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Feeney: Christmas And Vermont

12/21/10 7:55AM By Vince Feeney
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(HOST)  Commentator Vince Feeney is a writer and historian who says that despite Vermont's status as a holiday icon, Christmas wasn't always celebrated in early Vermont.

(FEENEY)  Christmas and Vermont are as inextricably bound together as fireworks and the 4th of July.  The lithographs of Currier and Ives depict scenes familiar to every resident of the Green Mountain State, and didn't Bing Crosby and Rosemary Clooney in their classic film, White Christmas, forever equate Vermont with the American ideal of Christmas.  Imagine my surprise then, when, a few years ago while doing research on Burlington's history I discovered that until the late 19th century Christmas was hardly celebrated in Vermont at all.  What, no Christmas in Vermont!  What was going on here?
Seems that most early Vermonters - those who arrived here between 1760 and 1800 - were Congregationalists from Massachusetts and Connecticut whose religious roots went back to 17th century Puritanism.   And one thing about those Puritans, they didn't like knick-knacks: things like statues, crèches, ornaments.  Thought they were too catholic, Roman or Anglican. Or perhaps, as the old joke went, they just didn't like to see anyone having a good time.  So they put Christmas "under the ban."  Not only was Christmas not celebrated but it had negative connotations to the early Vermonters, for, according to the grants given by Governor Benning Wentworth of New Hampshire every grantee had to pay him one shilling for every 100 acres owned - the money due on December 25th each year.
Down to the middle of the 19th century December 25th was just another business day.  Then a slow transformation took place.  One saw it in the pages of Burlington's Daily Free Press  where merchants began to see the advantages of promoting a gift giving season.  In December 1848 the Huntington Bookstore, located on the corner now occupied by the clothier Michael Kehoe, advertised that it had copies of Harper's Illustrated Bible for sale for Christmas and New Year's.  Other stores followed suit. By the late 1850s every shop in town advertised "Christmas Gifts," and one even mentioned that Santa Claus was coming.  Many establishments now closed on Christmas Day.

What accounts for this change?  The causes are many. Certainly the self-interest of the merchants was an important factor. But also the arrival of so many Irish, French Canadian and German Catholics in the 1840s and 1850s with their strong Christmas traditions played a role, as did far-off events: when Albert of Saxe-Coburg married Queen Victoria in 1840 he popularized the German tradition of decorating a "Christmas" tree, although the Pennsylvania "Deutsch" had introduced it to America long before.
By 1870 the festivities surrounding Christmas had become so entrenched that President Grant established it as a federal holiday.   An editorial in 1880 in the Free Press recognized the great change that had taken place when it said that "Christmas is a sort of naturalized institution in this country, and it had taken a long time to secure for it a place in equal favor with its native American companions," Thanksgiving and the 4th of July.
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