About Christmas Day in Boston (1867)

This letter from the National Anti-Slavery Standard’s Boston correspondent ran on January 4, 1868:

CHRISTMAS-DAY in this city seemed to be both a merry day and a happy one. The population generally appeared to be following the desires of their own hearts, and to take general comfort therein. Many, disregarding the admonition of St. Paul (Galatians 4:9-11), as they have a perfect right to do, no doubt, in these days of “Free Religion,” made a holy day of it, and assembled in their churches and meeting-houses, joining in a ceremonial more elaborate than even their customary weekly one.

Probably they had a good time, special arrangement having been made for the gratification of both eye and ear. Their sanctuaries, following the Jewish tradition, were adorned with “the fir-tree, the pine, and the box-tree together,” and skilful musicians performed for them the choicest music of the Roman Catholic Church, the best, no doubt, that has ever been performed or composed.

The Puritans, our Pilgrim Fathers, would certainly have made wry faces at all this, could it have been credibly foretold them. They stuck to St. Paul in regard to Christmas, however widely they departed from him in their observance of another day. One who has searched the old records of the infancy of New England tells us that it is set down with a grim satisfaction against the date of the 25th of December following the landing at Plymouth, “so no man rested all that day.” Mince-pie, church festivals and athletic sports were alike an abomination to them; and such “muscular Christianity” as was extant among them was the product of hard work, not at all of play.

National Anti-Slavery Standard was the official weekly newspaper of the American Anti-Slavery Society, an abolitionist society founded in 1833 by William Lloyd Garrison and Arthur Tappan to spread their movement across the nation with printed materials. Frederick Douglass was a key leader of this society and often addressed meetings at its New York City headquarters.
The word “play” brings me back to my subject. Those who made a holiday of Christmas in Boston certainly had a good time. The weather for it was perfect, as good of its kind as the “day in June” of which Lowell tells us. What “coasting” for the boys on the Common! The rain of Sunday week on a thick blanket of snow, followed by freezing weather, had glazed in perfection the four paths that descend from Beacon Street across the Common, and on each a steady stream of iron-bound sleds, freighted and officered by boys of every size, was illustrating the ups and downs of life, swiftly gliding down, slowly crawling up— whereof the boys will find other illustrations after they have laid aside their sleds. Then what sleighing, riding, driving, of the young people, in the pure, soft air of that temperate day.

On Christmas, as on the 4th of July, every horse in Boston is pre-engaged, and the roads of all the suburbs are thronged. This does not diminish the throng in every place of amusement. Theatres and shows of all sorts reap a rich harvest. And the shops where gift-books and pictures, parian and bronze statuary, jewelry and fancy-goods, furs, gloves and fans, dolls and other toys for the little ones, and fruit and confectionery for all, are sold, were crowded that morning as they had been for some days before, and buyers and sellers alike looked contented.

Charles Dicken in the 1860s

Charles Dicken in the 1860s

Our rare luxury, to those who it, was the reading, by Dickens, on Christmas eve, of his own “Christmas Carol,” one of the choicest of his works, and perhaps the best of his readings. The Tremont Temple was filled, except that a vacant seat here and there pleasantly told that some rascal of a speculator had been unable to get the extortionate price he demanded. Both reader and audience seemed inspired by the occasion; the fun and the pathos of the Christmas Carol were enjoyed afresh in the highest degree by both, and a prolonged storm of applause, when the piece was finished, recalled Mr. Dickens to the stage to make his acknowledgments.

Your correspondent has never felt, never seen, and never been able to believe in that high moral influence of the theatre, as a whole, which dramatists and actors are accustomed so loudly to vaunt. But he feels sure that the reading of Dickens’s writings generally, and the hearing of that richly illustrated verbal version of them which the author now sets forth, must permanently improve, refine and elevate a large proportion of the readers and hearers; and he is happy to belive that the experience of this particular Christmas eve suggested and occasioned the bestowal of many substantial comforts upon the Bob Cratchits and Tiny Tims of Boston; and that many a merchant was “effectually called” to “say a word or two to his clerk,” which else would have remained unsaid. Happy man! who can thus benefit those who throng to him for the purpose of being entertained.

To turn from gay to grave, from lively to severe, I may as well tell you what a very large congregation of Baptists and others assembled last evening in the Tremont Temple. The subject was the eulogy, by a Baptist minister, of a famous missionary of the same sect, Rev. Adoniram Judson, combined with a denunciation, in contrast, of Theodore Parker, and the view of religion which he taught. The particular point of inquiry was, of the ideas set forth by those two men, which was most needed by the world, and best adapted to improve it. The method of solving this problem was to enumerate the items of Mr. Parker’s theology and religion which the speaker disliked, and the points in Mr. Judson’s theology and religion which he liked, and then inquire of the audience which was most satisfactory. Apparently, the speker was so sincerely bigoted as not to suspect that this was not a full and fair view of the case; nay, he probably thought himself absolutely candid, in conceding to Mr. Parker certain good qualities not connected with his theology—as industry, energy, perseverance, etc. And probably the Baptists in his audience really thought he had proved what he undertook to prove. One of the serious accusations made against Mr. Parker was that he did not go as a missionary to the heathen; and no doubt both speaker and hearer actually thought the charge a true one.

Among those points made by the Rev. speaker which were true in fact as well as in intention, was his reference to the formation of the “Free Religious Association” as one of the results of Mr. Parker’s labors. This, no doubt, is a correct idea, and the incorrectness of the orator’s further statements—that the meeting held in Horticultural Hall, last anniversary-week, was intended to break down Christianity, and that Mr. Parker’s lectures and sermons were intended to oppose Christianity —are fairly due, I am persuaded, to the speaker’s sectarian and intellectual limitations, rather than to any intention of uttering falsehood.

A revival, is now going on in Rev. Dr. Neale’s (Baptist) church here, under the supervision of that very skilful manipulator, Rev. A. B. Earle, lately returned from California. He uses his opportunities rather cruelly against the poor children and young persons whom their parents have brought to be subjected to his method of treatment, but he succeeds in getting numbers of them into the church, and he is probably no more unscrupulous as to the means of success than people in other sorts of business. At any rate, he works hard, and gives the audience as much for their money as any actor on the other sort of stage.

The changes which have come over respectable old dwelling-houses in Boston can hardly be exceeded by those in New York. The handsome house built in Temple Place by Col. T. H. Perkins, is now a Savings Bank; that of Abbot Lawrence, in Park street, is now the Union Club House; that of Amos Lawrence on Colonnade Row, is occupied by various government offices; and a dozen (more or less) of Irish families are domiciled in the once handsome house of Daniel Webster, corner of Summer and High streets. Thus passeth the glory of this world.

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