Writing about Christmas traditions in Boston can be difficult. Our history doesn’t include centuries of jolly carolers, happy gingerbread bakers, roast goose feasts, or Christmas markets filled with hand-made ornaments, cuckoo clocks and nutcrackers.
The Puritans who founded Boston considered Christmas a Catholic, or “Popish” holiday, exactly the kind of religious practice they left England to escape.They were so lacking in Christmas cheer that they made Bill Belichick—the Patriots’ grumpy lobster boat captain—seem like jolly old St. Nick.
In fact, the Puritans banned Christmas in 1659 and fined any person observing the holiday five shillings. The ban was not repealed until 1681 and Christmas only became a Massachusetts state holiday in 1856. The Grinch would have loved the Puritans, although they would most likely have called him a demon.
While Louis Prang would not introduce Christmas Cards to the American market for another seven years after Christmas became official, the Puritan distaste for celebrating it was melting faster than snow in a January thaw. Catholic Immigrants from Ireland and Italy brought their traditions to Boston with them and, besides, even Queen Victoria had a Christmas tree.
That makes writing blog posts about Christmas in Boston a challenge. On the other hand, we have Charles Dickens.
Charles Dickens in Boston
Charles Dickens came to Boston on November 19, 1867 to give his first public reading of “A Christmas Carol” in America. In his day, Mr. Dickens was the Beatles, Brad Pitt and Stephen King rolled into one. His books would all have been best sellers, had any such list existed then, and his visit generated so much enthusiasm that city officials transported him immediately from Long Wharf to the Parker House Hotel.
Founder Harvey Parker Jr. gave Mr. Dickens a special suite, which became his base for a five-month reading tour of the United States. You can still see the door of Charles Dickens’s suite of rooms at the Omni Parker House Hotel today.
The Saturday Club
At the time, this hotel served as the meeting place for the Saturday Club, an informal monthly gathering of writers, scientists, philosophers, historians, and other important thinkers of the mid-Nineteenth Century. The club’s members included such notables as Oliver Wendell Holmes Sr., James Russell Lowell, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Louis Agassiz and Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.
The Parker House, now the Omni Parker House Hotel, was known then as now for its fine food. In 1867, the accommodations included hot and cold running water in the bath. That made it exactly the kind of luxury residence suitable for a “rock star” author.
The Dickens Performance
Although “A Christmas Carol” had been first published in 1843, Mr. Dickens read it in his American stage debut. Yet, he did not just read, he performed. Like all performers, he practiced, honing his voice to make characters come to life with voices and expressions, to convey their emotions and pull his audiences into the story. And no one created memorable characters like Charles Dickens.
He practiced his performance by looking into a large mirror in his room with a black walnut frame that is known as The Dickens Mirror. You can still see that, too.
Mr. Dickens read to sold-out houses at the Tremont Temple, next door to the Parker House. The author took the stage wearing an evening tail-coat with satin-faced lapels, gold chains across his chest, and two small flowers in his buttonhole. He stood in front of a specially designed reading desk on a maroon carpet with a maroon backdrop. Multiple gaslights gave the whole set a dramatic flare.
Saving the Dickens Door
The Dickens Door almost bit the dust of demolition when the old Parker House designed by Gridley j. Fox Bryant was torn down in order to replace it with today’s modern structure. Fortunately, a workman for the Swift-McNutt Building and Wrecking Company recognized the door’s significance and rescued it. He gave the door to the Bostonian Society, then located in the Old State House, and they kept it in storage for almost 90 years.
In 2015, the society contacted the Omni Parker House, now in the 1927 building designed by George Henri Desmond of Desmond and Lord to ask if the hotel wanted the door back. Following a series of communications using electronic media Charles Dickens could not even imagine, the Bostonian Society took the door from archival storage and returned it to the Omni Parker House.
The hotel cleaned it up, conducted a gala reception in the Press Room (near the Dickens Mirror) and displayed it in a custom-built wood and glass case. It now resides in a small museum of historical items, photographs and paraphernalia on the hotel’s ground floor.
Finding the Dickens Door
The Omni Parker House Hotel
60 School Street, Boston MA 02108
Both the Dickens Door and the Dickens Mirror remain in the Omni Parker House and you can visit them quite easily.
The Dickens Door: From the front door on School Street, go down the stairs toward the health club. The eight-foot-tall Dickens Door hangs on the left as part of a small museum. A sign identifies it as the door to Rooms 138 and 138, the suite occupied by Charles Dickens in 1867, and a larger plaque provides more information.
The Dickens Mirror: From the front door on School Street, go all the way up the stairs to the Mezzanine. Turn left and look for a corridor on the right with a sign that says: “Press Room –>.” The mirror hangs at the end of the corridor.
The Dickens Door might not open and close any more but it connects us to an iconic Victorian Christmas story. It also wears a festive Christmas wreath during the holidays.