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HOLIDAYS AND FESTIVALS
THE first century of colonial life saw few set times and days for pleasures. The holy days of the English Church were as a stench to the Puritan nostrils, and their public celebration was at once rigidly forbidden by the laws of New England. New holidays were not quickly evolved, and the sober gatherings for matters of Church and State for a time took their place. The hatred of "wanton Bacchanallian Christmasses" spent throughout England, as Cotton said, in "revelling, dicing, carding, masking, mumming, consumed in compotations, in interludes, in excess of wine, in mad mirth," was the natural reaction of intelligent and thoughtful minds against the excesses of a festival which had ceased to be a Christian holiday, but was dominated by a lord of misrule who did not hesitate to invade the churches in time of service, in his noisy revels and sports. English Churchmen long ago revolted also against such Christmas observance.
Of the first Pilgrim Christmas we know but little, save that it was spent, as was many a later one, in work. Bradford said: "Ye 25 day began to erect first house for comon use to receive them and their goods." On the following Christmas the governor records with grim humor a "passage rather of mirth than of waight." Some new company excused themselves from work on that day, saying it went against their consciences. The governor answered that he would spare them until they were better informed. But returning at mid-day and finding them playing pitch-the-bar and stool-ball in the streets, he told them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others work, and so made them cease their games.
By 1659 the Puritans had grown to hate Christmas more and more; it was, to use Shakespeare's words, "the bug that feared them all." The very name smacked to them of incense, stole, and monkish jargon; any person who observed it as a holiday by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way was to pay five shillings fine, so desirous were they to "beate down every sprout of Episcopacie." Judge Sewall watched jealously the feeling of the people with regard to Christmas, and noted with pleasure on each succeeding year tho continuance of common traffic throughout the day. Such entries as this show his attitude: "Dec. 25, 1685. Carts come to town and shops open as usual. Some somehow observe the day, but are vexed I believe that the Body of people profane it, and blessed be God no authority yet to compel them to keep it." When the Church of England established Christmas services in Boston a few years later, we find the Judge waging hopeless war against Governor Belcher over it, and hear him praising his son for not going with other boy friends to hear the novel and attractive services. He says: "I dehort mine from Christmas keeping and charge them to forbear."
Christmas could not be regarded till this century as a New England holiday, though in certain localities, such as old Narragansett — an opulent community which was settled by Episcopalians — two weeks of Christmas visiting and feasting were entered into with zest by both planters and slaves for many years previous to the Revolution.
Thanksgiving, commonly regarded as being from its earliest beginning a distinctive New England festival, and an equally characteristic Puritan holiday, was originally neither.
The first New England Thanksgiving was not observed by either Plymouth Pilgrim or Boston Puritan. "Gyving God thanks" for safe arrival and many other liberal blessings was first heard on New England shores from the lips of the Popham colonists at Monhegan, in the Thanksgiving service of the Church of England.
Days set apart for thanksgiving were known in Europe before the Reformation, and were in frequent use by Protestants afterward, especially in the Church of England, where they were a fixed custom long before they were in New England. One wonders that the Puritans, hating so fiercely the customs and set days and holy days of the Established Church, should so quickly have appointed a Thanksgiving Day. But the first New England Thanksgiving was not a day of religious observance, it was a day of recreation. Those who fancy all Puritans, and especially all Pilgrims, to have been sour, morose, and gloomy men should read this account of the first Thanksgiving week (not day) in Plymouth. It was written on December 11, 1621, by Edward Winslow to a friend in England:
"Our harvest being gotten in our governor sent four men on fowling that so we might after a special manner rejoice together after we had gathered the fruits of our labors. They four killed as much fowl as with a little help beside served the company about a week. At which times among other recreations we exercised our arms, many of the Indians coming amongst us, and among the rest their greatest king Massasoyt with some ninety men, whom for three days we entertained and feasted, and they went out and killed five deer which they brought and bestow'd on our governor, and upon the captains and others."
As Governor Bradford specified that during that autumn "beside waterfoule ther was great store of wild turkies," we can have the satisfaction of feeling sure that at that first Pilgrim Thanksgiving our forefathers and foremothers had turkeys.
Thus fared the Pilgrims better at their Thanksgiving than did their English brothers, for turkeys were far from plentiful in England at that date.
Though there were but fifty-five English to eat the Pilgrim Thanksgiving feast, there were "partakers in plenty," and the ninety sociable Indian visitors did not come empty-handed, but joined fraternally in provision for the feast, and probably also in the games.
These recreations were, without doubt, competitions in running, leaping, jumping, and perhaps stool-ball, a popular game played by both sexes, in which a ball was driven from stool to stool or wicket to wicket.
During that chilly November week in Plymouth, Priscilla Mullins and John Alden may have "recreated" themselves with this ancient form of croquet — if any recreation were possible for the four women of the colony, who, with the help of one servant and a few young girls or maidekins, had to prepare and cook food for three days for one hundred and twenty hungry men, ninety-one of them being Indians, with an unbounded capacity for gluttonous gorging unsurpassed by any other race. Doubtless the deer, and possibly the great turkeys, were roasted in the open air. The picture of that Thanksgiving Day, the block-house with its few cannon, the Pilgrim men in buff breeches, red waistcoats, and green or sad-colored mandillions; the great company of Indians, gay in holiday paint and feathers and furs; the few sad, overworked, homesick women, in worn and simple gowns, with plain coifs and kerchiefs, and the pathetic handful of little children, forms a keen contrast to the prosperous, cheerful Thanksgivings of a century later.
There is no record of any special religious service during this week of feasting.
The Pilgrims had good courage, stanch faith, to thus celebrate and give thanks, for they apparently had but little cause to rejoice. They had been lost in the woods, where they had wandered surbated, and had been terrified by the roar of "Lyons," and had met wolves that "sat on thier tayles and grinned" at them; they had been half frozen in their poorly built houses; had been famished, or sickened with unwonted and unpalatable food; their common house had burned down, half their company was dead — they had borne sore sorrows, and equal trials were to come. They were in dire distress for the next two years. In the spring of 1623 a drought scorched the corn and stunted the beans, and in July a fast day of nine hours of prayer was followed by a rain that revived their "withered corn and their drooping affections." In testimony of their gratitude for the rain, which would not have been vouchsafed for private prayer, and thinking they would "show great ingratitude if they smothered up the same," the second Pilgrim Thanksgiving was ordered and observed.
In 1630, on February 22d, the first public thanksgiving was held in Boston by the Bay Colony, in gratitude for the safe arrival of food-bearing and friend-bringing ships. On November 4, 1631, Winthrop wrote again: "We kept thanksgiving day in Boston." From that time till 1684 there were at least twenty-two public thanksgiving days appointed in Massachusetts — about one in two years; but it was not a regular biennial festival. In 1675, a time of deep gloom through the many and widely separated attacks from the fierce savages, there was no public thanksgiving celebrated in either Massachusetts or Connecticut. It is difficult to state when the feast became a fixed annual observance in New England. In the year 1742 were two Thanksgiving Days.
Rhode Islanders paid little heed in early days to Thanksgiving — at any rate, to days set by the Massachusetts authorities. Governor Andros savagely prosecuted more than one Rhode Islander who calmly worked all day long on the day appointed for giving thanks. In Boston, William Veazie was set in the pillory in the market-place for ploughing on the Thanksgiving Day of June 18, 1696. He said his king had granted liberty of conscience, and that the reigning king, William, was not his ruler; that King James was his royal prince, and since he did not believe in setting apart days for thanksgiving he should not observe them.
Connecticut people, though just as pious and as prosperous as the Bay colonists, do not appear to have been as grateful, and had considerable trouble at times to "pick vppon a day" for thanksgiving; and the festival was not regularly observed there till 1716.
Thanksgiving was not always appointed in early days for the same token of God's beneficence. Days of thanks were set in gratitude for and observance of great political and military events, for victories over the Indians or in the Palatinate, for the accession of kings, for the prospect of royal heirs to the throne, for the discovery of conspiracy, for the "healing of breaches," the "dissipation of the Pirates," the abatement of diseases, for the safe arrival of "psons of spetiall use and quality," as well as in gratitude for plentiful harvests — that "God had not given them cleannes of teeth and wante of bread."
The early Thanksgivings were not always set upon Thursday. It is said that that day was chosen on account of its reflected glory as lecture day. Judge Sewall told the governor and his council, in 1697, that they "desir'd the same day of the week might be for Thanksgiving and Fasts," and that "Boston and Ipswitch Lectures led us to Thursday." The feast of thanks was for many years appointed with equal frequency upon "Tusday com seven-night," or "vppon Wensday comfort-nit." Nor was any special season of the year chosen: in 1716 it was appointed in August; in 1713, in January; in 1718, in December; in 1719, in October. The frequent appointments in gratitude for bountiful harvests finally made the autumn the customary time.
The God of the Puritans was a jealous God, and many fasts were appointed to avert his wrath, as shown in blasted wheat, moulded beans, wormy pease, and mildewed corn; in drought and grasshoppers; in Indian invasions; in caterpillars and other woes of New England; in children dying by the chincough; in the "raigns from the botles of Heaven" — all these evils being sent for the crying sins of wig-wearing, sheltering Quakers, not paying the ministers, etc. A fast and a feast kept close company in Puritan calendars. A fast frequently preceded Thanksgiving Day, and was sometimes appointed for the day succeeding the feast — a clever plan which had its good hygienic points. Days of private as well as of public fast and thanksgiving were also observed by individuals. Judge Sewall took the greatest satisfaction in his fastings, and carefully outlined his plan of prayer throughout the fast day, which he spent in his chamber — a plan which included and specified ministers, rulers and magistrates, his family, and every person whom he said "had a smell of relation" to him; and also every nation and people in the known world. He does not note Thanksgiving Day as a holiday of any importance.
Though in the mind of the Puritan, Christmas smelled to heaven of idolatry, when his own festival, Thanksgiving, became annual, it assumed many of the features of the old English Christmas; it was simply a day of family reunion in November instead of December, on which Puritans ate turkey and Indian pudding and pumpkin-pie, instead of "superstitious meats" such as a baron of beef, boar's head, and plum-pudding.
Many funny stories are told of the early Thanksgiving Days, such as the town of Colchester calmly ignoring the governor's appointed day and observing their own festival a week later in order to allow time for the arrival, by sloop from New York, of a hogshead of molasses for pies. Another is recounted of a farmer losing his cask of Thanksgiving molasses out of his cart as he reached the top of a steep hill, and of its rolling swiftly down till split in twain by its fall. His helpless discomfiture and his wife's acidity of temper and diet are comically told.
There is in the possession of the Massachusetts Historical Society a broadside announcing a thanksgiving for victory in King Philip's War; and during the following year, 1677, the first regular Thanksgiving proclamation was printed.
But Thanksgiving Day was not the chief New England holiday. Ward, writing in 1699, does not name it, saying of New Englanders: "Election, Commencement and Training Days are their only Holy Days."
It was natural in New England, a state planted by men of exceptional intelligence, that all should think as one minister said, "If the college die, the church cannot long live; "and in the Commencement Day of their colleges they found matter of deep interest, of pride, of recreation. Judge Sewall always notes the day at Harvard, its exercises, its dinner, its plentiful wine, and the Commencement cake, which he carried to his friends. The meagre entries in the diaries and almanacs of many an old New England minister show that Commencement Day was one of their proudest holidays. After 1730, Commencement Day was usually set for Friday, in order that there might be, as President Wadsworth said in his diary, "remaining time in the week to be spent in frolicking."
Training Day may be called the first New England holiday, though Hawthorne thought the day of too serious importance in early warlike times to be classed under the head of festivals. At the first Pilgrim Thanksgiving they "exercised their arms," and for some years they had six trainings a year; no wonder they were said to be "diligent in traynings." The all-powerful Church Militant held sway even over these gatherings of New England warriors. The military reviews and exercises were made properly religious by an opening exercise of prayer and psalm-singing, the latter sometimes at such inordinate length as to provoke criticism and remarks from the rank and file, remonstrance which was at once pleasantly rebuked by pious Judge Sewall. Religious notices were also given before the company broke line. A noble dinner somewhat redeemed the sobriety of the opening exercises, a dinner given in Boston to gentlemen and gentlewomen in tents on the Common; and the frequent firing of guns and cannon further enlivened the day.
Boston mustered a very fair military force at trainings, even in early days. Winthrop writes that at the May training in 1639 one thousand men exercised, and in the autumn twelve hundred bore arms, and not an oath or quarrel was heard and no drunkenness seen. The training field was Boston Common. At these trainings prizes were frequently offered for the best marksmanship; in Connecticut, a silk handkerchief or some such trinket. Judge Sewall offered a silver cup, and again a silver-headed pike; since he was an uncommonly poor shot himself, his generosity shows out all the more plainly. With barbaric openness of cruel intent, a figure stuffed to represent a human form was often the target, and it was a matter of grave decision whether a shot in the head or bowels were the fatal one. Sometimes the day was enlivened by a form of amusement ever beloved of the colonists — by public punishments. For instance, at the training day at Kittery, Me., in 1690, two men "road the woodin Horse for dangerous and churtonous carig and mallplying of oaths."
The training days of colony times developed into Muster Days, the crowning pinnacle of gayety, dissipation, and noise in a country boy's life in New England for over a century.
We owe much to these trainings and these trials of marksmanship. In conjunction with the universal skill in woodcraft and in hunting, they made our ancestors more than a match for the Indian and the Frenchman, and in Revolutionary times gave them their ascendency over the English.
Election Day was naturally a time of much excitement to New Englanders in olden times, as nowadays. In fact, the entire week partook of the flavor of a holiday. This did not please the ministers. Urian Oakes wrote sadly that Election Day had become a time "to meet, to smoke, carouse and swagger and dishonor God with the greater bravery." Various local customs obtained. "'Lection cake," a sort of rusk rich with fruit and wine, was made in many localities; indeed, is still made in some families that I know; and sometimes "'lection beer" was brewed. In early May the herb gatherers (many of them old squaws) brought to town various barks and roots for this beer, and they also vended it on the streets during Election week. An Election sermon was also preached.
Boston had two Election Days. "Nigger 'Lection" was so called in distinction from Artillery Election. On the former anniversary day the election of the governor was formally announced, and the black population was allowed to throng the Common, to buy gingerbread and drink beer like their white betters. On the second holiday the Ancient and Honorable Artillery had a formal parade, and chose its new officers, who received with much ceremony, out-of-doors, their new commissions from the new governor. Woe, then, to the black face that dared be seen on that grave and martial occasion! In 1817 a negro boy named William Read, enraged at being refused the high privileges and pleasures of Artillery Day, blew up in Boston Harbor a ship called the Canton Packet. For years it was a standing taunt of white boys in Boston to negroes:
"Who blew up the ship?
Nigger, why for?
'Cause he couldn't go to 'lection
An' shake paw-paw."
Paw-paw was a gambling game which was played on the Common with four sea-shells of the Cyproea Moneta.
The 14th of July was observed by Boston negroes for many years to commemorate the introduction of measures to abolish the slave trade. It was derisively called Bobalition Day, and the orderly convention of black men was greeted with a fusillade of rotten fruit and eggs and much jesting abuse. It was at one of these Bobalition-Day celebrations that this complimentary toast was seriously given and recorded in honor of the newly elected governor: "Governor Brooks — May the mantelpiece of Caleb Strong fall on the hod of his distinguished Predecessor."
In other localities, notably on the Massachusetts coast, in Connecticut, and in Narragansett, the term "Nigger 'Lection" was applied to the election of a black governor, who held his sway over the black population. Wherever there was a large number of negroes the black governor was a man of much dignity and importance, and his election was a scene of much gayety and considerable feasting, which the governor's master had to pay for. As he had much control over his black constituents, it is plain that the black governor might be made useful in many petty ways to his white neighbors. Occasionally the "Nigger 'Lection" had a deep political signification and influence. "Scaeva," in his "Hartford in the Olden Times," and Hinman, in the "American Revolution," give detailed and interesting accounts of "'Lection."
A few rather sickly and benumbed attempts were made in bleak New England to celebrate in old English fashion the first of May. A May-pole was erected in Charlestown in 1687, and was promptly cut down. The most unbounded observance of the day was held at Merry Mount (now the town of Quincy) in 1628 by roystering Morton and his gay crew. Bradford says: "They set up a May-pole, drinking and dancing aboute it many days together, inviting the Indian women for their consorts, dancing and frisking togeather like so many fairies or furies rather." This May-pole was a stately pine-tree eighty feet high, with a pair of buck's horns nailed at the top, and with "sundry rimes and verses affixed." Stern Endicott rode down ere long to investigate matters, and at once cut the "idoll Maypole" down, and told the junketers that he hoped to hear of their "better walking, else they would find their merry mount but a woful mount."
To eat pancakes on Shrove Tuesday was held by the Puritans to be a heathenish vanity; and yet, apparently with the purpose of annoying good Boston folk, some attempts were made to observe the day. One year a young man went through the town "carrying a cook on his back with a bell in 's hand." Several of his fellows followed him blindfolded, and, under pretence of striking him with heavy cart-whips, managed to do considerable havoc in the surrounding crowd. We can well imagine how odious this horseplay was to the Puritans, aggravated by the fact that it was done to note a holy day. On Shrove Tuesday, in 1685, there was "great disorder in town by reason of Cock-skailing." This was the barbarous game of cock-steling, or cock-throwing, or cock-squoiling — a game as old as Chaucer's time, a universal pastime on Shrove Tuesday in England, where scholars also had cock-fights in the school-rooms.
The observance, or even notice, of the first day of the year as a "gaudy-day" — of New-Year's tides in any way — was thought by Urian Oakes to savor strongly of superstitious reverence for the heathen god Janus; the Pilgrims made no note of their first New-Year's Day in the New World, save by this very prosaic record, "We went to work betimes." Yet Judge Sewall, as rigid and stern a Puritan as any of the earliest days, records with some pride his being greeted with a levet, or blast of trumpets, under his window, early on the morning of January 1, 1697; while he himself celebrated the opening of the new century with a very poor poem of his own making, which he caused to be cried or recited throughout the town of Boston by the town bellman.
Guy Fawkes' Day, or "Pope's Day," was observed with much noise throughout New England for many years by burning of bonfires, preceded by parades of young men and boys dressed in fantastic costumes and carrying "guys" or "popes" of straw. Fires are still lighted on the 5th of November in New England towns by boys, who know not what they commemorate. In Newburyport, Mass., and Portsmouth, N. H., Guy Fawkes' Day is still celebrated. In Newcastle, N. H., it is called "Pork Night." In New York and Brooklyn, the bonfires on the night of election, and the importunate begging on Thanksgiving Day of ragged fantastics, usually children of Roman Catholic parents, are both direct survivals of the ancient celebration of "Pope's Day."
In Governor Belcher's time, in Massachusetts, the stopping of pedestrians on the street, by "loose and dissolute people," who were wont to levy contributions for paying for their bonfires, became so universally annoying that the governor made proclamation against them in the newspapers. Tudor, in his "Life of Otis," gives an account of the observance of the day and its disagreeable features. He says the intruders paraded the streets with grotesque images, forcibly entered houses, ringing bells, demanding money, and singing rhymes similar to those sung all over England:
"Don't you remember
The Fifth of November,
The Gunpowder Treason and plot,
I see no reason
Why Gunpowder Treason
Should ever be forgot.
From Rome to Rome
The Pope is come,
Amid ten thousand fears,
With fiery serpents to be seen
At eyes, nose, mouth, and ears.
Don't you hear my little bell
Go chink, chink, chink,
Please give me a little money
To buy my Pope some drink."
The figure of the Pretender was added to that of the pope and devil in 1702; and on Pope's Day, in 1763, American politics took a share. I read in a diary of that date, "Pope, Devil, and Stampman were hung together." After the Revolution the effigy of Benedict Arnold was burnt alongside that of Guy Fawkes.
Though we retained Pope's Day until Federal times, the Declaration of Independence struck one holiday off our calendar. The king's birthday was, until then, celebrated with a training, a salute of cannon, a dinner, and an illumination.
Other holidays were evolved by circumstances. Anniversary Day was a special festival for the ministers, who gathered together in the larger towns for spiritual intercourse and the material refreshment of a good dinner: It was originally held in Massachusetts at the May meeting of the General Court. Forefathers' Day, the anniversary of the landing at Plymouth, was celebrated by dinners, prayer, and praise.
Many other annual scenes of gayety were developed by the various food harvests. Thus the time when the salmon and shad came up the rivers had been a great merry-making and season of feasting for the Indian, and became equally so for the white man. As years passed on it became also a time of much drunkenness and revelry. Men rode a hundred miles for these gay holidays, and went home with horses laden down with fish. Shad were so plentiful that they were thrown away, would sell for but a penny apiece, and no persons of social importance or of good taste would eat them except in secret. Salmon, too, were so plentiful and so cheap that farm-servants on the banks of the Connecticut stipulated that they should have salmon for dinner but thrice a week, as the rich fish soon proved cloying.
In many localities, in Narragansett in particular, the autumnal corn-huskings almost reached the dignity of holidays, being conducted in a liberal fashion and with unbounded hospitality, which included and entertained whole retinues of black servants from neighboring farms, as well as the planters and their families. Apple-parings, maple-sugar makings, and timber-rollings were merry gatherings.
In Vermont and down the Connecticut valley the annual sheep-shearing was a lively scene. On Nantucket there took place annually a like sheep-shearing, which, though a characteristic New England festival, was like the scene in the "Winter's Tale." The broad plains outside the town were used as a common sheep-pasture throughout the year; sometimes fifteen or sixteen thousand sheep were kept thereon. About two miles from the town was a sheep-fold, near the margin of a pond, where the sheep could be washed. It was built of four or five concentric fences, which thus formed a sort of labyrinth, into which and through which the sheep and lambs were driven at shearing-time, and in it they were sorted out and placed in cotes or pens erected for each sheep-owner. The existence of carefully registered ear-marks, with which each lamb was branded, formed a means of identifying each owner's sheep and lambs. Of course, this gathering brought together all the sheep drivers and herders, the sheep washers and shearers. Vast preparations of food and drink were made for their entertainment, and tents were reared for their occupancy, and, of course, fiddlers and peddlers, like Antolycus, flocked there also, and much amusement and frolicking accompanied the shearing. Even the sheep, panting with their heavy wool when within the folds, and the shorn and shivering creatures running around outside and bleating for their old long-wooled companions, added to the excitement of the scene. Perhaps the maritime occupation of the Islanders made them enjoy with the zest of unwontedness this rural "shore-holiday." But it exists no longer; the island is not now one vast sheep-pasture, and there are no longer any sheep-shearings.