Tag Archives: Christmas

Keeping Christmas

Well, after all that immersion into Puritan anti-Christmas tracts I was doubting my own Christmas observances–powerful stuff! I’m pretty Protestant in my religious sentiments (though raised Episcopalian—on the fence) so there is something there that resonates with me, plus I’ve been teaching Reformation history for 20+ years! So I thought I would go back to the ultimate source (well, after the bible), Martin Luther, and see what he thought about Christmas. Next year, coming fast, is the 500th anniversary of Luther’s 95 Theses and the commencement of the Reformation, so I have a stack of timely publications by my bedside to consult, but the best source by far was an older compilation, Martin Luther’s Christmas Book, edited by the eminent Reformation historian Ronald Bainton. It is very clear from this collection of Luther’s sermons that he was no Puritan, and some of his most inspiring words were written about the Nativity. Luther does not tell us how to celebrate this event, but given his exuberance at Christmas time, combined with his natural hospitality (offered through his wife Katharina, who regularly had visitors at her table in addition to their six children and assorted hangers-on), we can imagine that he would not condemn a festive observance of the holiday. Three centuries later, the German artist and illustrator Carl Schwerdtgeburth created an image of Luther and his family with a Christmas tree in their midst, an image that went viral just at the time that the Christmas we know and love was created. There is no historical basis for this image, but it was disseminated so far and widely in its time–and even more so in ours–that the legend of Luther’s Christmas tree will never die.

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The nineteenth century interprets the sixteenth: Carl Schwerdtgeburth’s popular print of Luther and his (lit) Christmas tree, courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society.

While all Protestants sought to reduce the power of the saints by disdaining the observance of traditional Feast Days, Christmas was an exception for Luther (and even for Calvin, though not for all Calvinists–the Puritans a notable case in point) who clearly perceived it not only as a day that rightly focused on Christ but also as a social holiday. There is a liberation and a joyousness in Lutheran theology–attained only through God’s gift of grace in return solely for faith–that can support all sorts of festivity: for if you possess faith your heart cannot do otherwise than laugh for joy in God, and grow free, confident and courageous. For how can the heart remain sorrowful and dejected when it entertains no doubt of God’s kindness to it, and of his attitude as a good friend with whom it may unreservedly and freely enjoy all things. Such joy and pleasure must follow faith; if they are not ours, certainly something is wrong with our faith (2nd Christmas sermon, 1522). This is only one small passage of a much longer sermon, but I think it’s representative–and a great antidote to all those dour Puritan tracts!

I’ve always been a bit concerned that the joy and pleasure that I experience during the Christmas season is too materialistic–not focused on gifts per se but rather on the “trimmings” of the season: lights, decorations, trees, wreaths, food, drink, stuff.  But this year I’m given myself license to “unreservedly and freely enjoy all things”. Luther’s Christmas tree might be the stuff of lore and legend, but I don’t think he would have any problem with decking the halls.

“Keeping Christmas” in Salem, 2016–my favorite trimmings:  a beautiful Italianate house (which has been going through an extensive restoration) all dressed up for the season, wreaths, wreaths, wreaths, downtown lights, and Paxton’s perfect window.

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I’m not hosting Christmas this year, so I instead of the usual HUGE tree I went for two smaller potted ones, because I hate seeing trees die. The mantles and bookcases have the usual creature compositions, including mice, deer, foxes, elephants, rabbits, and a lone giraffe.

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And hedgehogs from medieval manuscripts for my gift tags: they supposedly rolled on the ground to collect grapes for their young, making them look quite Christmassy. Merry Christmas, everyone!


A Suspect Source in the Christmas Wars

One positive impact of the recent presidential election has been enhanced awareness of “fake” news and an emerging scrutiny of sources in general. Educators have been aware of the challenges in the information realm for a while, but it seems like a more general concern has emerged now, and this can only be good news. With time, I think we can tame the flood of fake words on the internet (or at least our reception of such stuff), but I am more concerned about images: they are potentially more impenetrable, and definitely more impactful. The problem is not just the images themselves, but the attribution that all-too-often accompanies them, or all-too-often does NOT. The phrase public domain covers a spectrum of sins, ranging from simple laziness to outright deception. A case in point is an image that has bothered me for a while now, as I simply cannot finds its source: I suspect it was crafted. It turns up quite a bit at this time of year, as it concerns the banning of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century either here in Massachusetts or across the Atlantic in not-so-merry “old” England. Here it is, in characteristically fuzzy form from the Wikipedia entry on “The Christmas controversy” and in a variant form with “antiqued” edges which first popped up on a genealogical site. Both images are unattributed and have been shared tens of thousands of times.

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These images are featured in pat little articles about the “cancellation” of  Christmas in both New and old England: sometimes its place of publication and date is given as Boston, 1659 or 1660, and other times it is identified as a parliamentary proclamation that was “nailed to every tree in England” during the Cromwellian regime. Amazing! It’s just passed around with no scrutiny–or even curiosity. Several things bother me about this “document”: its appearance, its font, its composition–but most of all I am bothered by its absence from the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC), Early English Books Online, or Early American Imprints. I would love to stand corrected, but right now, I’m thinking this thing is an ephemeral imposter.

I’m not quite sure why someone would create this image as there are real historical documents that attest to the Puritan abhorrence of Christmas very vividly. Disorderly “Old Christmas” was a major flashpoint in mid-seventeenth-century England, between Reformers and “Papists”, Parliamentarians and Royalists. Everything about its observance–its date, its rituals, its length, its sheer revelry–were all major points of contention in a conflict that was religious, political, and cultural. After a war of words in the 1640s, Parliament did mandate that business as usual be conducted on December 25 in 1651, but there was considerable pushback, with more words and deeds. Likewise the Massachusetts Bay proclaimed a penalty for keeping Christmas in 1659, in a document which features some vaguely familiar words and phrases.

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Early English Books Online: Wing E2258; Massachusetts Historic Legal Documents and Laws, 1620-1799, Massachusetts Court System.

I’ve written about the Puritan disdain for Christmas both in general and as it pertained to Salem before (most recently here), and it is a pretty well-trodden field, but as I was searching (yet again) for this dubious document I uncovered several contemporary texts with which I was unfamiliar and can add even more context. In general, those under attack–the keepers of “Old Christmas” and “Christmas-mongers”– employ a wistful, humorous, satirical (and anonymous) defense of their holiday while the Puritans (as always!) are more strident in their opinions. Poor Father Christmas, forced to leave the country and come to (Puritan-dominated) London, where he was “arraigned, convicted and imprisoned”, but [fortunately] able to escape and get away “only left his hoary hair, and gray beard, sticking between two iron bars of a window”. The debate between Mistresses “Custome” and “New-Come” over the keeping of Christmas in Women will have their Will: or, Give Christmas his Due is a perfect expression of the power of custom–I’m going to use this one in class. Robert Skinner’s Christs Birth Misse-timed illustrates the Puritan concern about the dating of Christmas, more attuned to pagan traditions than biblical ones, and finally, Samuel Chidley’s Christian Plea against Chrissmass, and an Outcry against Chrismas-mongers is probably the most forceful indictment of Christmas merriment I have ever read. Appealing to Lord Protector Cromwell to be more vigorous in the repression of revels, Chidley asserts that the “Christmas-mongers” serve not Christ, but their own bellies. For Christ was not as they set him forth to be. He was no Mass-monger or belly God. No drunkard. He wanted neither cards, dice, nor tables to play with, to pass away the time, nor Lord of mis-rule to take his place. He needed no new Games to make him merry, no Holly or Ivy to dress his windows, nor mistletoe to conjure his lovers, nor other toys to please his fancy, or blindfolded fools, or Hot Cockle payers to make him sport. Wow! Great stuff–again, no need to make anything up. And the fact that Chidley is appealing to Cromwell at this relatively late date is a strong indication of the Protectorate’s failure to put down “old” Christmas: in just four short years the more merry Stuarts would be restored.

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Christmas Lamentation, /For the losse of his Acquaintance, showing how he is forst to leaue the/ Country, and Come to London. ESTC S108691;  The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Chrismas on St. Thomas Day las. ESTC R200516; Women will have their Will: or, Give Christmas his Due. ESTC R208164; Christs Birth Misse-timed. ESTC R205570;  A Christian Plea against Chrissmass. ESTC R173825.


The Weekend before Christmas

A very Salem weekend before Christmas highlighted by the Christmas Dance (now called the Holiday Dance) at Hamilton Hall, preceded by pre-parties at gloriously-decorated houses, and followed by shopping downtown on Sunday. I was supposed to wrap all my presents last night but fell asleep on the couch while watching the 1970 version of Scrooge (not as good as the 1938 version of A Christmas Carol, but it had to do, yet even a musical could not keep my eyes open; in particular this musical).We had terrible weather on Saturday–sludgy snow/rain–but Sunday was unseasonably warm until a wind whipped up in the later afternoon. Not picture-perfect “Christmas Weather” but lots of people were out and about anyway.

Saturday: the Hall next door before the big dance and showing our ephemeral cover of snow–now gone. I took a few pictures of one very stylishly-decorated Dutch Colonial during one pre-party, but then misplaced my camera–magically it appeared at the very end of the evening when we ended up at the Merchant. No matter, because I can never take good pictures at the Dance. I hope you can make out the wonderful Christmas tree below–lit from within by a lady offering up a gift!

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Sunday: shopping at the Christmas Market at Old Town Hall, Waite & Peirce, Joe’s Fresh Fish Prints, Wicked Good Books, and Modern Millie’s, the always-impressive windows at Emporium 32, and the Poinsettia Tree at the Hawthorne Hotel.

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And some online shopping: LOVE these “Windows of Salem”  hand-drawn digitally-designed cards by EVArtandDesign: you can buy individual cards or a curated-collection with partial proceeds donated to Historic Salem, Inc.

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Christmas Covers

I really like the visual aesthetic of early twentieth-century Christmases, as represented by shelter magazines from that era: cozy, warm and stylish–not so commercial. Colorful, but not glittery. People (or their servants) are making Christmas rather than buying it. House & Garden is probably the most stylish, but it was an evolution, as you will see below. I looked through 10+ years of Christmas covers from 1912 through the 1920s and saw the transformation of the Christmas home from somewhat-realistic refuge to a more idealistic showplace, a transition that seems to coincide with the coming of the First World War and is exemplified in the illustrations of Ethel Franklin Betts. The post-war Christmas spirit is a little bit more romantic and curatorial: the house is presented to us through a series of vignettes. It’s all a bit less accessible, except through all those beautifully-draped windows that allow us to peep inside, drawn by the light.

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House & Garden Christmas covers from 1912-1922 (except the canopy bed, which is a November 1921 issue–I just loved it) accessed via the Online Books page at the University of Pennsylvania. Below is my very favorite cover, from 1925, and the inspiration for this post–a special “storybook” house in Salem, all lit up for Christmas.

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Tom and Jerry for Christmas

I spent a lot of time last weekend de-stressing in front of and around the television watching Turner Classic Movies, to which my little set is almost permanently tuned. There were old Christmas movies on, and it seemed like every time I looked up from whatever I was doing various characters were getting tipsy on a seasonal drink called a “Tom and Jerry”. It appeared to be an eggnog-like concoction but I had never heard of it: what was it and where did it go? I did a little Google research, and turned up multiple recipes, images of vintage Tom and Jerry punch bowls and cups (which got me even more curious and excited), and some nice sentimental articles about this “all-American” drink’s survival in the upper Midwest. Tom and Jerry is a lighter eggnog variant, which utilizes many eggs but milk (or even water, see below) instead of cream, sugar and spices and rum and brandy, and is typically served warm. Based on the sheer survival of all the punch sets on the second-hand market alone, it must have been very popular in the middle decades of the twentieth century.

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Just one of many Tom & Jerry bowls on Etsy, Vintage mid-century Fire King.

This old drink has nothing to do with the cat and mouse cartoon: according to my (exclusively internet, I must admit) sources, its origins can be traced to either an extraordinary 1821 book by a British journalist, Pierce Egan, titled Life in London, or, The day and night scenes of Jerry Hawthorn, esq., and his elegant friend, Corinthian Tom, accompanied by Bob Logic, the Oxonian, in their rambles and sprees through the metropolis or to a legendary nineteenth-century American bartender named Jerry Thomas whose pioneering 1862 mixologist tome How to Mix Drinks, or the Bon-Vivant’s Companion featured a recipe for the Tom and Jerry. No one seems to have connected all the dots between the popular British Tom and Jerry characters and the American drink, but the recipe seems very British to me, reminiscent of all the frothy “lambswool”- like drinks of centuries past. And no matter, I’m always more interested in the search for the source rather than the actual commodity/consumable, and the research into the drink’s origins led me to Egan’s text, featuring his Tom and Jerry characters exploring the highs and lows of London society with delightful illustrations by the Cruikshank brothers. Alcohol was definitely a major part of their exploits.

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Illustrations/scenes from Pierce Egan’s Life in London, British Library.

And I also discovered Jerry Thomas’s Bon-Vivant’s Companion which is available in many reprint editions as well as here. I could spend some time with this book, but for now, and for the holidays, here is his Tom and Jerry recipe (for a crowd):

To make the batter:  5 lbs sugar/ 12 eggs/ a half glass Jamaica rum/ 1 ½ tsp. ground cinnamon/ ½ tsp. ground cloves/ ½ tsp. allspice. Beat the whites of the eggs to a stiff froth, and the yolks until they are as thin as water, then mix together and add the spices and rum, thicken with sugar until the mixture attains the consistence of a light batter.

To deal out Tom and Jerry to customers: Take a small bar glass, and to one tablespoon of the batter, add one wine-glass of brandy, and fill the glass with boiling water, then grate a little nutmeg on top.


Christmas on the Common

I am very excited about the 37th annual Christmas in Salem tour, which returns to the Salem Common neighborhood this year. The major fundraiser for Salem’s venerable preservation organization, Historic Salem, Incorporated, the walking tour of decorated homes and buildings rotates from the McIntire Historic District to the Common quite regularly and has also been centered on both North and South Salem, Derby Street, and the Willows. Each and every tour is great, but I’ve always liked the Common tours particularly for a variety of reasons: the mix of very stately and smaller, cozier homes, the focal point of the Common (no s!), and the ability to pop easily into the Hawthorne Hotel’s Tavern for a drink (you can also get your tickets at the Hotel on Saturday and Sunday). In any case, the Common deserves to be showcased this particular year: much restoration work has been done on its cast iron fence, its reproduction McIntire Washington Arch is looking good, and there have been several notable restorations in the neighborhood. Having gone through this myself several times, I am so very grateful to all the homeowners who are opening their doors: it is a generous gesture worthy of all of our support and praise.With the spotlight on the Common, I thought I’d take this opportunity to showcase some of my recent stereoview discoveries as well, so we can have a past-and-present perspective on a great public space: scene of militia drills and musters, hot-air balloon demonstrations, circuses, athletic competitions, concerts, rallies, demonstrations, bike races, Sunday strolls and Christmas walking tours.

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Salem Common yesterday, in a 1920s (doctored) Maynard Workshop postcard, and in two later-nineteenth-century stereocards showcasing the cast iron fence, built in 1850, from two directions. The bottom card, showing the Andrew Safford House at right, is by G.M. Whipple & A.A. Smith, and courtesy of the American Antiquarian Society. Fence details today below, and the newly-restored Washington Arch.

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Overlooking the Common, one of my very favorite doorways in all of Salem, belonging to the White-Lord House at the corner of Washington Square and Oliver Streets. Frank Cousins loved to photograph it, and I do too (not to raise myself to his photographic level, but just so we can appreciate its constant ability to captivate!)

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Look at this new-to-me stereoview! (No, I do not think that is President Lincoln on the Common). It was published by Charles G. Fogg and I do not have a date.

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Returning to the present, just some of the decorations from yesterday; no doubt more will be on display this weekend, both outdoors and behind doors.

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Christmas in Salem: Carol on the Common, a Christmas walking tour to benefit Historic Salem, Inc., Dec. 2-4: more information here


Christmas without Stockings

Our stockings were hung on the mantle with care but I wore no stockings with my Christmas dress:  it was far too hot! It was 69 degrees by my last observation, the warmest Christmas in greater Boston since 1932. That’s a bit deceptive though, as I did a little research (weather history–now there’s a rabbit hole!) and found that Christmases in the high 50s/low 60s degree range were not all that uncommon in the twentieth century. There were windows open throughout the house, I was cooking with the back door open, we had drinks and appetizers out in the backyard. People wanted to spend time outside, so the usual mid-afternoon Christmas feast was pushed up to evening, along with the presents. So many thoughtful ones, including a cocktail shaker shaped like a 1950s rocket from my stepson and a necklace with a propeller charm from my husband—and new chimneys, of course. The only low point of the day was a jammed (by me, and too many potato peelings) garbage disposal, for the third year in a row. Like clockwork.

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Christmas 2015: out back and front, a green and misty morning giving way to sun, oysters outside, Bette Davis’s adorable hat in The Man who came to Dinner (1942), too sunny for Christmas dinner!


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