Evidence (Or Not) of Christmases Past
by Cheryl Lassiter
It’s said that Hampton is one of the few towns in New Hampshire that continues the tradition of a Christmas Parade. But Christmas was not celebrated in the early days, and this fact gives us an opportunity to think about how the great wheel of history turns slowly ’round our town.
Because they were Puritans, celebrating Christmas was illegal in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of which, until 1680, Hampton was a part. Later, as more Christmas-friendly denominations came to be established in New England, observance of the holiday became more common. Christmas was made a national holiday in 1870, a mere 142 years ago.
I wondered if documentary evidence existed that could tell us something about when Hampton began celebrating the holiday. While this research is still preliminary, an early reference to Christmas comes from the archives of the Hampton Historical Society: an 18th-century Lane family journal with a list of prognostications for those born on Christmas day!
Another comes from an advertisement in an 1829 issue of the Newburyport Herald (which was read in Hampton). “Presents for Christmas and New Year,” it read, all for sale at the State Street bookstore of Charles Whipple.
From the Rockingham County Registry of Deeds comes another bit of evidence, this time showing that Christmas was a “business as usual” day, at least for some. On December 25, 1843, a public auction was held in Hampton to dispose of the estate of Simon F. Towle, which included the house we now know as the General Moulton Mansion. Simon inherited the house from his grandfather James Leavitt, who died in 1839. Unfortunately, Simon didn’t live long enough to enjoy his inheritance.
On Christmas Day in 1839 the Town of Hampton celebrated its 200th anniversary.
Lack of evidence can tell as much about a subject as the evidence itself. In the archives of the New Hampshire Historical Society we find the journal of Charles M. Perkins, a young Hampton man who had sought his fortune in the gold fields of California. He started his journey from Hampton on November 10, 1849, sailing two days later from Newburyport in the barque Domingo. In his journal, he made note that the 15th was “Thanksgiving Day in N.H.,” but on Christmas Day he only recorded the ship’s position – 26′ 29″ latitude and 43′ 32″ longitude. The ship arrived in San Francisco Bay on April 6, 1850.
December 25, 1850 found Charles prospecting at “Chilly Flat,” earning $13.65 in gold that day. Further entries show the same pattern of work on Christmas day: December 25, 1857, Blue Gulch, California. That day it froze for the 10th time that winter; December 25, 1860, at Flintville with the Merced Falls Mining Company, “prospecting rock”; December 25, 1861, at Rum Hollow “looking out for the mill.” It was pretty clear that Charles, when he was away from home at least, did not celebrate Christmas.
Flash forward some 25 years, to the letters of Anna May Cole to her brother Ernest, part of the Page-Cole Family Papers in the Hampton Historical Society Archives. Although the Coles were Congregationalists (descendants of Puritans), celebrating Christmas was fully part of their church and family tradition.
December 7, 1885. “What are the Christmas plans?,” Anna May, writing from Mt. Holyoke Seminary, asked her brother. “I must send a note about Xmas to Hattie in this letter” (Hattie was Anna May’s younger sister).
December 19, 1886. “Brother mine,” Anna began her letter, again from college, “I wish I could talk to you…instead of writing. Just think it is almost Xmas time and I’m not coming home! I’m almost homesick when I think of it. I wish you were not so far away.”
December 21, 1888. Anna May is now at home in Hampton and Ernest is teaching school in South Reading, Vermont. “My big brother; Merry Xmas, and a week from now, Happy New Year!” Anna May wrote in her ebullient and chatty style. She had sent along a box of gifts from the family, which included some wrought-over candy that she had made. As she explained, “Candy making is good fun but when you get a lot of candy nicely cooked and set aside to cool, then forget it till it is stone cold and can no more be pulled than ice, consequently, you have to put it on the stove, put some water to it, melt it down, then cook it over and watch its cooling process more carefully next time…”
That’s it for now. Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!
Cheryl Lassiter © 2012