Christmas: without doubt it’s to most Americans the foremost holiday. So much so, it’s hard to believe that this has by no means been the case in Maine.
For during much of our history, Christmas was a day when students attended their classes and employees routinely showed up for work. How then did Christmas get so overlooked?
The answer lies in a New England Puritanism that was the bedrock of Maine’s early culture. For it was the Puritans who contended that no one knew the day when Jesus was born. The date, they argued, was one generated by other Christian religions. Christmas, they pointed out, was based on the ancient two week Roman festival of Saturnalia, one celebrating not Christmas but the winter solstice. It’s a holiday that had traditionally been observed with uninhibited and sometimes Bacchanalian revelry.
Thus, in Maine until well into the 19th century, many churches were locked on Christmas day. Businesses, schools, government offices, the courts, were wide open.
A few voices were occasionally raised suggesting that celebrating Christmas was not inherently evil nevertheless. In 1823, Asa Rand, an editor of the Congregational publication, the Christian Mirror, asked his readers to be a bit less judgmental toward those who observed the day. Still, Rand did not go so far as to encourage his readers to join in the celebrations.
Thus, an 1824 law afforded only Sundays and “days of public fast or thanksgiving” a bit of legal recognition. The law passed that year provided that a three day period of grace for paying certain kinds of debts would be shortened up to only two days if the third day fell on one of those two dates. Honor these “holidays” then by paying your bills early, the dates in effect being a bonus to creditors but not customers.
It was 1836 that Maine lawmakers first officially declared legal holidays for the purpose of mandating closure of the state’s court system but Christmas was not one of them. Foremost among them was the Fourth of July (Election day was another). Maine people were thus more inclined to celebrate the birth of the nation than the birth of Christianity’s founder.
The next year, in 1837, the Portland Transcript weighed in on the subject. It suggested that it was unfair for Episcopalians and Catholics -- then a distinct minority in Maine -- to have all the fun at Christmas. The Transcript urged an exchange of gifts on the occasion. Because its editors were not subjected to prosecution for blasphemy suggests the beginning of a breakthrough on the issue.
As time marched on, the increasing influx of settlers from Quebec, Germany and elsewhere made a prominent impact on Maine’s cultural landscape. Santa Claus, Kris Kringle, and St. Nicholas were also too ingratiating to be disregarded.
A Christmas tree was spotted in Farmington in 1840. Even though Thanksgiving joined the list of official Maine holidays in l841, Christmas was still not on it.
The cultural evolution of accepting Christmas took a further step forward in 1843. That was when Charles Dickens did his part, with his moving story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.
In 1852, the Maine legislature was still slow to take notice and the recognition it gave to the 25th of December in that year seemed a bit more in keeping with the early Scrooge than the benevolence of his nephew Fred. This was a law that added Christmas to the list of holidays that would occasion an acceleration of the three day grace period on notes and similar debts to two days if the third day fell on it. In other words, if you owed a note that came due on Christmas you had to pay it off a day early. It’s of course hard to call this type of treatment a universal holiday when its only beneficiaries were people to whom money was owed rather than the other way around. Moreover, courts were still authorized to conduct legal business on Christmas even though they were required to be closed on other holidays.
Finally, by 1858, the legislature added Christmas to the list of official legal days off. Their action took the form of a law that mandated closure of the state court system on that day.
Maine, of course, was by no means alone in its early reluctance to bestow holiday status on Christmas. Moreover, the approach Maine took in withholding holiday recognition of the day has always found some support both within and outside Christian culture.
A quick consideration of how Christmas once emerged in our own state, however, is a reminder that its observance was not always something that was taken for granted.
Paul H. Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of Maine's political scene. He can be reached by e-mail: email@example.com