Updated: Apr 25
by John N. Cole (1980)
Three hundred and seventy-three Decembers have been swallowed by time since the first English Christmas in Maine. A lean, sparse holiday was celebrated early in the seventeenth century near the mouth of the Kennebec by Sir George Popham and the men who had sailed early that year from England to reach this corner of the New World in August.
Three hundred and seventy-three Decembers! Yet not that much has changed about this particular holiday in this most particular place. As the days of 1607 shortened so barely eight hours of diffuse sunlight separated dawn and dusk, Sir George’s colonists must have spent the long nights pondering the winter still to come, even as they clung to memories of the robust and productive autumn just concluded. Today, most of Maine’s one million settlers do the same. The solstice is eternal, the tilting of the earth is awesome and implacable, its orbits beyond taming, its relationships with its Brother Sun and Sister Moon as imperative now as they have been for eons. Shadows slide south as the planet’s northern half turns its face away from its sun-struck brother toward the chill dark. We are, it sometimes seems, in danger of losing our star altogether as winter compresses sunlight’s span.
Then, just when the days seem darkest, comes Christmas—an event most gratefully welcomed in this northern latitude. It is our assurance that the sun’s restoration has begun. Sir George’s men—the forty-five of the original one hundred who survived illness and maintained their determination to stay—were mariners. They knew the rhythms of the spheres; they navigated by the stars. They under stood the astronomical significance of their Church of England holiday; they were not that far removed in time from the sun’s calibrator
at Stonehenge nor the Druid celebrations that once marked the sun’s long march to its June zenith.
Episcopal hymns were sung by Sir George and his men—theirs was a strict orthodox calling and their observances of its calendar were meticulous, even though they were isolated on a wild continent, an ocean away from their homes. But surely the majestic presence of the lowering December sky and the thundering curl of cold sea swells must have done more than hymns to communicate the larger presences that religion specified.
For the land, the sea, the sky, and the vast reaches of forest that span almost as much of Maine as they did then are still the primary dimensions of our Decembers. This place, even its relatively populous coast, has retained its natural integrity, and it is these natural presences that still give our Christmases a genuine center, a point of gravity that has been dissolved by time and change in many other states beyond Maine’s borders.
Here in Maine, winter has arrived—a genuine winter, cold, keen, cutting, and pure, a winter whose 1607 counterpart inflicted chill and miseries on the Popham band, a winter whose definitions are never in doubt. It is thought in other places that Maine winters make Christmas a burden; life here is evidently still equated with those primitive realities
of nearly four centuries back. But those who make such distant judgements do not know this state and are the lesser for it.
Yes, the cold is here, but it is more a purifier than a burden, more an exhilarator than a depressant. The ground under my boots is frost firm as I walk the dirt trail that leads into the woods, woods that reach from one end of Maine to the other, holding the state’s character in place with their intertwined roots. The air is swift in my nostrils and over the feathered tops of the evergreens while white gulls glide against a gray December sky, emblems of the sea waving above a silent land. The air is softened by salt from that sea, and a few snowflakes drift like gull feathers through the trees.
If I stop and still the thumping of my boots against the hard ground, I can hear the southerly breeze in the pinetops. I can even hear the creaking of gull wings in flight. Such silence is impressive to a man who began as a city youth, who grew in a place where silence was never heard, where noise was the only constant and still is. Yet is not a kind of silence essential to understanding aspects of this season? Is it possible to share the holiday’s full significance in this place that knows no peace? I think not, which is why when I stand as still as a stump in the December woods I am grateful for Maine’s gift of isolation.
Thirty years have passed since my last city Christmas, and my walk in the woods is a kind of ritual observance of that departure. I come alone, trailed by thoughts of Christmas past. I can see the boy running through city streets on Christmas Eve, scouting the last of the tree sellers by their late, flickering fires, standing like trees in their overcoats pinned across sweatered chests, waiting for those they knew would come late to rescue the holiday from the shame of no Christmas evergreen.
I have remembered the paucity of those city choices and I find a kind of satisfaction in the superfluous gifts the Maine woods make. Christmas trees are spread by the thousands of square miles across most of Maine’s twenty million acres, and even on the few acres I call my own a man could cut a balsam fir for every Christmas of his life and the life of his children and never hinder the forest’s own renewal.
But there is enough of the city still with me to make the taking of the tree more ritual than routine. Bending there in the woods, severing the base of the trunk, I do a kind of homage to the place which has brought me such splendid abundances of solitude and Christmas trees, pure cold and exhilarating air. In my view, I am offered more treasures than I have earned, more privilege than I warrant, and yet what I have is shared by every other resident of Maine. Some, I suppose, take for granted what I am grateful for, but all of us would protest any diminution of what we have been given.
The same early darkness that compressed the brief days of Sir George and his men catches me on the way home, the tree feathering the snow as I pull it along by its butt. But our house has lighted windows, and more light spills from the door as I open it and squeeze the tree inside. Its boughs spring like a colt’s legs and it showers bright droplets of melting snow across the room, a wild thing trembling at its sudden captivity. The family is there to greet me and my tree, and I know as the moment moves so splendidly around me that it is a gift
from this place, this Maine.
I have made no secret of the state’s generosities in the decades I have lived here. Friends and acquaintances still in the cities and suburbs often take my enthusiasms to task; they argue that I am blind to the state’s realities, that I see only what I want through the tunnel
vision of my romanticism. But I explain it is more their cynicism than my enthusiasms which bends their perceptions. For someone conditioned to New York’s impersonal isolations, Maine’s essential purity and the humanity of its people are difficult to believe. If Christmas has become a kind of commercial excess in so much of the nation, those beyond Maine argue, then there is no reason why this state should be any different. And they extend that logic (sometimes defensively I think) to apply to every other aspect of life in this most distant corner of the Northeast.
I have, from time to time, wished that every cynic, that every discouraged and jaded citizen beyond Maine’s borders could somehow be brought here for a while. It would be a great gift to them to be allowed to have Christmas in Maine, to know the truth of cold, to comprehend the blessings of the solstice, to see the gulls’ white banners unfurled over the evergreens, to skate on a black pond frozen silver in the moonlight, to witness the modesty of the state’s Main Streets as they take the season in their stride.
No, I don’t exaggerate or over embellish. Nor do I deny December. It is not an easy time. Lobstermen and fishermen (and I have been one) work with an angry and unforgiving sea. Woodsmen hew at frozen trees, and summer cottages that bloom like June flowers by lake
or bay are locked and rattle in the wind, their pipes drained or shattered by frost. I have seen Christmas blizzards, Christmas sleet storms, Christmas rain, and Christmas fog. I have never told my city friends that the sun always shines here on December 25. On the contrary, I generally assume that it will not. When it does, we mark the day as we did one brilliant Christmas afternoon when the bay sparkled blue and we slid the dory off the bank and took her for a row around the point just so we could say we had been afloat on Christmas Day.
All this is a far cry from suggesting that this place, this Maine, is a holiday Utopia where Dickens descriptions come true and the ghosts of Christmas Past have yet to meet the often frantic spirits of Christmas Present. Maine is certainly a part of America, and like most American retailers, Maine’s do at least a third of their year’s business in the six weeks before Christmas. And Maine’s poor are not altogether different from the city poor; I have known some lobsterman who put codfish on their Christmas table.
But there are leveners here, lighteners of the load. To be poor on 126th Street and Third Avenue is also to be without hope, without horizons, without relief. Maine’s horizons are still unobscured; they encourage hope instead of stifling it. And I am convinced there is a dimension to the natural world—the woods, the water, and the land—which is essential to the soul. No one who lives within those dimensions can be as poor as those who are denied them by concrete walls and fields of asphalt.
It is the gift of itself that Maine gives us at Christmas and during the entire balance of the year. But it is during these Decembers that we yearn most for some signal that our days will not diminish entirely, that our winters will not be endless, that our star will begin its return. And this is why I treasure the country knowledge that the holiday marks the start of night’s retreat, that within this Christmas week the earth, this vast entire planet, shifts its great mass and surrenders to the sun’s insistent, incremental advance.
Few in the city are concerned with such matters as the moon’s phases or the sun’s advances and retreats. Air-conditioned, computerized, climate-controlled buildings without windows do not stimulate an awareness of natural rhythms. Urban and suburban Christmases have become socioeconomic events because they have been denied every natural presence. When city lights shine so brightly the stars over Manhattan cannot be seen even on a clear night, then the first Christmas symbol—and the season’s astronomical anchor—is obscured. When people have no way of knowing which way the wind blows, or whence the rain comes, they fail to recognize any holiday’s natural roots.
But not in Maine, and this is the genuine blessing of this place. We here mark this season as it has been marked in every northern latitude since humanity came down from the trees. Christmas extends beyond the borders of dogmas and religions to cultures the northern world around, from Maine across the Atlantic, from England across Europe and from Europe across Russia, and from Russia to the Japans beyond. It is a time when the natural and the supernatural combine; a time when we are reassured of the immortality of our sun as well as
the immortality of our souls. This is the gift of Maine at Christmas.
John N. Cole authored several books, including In Maine, and was a frequent contributor to national magazines and newspapers such as The New York Times and The Atlantic Monthly. This essay first appeared in Down East magazine and is featured in All Is Calm, a Maine Christmas reader edited by Shannon Butler.