By Paul Mills
“Always winter, but never Christmas,” wrote C.S. Lewis some 70 years ago.
He was not, of course, speaking of our own COVID-19 time, but he could have been speaking of most of Maine’s history until the middle of the 19th century.
Why then was Christmas not observed?
The answer lies in the bedrock of early Puritan culture, which contended that no one knew the day when Jesus was born. The date, they argued, was one generated by other 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 orgiastic revelry.
Thus, in Maine until well into the 19th century, many churches were locked on Christmas Day. Businesses, schools, government offices and the courts were 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 in some fashion. Still, Rand did not go so far as to encourage his readers to join in the celebrations.
The next year, in keeping with the non-observance of Christmas, an 1824 law in Maine 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.
Similarly, when in 1836 Maine lawmakers first officially declared legal holidays for the purpose of mandating closure of the state’s court system, Christmas was not one of them. Instead, only the Fourth of July and election days were ones so ordained.
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.
As time marched on, the increasing influx of settlers from Quebec, Germany and elsewhere made an impact on Maine’s cultural landscape. Santa Claus, Kris Kringle and St. Nicholas were 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 yet among them.
In 1843, Charles Dickens did his part, however, with his moving story of Scrooge and Tiny Tim.
In 1852 — a year after the state adopted Prohibition for the first time — the Maine Legislature was still slow to take notice and the recognition it gave to the 25th of December. When it did it seemed a bit more in keeping with Scrooge than Tiny Tim. 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. Its only beneficiaries were thus people to whom money was owed rather than the other way around.
Finally, by 1858, the Legislature added Christmas to the list of official legal holidays. Their action took the form of a law that mandated closure of the state court system 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 also finds some support both within and without Christian culture today.
2020 confronts a holiday season with trepidation, insecurity and uncertainty. The history of ways in which it has been recognized illustrates that this year will not be the first when Maine people will have developed a different way in which it will be observed and there may be a bit of solace to recall the nature of our predecessors’ treatment of the holidays.
As Bob Hope once observed, “When we recall Christmas past, we usually find that the simplest things — not the great occasions — give off the greatest glow of happiness.”
Paul Mills is a Farmington attorney well known for his analyses and historical understanding of public affairs in Maine. He can be reached by email at [email protected].