The Challenge of Christmas in Boston

Every year I try to write some blog posts about Christmas in Boston. This presents a challenge, however. Unlike other cities in the United States, much less Europe, Boston doesn’t have either an old or a big Christmas tradition. We can blame that on the Puritans who founded the city in 1630.

Banning Christmas in Boston

These militant Protestants came to the New World and the Shawmut Peninsula to reform England’s only legal church. They believed the Church of England was too similar to the Roman Catholic Church and should eliminate ceremonies and practices not rooted in the Bible.

Christmas Forbidden, Banned in Boston, Publick NoticeThose ceremonies included the celebration of Christmas, practices which they considered “pagan” and disrespectful, more Roman Saturnalia than Christian worship. The Puritans wanted no part of the feasting, drinking, gambling, cross-dressing, and licentious behavior they had seen back home.

Not content to simply keep a quiet day of observance, in 1659 they made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. “…whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” could be fined 5 shillings.” You can learn about this in detail on HubHistory Podcast #212.

This law remained in force for over 20 years and, while there is no record of anyone being charged the five shilings, it wasn’t repealed until 1681. Even after that, Christmas celebrations remained culturally unacceptable for a century or so. (It was illegal to be a Catholic in Boston until 1780.) I can only imagine what they would have thought about an official Christmas tree or colored lights on the Common.

A Dearth of Angels

Thomas Gruchy, a 1/16th owner of the Queen of Hungary, was named her captain. He spent much of 1744 attacking French and Spanish vessels, making a profit for himself and the other investors. He returned to sea the following year, fighting the French off the New York Shore, where the Queen of Hungary took three French prizes. In 1746 he was named a member of the church’s vestry and met with some of his business partners to decide on a gift to the congregation. This gift included, “. . . 4 Cherubims and Two Glass Branches Taken by ye Sd. Vessele.” There’s no record of which ship the angels came from.

One of Gruchy’s Angels in the Old North Church

Because we got started late on the whole idea of celebrating Christmas, it’s hard to find in Boston some of the common religious symbols that decorate other cities. Puritan churches were plain, lacking in the kind of religious imagery they considered “Papist” or Catholic.

When I wrote a series of posts about Boston’s angels, I had to dig deep to find nine of them, many of which have nothing to do with religion at all. In some European cities, you can find that many angels on a few city blocks.

None of Boston’s angels are Puritan, of course.

Boston’s Angels Series

  1. The BPL’s Frieze of Angels — Back Bay
  2. Cornelius and the Angel: A Tiffany Window — Back Bay
  3. The Angels of Holy Cross Cathedral — South End
  4. The Solitary Church Court Angel — Back Bay
  5. Angel of the Waters — Back Bay
  6. Thomas Gruchy’s Angels — North End
  7. Coletti’s Speedy Angels — North End
  8. Brattle Square Angels — Back Bay
  9. Martin Milmore and the Angel of Death — Jamaica Plain

More angels decorate the city’s churches, though. They inhabit gorgeous stained-glass windows by John LaFarge, Louis Comfort Tiffany and the artists of Munich, Germany. I have thought about cataloguing them all but it would take more time than I have to devote to such a project. Should you feel so motivated, I suggest starting with the Church of the Covenant and the Arlington Street Church then moving on to Trinity Church and Holy Cross Cathedral. You will find whole choirs of angels in those four buildings alone.

Immigrants and Traditions

Catholicism came to Boston in force with waves of immigrants from other countries. The most important of these happened in the mid-nineteenth century, driven by the Irish Potato Famine, or “The Great Starvation.”

During the years from 1845 to 1852, so many Irish immigrants came to Boston, they eventually became the single largest ethnic group in the city. Despite vicious and long-lasting anti-Catholic sentiment in Boston, the Irish brought their faiths and traditions to the city, including the celebration of Christmas.

Feast of the Seven Fishes, Christmas dinner, Italian traditionItalians came next. More than four million Italian immigrants entered the United States between 1880 and 1920, a number greater than any other ethnic group during America’s peak immigration years.

Both of these populations, both heavily Catholic, celebrated Christmas with candles, music, Midnight Mass, angels, Nativity scenes, and special foods like the Feast of the Seven Fishes and plum pudding.

Recent Boston Christmas Traditions

Our late start doesn’t mean Bostonians haven’t created Christmas traditions or our own, however.  We have a few people to be proud of.

Louis Prang, Christmas Card, Fireplace, Boston

A Louis Prang Christmas Card

The German immigrant and chromolithographer Louis Prang, though Protestant, brought Christmas Cards to Boston and became known as the Father of the American Christmas Card. Take that, Puritan founders!

Yet it was a native Bostonian who created one of the most popular and well-known of all Christmas traditions. When Philips Brooks, then rector of Holy Trinity Church in Philadelphia, visited the Holy Land, he took an evening ride to Bethlehem. That visit engraved itself on his memory and he later turned it into the Christmas Carol, “O Little Town of Bethlehem.”

As we have become a more commercial society, Christmas shopping joined the list of Boston traditions, along with decorated and animated department store windows. Although Jordan Marsh and Filene’s are gone and Downtown Crossing has lost its importance as the city’s major shopping district, the Christmas magic of holiday windows remains in our memories.

Celebrations in a Normal Year

In a normal year we would have Christmas concerts and plays, Revels in Cambridge and The Nutcracker at the Wang Theater, the Pops Holiday Concert, a tree-lighting ceremony, gingerbread-house competitions, art exhibits, holiday craft fairs, and more. We even added a Christmas Market of our own in the last few years, complete with ice skating

In this pandemic year, the theaters are dark, museums are closed, concerts have been cancelled, and we don’t even have skating on Boston Common’s Frog Pond. This, too, shall pass—and the faster the better.

Angel Time for Everyone

Choir of angels, angel time, shortest dayIn the meantime, as 2020 winds down to its inevitable, miserable end, we can all be angels to one another. As I said back in 2013 (and I thought that was a difficult year):

“Just for a day, an hour or even a moment, we can tap into the spark of the divine that is within us all and take on an angel’s duties. Do something kind. It doesn’t have to be as big as saving the planet. We can’t all volunteer in distant countries, adopt a child from Africa, save the whales or get the government to do its job. But we can do little things every day if we just look around us.”

That’s all it takes. Be someone else’s Christmas angel. The spirit of Christmas can live inside us all despite what is happening all around us. Be kind. That’s all it takes. We need it now, in this pandemic year, more than ever.

Be kind, always.

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