It Happened in Windham: Christmas through the decades

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Christmas cards were considered tiny pieces of art in the 19th century. The  card in the photo is from the wonderful collection of cards in the Windham Historical Society collection.

The Christmas season is here and houses are decorated with bright, twinkling lights; Christmas trees are adorned with lovely ornaments, and stockings are hung by the chimney with care. We enjoy celebrating the holidays with our friends and family and exchange gifts to show our love and appreciation.

In Windham’s first settlement, New Marblehead, which was established in the 1730s, the Christmas holiday would have been celebrated much differently. In fact, it wouldn’t have been celebrated at all.

Since the Massachusetts Bay colony was originally inhabited by religious groups such as Puritans and Quakers, holy days in general were frowned upon. Scripture named only the Sabbath as a holy day, and it was believed that the concept of holy days implied that some days of the year were not holy. Therefore, Thomas Chute, our first settler, and his family and other founders of our community would have treated Christmas as just another workday to give praise to the Lord.

During the American Revolution, Colonial New Englanders associated Christmas with royal officialdom and refused to observe the holiday. Even after the Revolution, Christmas was not held in high regard. As a matter of fact, Congress remained in session on Dec. 25, 1789.

It wasn’t until 1823 with Clement Moore’s telling of “The Night Before Christmas” that the holiday began to be seen in a more favorable light. Still, in New England at the time, Christmas was resisted. In 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow lamented, “The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.”

In 1843, Charles Dickens’ tale, “A Christmas Carol,” was published and the holiday began to be recognized as a time for giving and hope. The first American-made Christmas card was produced in the early 1850s by R.H. Pease in Albany, New York.

In June of 1870, Christmas was finally declared a national holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant. This encouraged German immigrant Louis Prang to expand the selling of cards on a grander scale, and he added holiday messages in 1875. Considered miniature works of art, these early Christmas cards often also served as gifts to the recipient.

Also in the 1870s, the people of Windham would have begun decorating their Christmas trees, a tradition brought to America by German immigrants. American businessmen began importing glass ornaments and sold them on street corners, in toy stores and in variety stores.

The first electric lights were introduced in 1892 when President Grover Cleveland illuminated the White House Christmas tree for the first time. It was also around this time that Christmas gifts began to gain favor. Originally, gifts were given unadorned and uncovered, but it was discovered that a covered gift provided a wonderful moment of revelation, and so wrapping became a part of the gift-giving tradition.

The holiday grew in popularity over the next several decades. Philanthropists and the wealthy began to see it as a time for charitable giving throughout the Gilded Age. In the 1940s during World War II when times were hard and men were away at war, household budgets were tight. At this time, glass ornaments gave way to less expensive varieties made of plastic and paper or people made their own.

But by the 1960s, the holiday was back in full swing and this is when it was solidified to the Christmas we celebrate today. We’ve come a long way since the days of the Puritans and Quakers. Today, Christmas is a joyful time, a celebration of love, hope, family and friendship. In the spirit of the season, I send you all the warmest of holiday regards.

Haley Pal is a Windham resident and active member of the Windham Historical Society. She can be reached at haleypal@aol.com.

Christmas cards were considered tiny pieces of art in the 19th century. The  card in the photo is from the wonderful collection of cards in the Windham Historical Society collection.

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