal to celebrate Christmas in that specific colony. The Pilgrims felt it was a time of debauchery and filled with excess in England where they came from. These forms of celebration New England did not initially approve of.
In other colonies, Christmas had taken on “its familiar modern form” by 1836, with Santa Claus and holiday shopping in the U.S. Christopher Klein, author of the History channel’s article “When Massachusetts Banned Christmas,” noted that Christmas was not recognized as a federal holiday until 1870, but it was by no means illegal in the rest of the U.S.
In the late 1600s, people in Massachusetts could be charged with a fine for acknowledging Christmas. It was considered to be more narcissistic than religious by the critics at the time. Some later felt that the holiday wasn’t patriotic, since it was viewed as a remaining tradition from England. The holiday was banned in 1659, and then legalized in 1856. However, students still could be expelled from school for not attending on Christmas Day up until Christmas was officially made a national holiday in 1870 by a bill that was signed by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Despite the overall anti-Christmas mentality that was still present in the 1800s, there also were the aspects of society that were gradually accepting the holiday. The 1800s brought many of the Christmas staples that we now know today.
Santa Claus was a newer name for St. Nicholas, with the first poem about the man owning a sleigh and reindeer appearing in a children’s poem in 1821. That imagery was further solidified two years later, with the publication of “The Night Before Christmas.”
In 1841, the Christmas tree began to rise to popularity after Prince Albert decided to have one on display in Windsor Castle (though news of it didn’t reach the United States until the late 1940s). There had also been previous documented cases of two Harvard professors from Germany – Charles Follen and Herman Bokum – who both decorated Christmas trees in their homes during the 1830s. During Prescott’s time in Boston, a Christmas tree would have been an eccentric concept as it was not yet the household staple we see today.
Other decorative plants were utilized in households, however, and some people would hang small items such as holly and mistletoe around their homes. Stockings being hung also began to make an appearance in the mid-1800s (the tradition originated from Dutch settlers in New England).
Christmas carols have been around for longer than many may realize. Massachusetts native James Pierpont published his popular song “One Horse Open Sleigh” – now known more commonly as “Jingle Bells” – in 1857. Another Boston native is Phillip Brooks, who wrote the lyrics for “O Little Town of Bethlehem” in 1868. Right around the end of Prescott’s years at the Prescott House would have been the publication of “It Came Upon The Midnight Clear” by Edmund Sears in 1849. Carols were most likely played on the rare recently restored Tomkinson square piano still at home in the parlor.
Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol” also shaped the cultural view of Christmas following its publication in 1843. The story presented a more wholesome family feel to the holiday. When the book reached the United States a year after its publication, it rose to popularity fairly quickly. This helped to push the trend of the holiday including charity, quality time and gift-giving.
Red meats, potatoes and bakery items were popular for Christmas dishes while mincemeat, meat pies, and fruitcakes are mentioned in a fair amount of literature from the time period. These dishes were not easy to prepare and took a fair amount of prior planning. The wealthy would often get oysters around the holidays as well.
Groceries for the Prescott family mostly came from S.S. Pierce, which was located on the corner of Tremont and Court streets and established in 1831. It began as a wholesale supplier to ships in the Boston Harbor but later became the grocer for many families, especially those who had a taste for delicacies. Pierce had a reputation for exchanging his provisions for delicacies the ships would bring from faraway ports. The grocery business thrived, due in part to “celebrity customers,” such as John Quincy Adams, Daniel Webster and Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., all of whom would never dare to switch their business elsewhere after having been so spoiled by such lavish offerings. Though the holiday was treated differently in years past, we can recognize traces of our current holiday looking back. Feasting, treats, caroling, family and friends gathering all remain common threads from the Colonial Period. Celebrating the birth of Christ has always been the meaning behind the significance of Christmas. This birthday jubilation carried through the years brings us traditions of Christmas festivities – days meant to be joyous, and that allow us to take a breather and celebrate the season. Reflecting on these traditions shared through hundreds of years is cause raise a glass on Dec. 25, 2020, toasting bonds with friends and families as we look forward to 2021 and sharing blessings together.
William Hickling Prescott House is owned, operated and preserved by The National Society of The Colonial Dames of America in The Commonwealth of Massachusetts. It is open for tours on selected hours April through October.