By Shannon Butler
Maine has become the picture-perfect, snow-globe setting for a host of Christmas imagery. From idyllic, pastoral scenes on holiday cards to romantic backdrops for blossoming love in Hallmark movies, these idealized images give the notion that Maine has always been the set- ting for a perfect Christmas. But, the reality of biting cold, icy seas, and heavy snow actually made for a rocky start to Christmas celebrations in the northern tip of New England.
It’s alleged that Maine hosted the first celebration of Christmas in the New World in 1604 (three years before the Popham Colony’s known holiday ceremony) when a French fur trading ship landed on St. Croix Island, located off Calais in Passamaquoddy Bay. This little island offered the protection of being surrounded by water while the nearby mainland provided fertile farmland, bountiful game to hunt, and abundant lumber. The sailors were confident they had found the ideal place for a new settlement. Eager to establish new territory in the name of France, the men quickly began building homes and a church. To make their settlement permanent they needed more supplies. In October, fifty crew members set sail back to France while seventy men remained on St. Croix Island.
Not long after the ship had left for France, the autumn weather turned sharp and savage. Early snowstorms shocked the men who were used to mild French winters, and the river and bay that surrounded their small island became clogged with fast-moving ice jams, making crossing to the mainland impossible. The crew was stranded on a frozen island with little food, no drinking water, and very little firewood. While no historical documents proclaim this to be an absolute truth, state lore says that in the midst of this brutal winter the men, a mix of Protestants and Catholics, held a Christmas service in the chapel they had built. They sang hymns and played games on their ice-encased island.
It is certainly possible these marooned men held a small Christmas service, but the degree of merriment on the occasion should certainly be in question. When their fellow crewmates finally returned from France in June, they found the harsh results of a disastrous winter. Thirty-five of the seventy men who stayed on the island had died.
A diet of nothing but salted meat and vegetables caused severe scurvy and left the surviving settlers with muscle pain, fatigue, loose teeth, and bruised skin. Coupled with near constant dehydration and below freezing temperatures make it difficult to imagine that first Christmas in the New World was a jovial affair.
One winter in Maine had been more than enough for the men, and they did not care to risk their lives to face another. As quickly as they had settled, they abandoned the island in 1605.
From 1605 on, Christmas remained uncelebrated in Maine as the next group of Christian settlers wanted nothing to do with the holiday.
The Puritans began founding colonies in New England in the 1630s after leaving England in search of religious freedom. In their new home, they made a point to avoid any impure traditions of the Old World that distracted from their rigorous study of faith. For the Puritans, every day was equally holy to the next and they needed no holidays.
In 1659, celebrating Christmas was banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony with a new law stating, “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbear- ing of labor, feasting, or any other way . . . shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine.”
Under pressure from the monarchy in England, the Purtians did eventually dial back their Christmas ban. However, even with Christmas celebrations allowed in the home, and the rigid Puritan faith beginning to fall out of fashion, Christmas remained a mostly obscure holiday in New England. Banks, schools, and public offices remained open on Christmas Day and business was conducted as usual. Mean- while in England, Christmas began rising in popularity and it burst into the homes of the general public when Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol in 1843 enlivening the spirit of family, feasting, and giving on the holiday.
The infectious spread of yuletide celebrations eventually made its way across the ocean to Maine where it was officially made a state holiday in 1858—thirty-eight years after statehood.
As Maine entered the Victorian era in the late 1800s, Christmas was celebrated, but only by those who could afford it. At that time, most men, women, and children worked. Women were servants and factory workers, and men worked on the water, in canneries, or in the woods. Twelve-hour days were not uncommon, even for children, whose extra income was needed to help support the family. Long work hours, hard labor, and little money to spend on anything other than basic necessities kept Christmas a sparse holiday for the majority of the population.
By the turn of the last century, Christmas was becoming profitable for many Mainers, and the culture of gift giving had gained momentum, creating a more commercialized Christmas. Department stores in the cities were booming. Newspapers from the early 1900s featured advertisements touting holiday specials on everything from clothing to shoes to jewelry. Maine was beginning to see the benefits of a growing population, and, with new labor laws in place, improvements were being made to work hours and wages. Soon the general population had more time to enjoy Christmas in some of the same ways the upper class had been for decades. Christmas was now a season, not just a day. There was a build-up to the holiday, which included shopping and decorating. It was no longer just a quiet church service on the 25th.
As Christmas continued to take off in Maine and the rest of the country, Maine became one of the top exporters of Christmas trees and wreaths in the nation, giving an extra boost to our economy. Towns, schools, and churches put on Christmas pageants and sang carols open for all to enjoy, and families began creating holiday traditions that would be passed down for generations.
Maine has witnessed Christmas morph from illegal, to mostly unnoticed, to a booming, joyous time of year. It’s this joyful cheer that composes the Maine spirit and creates the backdrop for the perfect Maine Christmas.
This is the introduction to Shannon Butler's Christmas anthology, All is Calm. All Is Calm is a look at the lives of Mainers during the holidays from the mid-1800s, to the Great Depression, to modern day. Spanning nearly 200 years, these stories show that while Christmas traditions and trends may be changing, the warmth, gratitude, and humility of the Maine spirit is evergreen.