Christmas in 1838
I presume that the reputed anniversary of our Savior's birth was never celebrated in my ancient Mendon
parish, nor elsewhere in the vicinity, until the year 1838. Traditionary prejudice, an inheritance from our
Pilgrim and Puritan ancestors, was strongly against it. But I suggested and encouraged a change from the
long-prevailing custom, to which my people readily consented. Our sanctuary was accordingly appropriately
and gracefully trimmed and well lighted for the evening of December 24, when I delivered a specially
prepared discourse to a large and deeply interested congregation. My text was Isa. 9: 6, 7: "For unto us a
child is born, unto us a son is given," etc. Since that time celebrations of the event have prevailed more and
more in the churches of this general region and indeed throughout the land, the descendants of the
founders of New England of all shades of belief, vying with their Episcopalian and Roman Catholic brethren
in making them attractive, significant, and impressive. Autobiography of AdinBallou, pp. 305-306.
Christ's birth - which was supposed to have been in the spring - as his example. It was a conscious
defiance of New England's religious past, when Puritans had spurned Christmas as a heathen holiday.
In 1854 Heywood [Rev. William S. Heywood, Adin Ballou's son-in-law] began his address to the assembled
residents by making "a very unpuritanical wish," that they have a Merry Christmas, one that would combine
an earnest appreciation of Christ and of the Christian mission with "our idea of fraternal affection and
sympathy in connection with social pleasure."
After the evening service, a large Christmas tree was unveiled loaded with "many golden and glittering
treasures, and not a few fantastic toys." Adults as well as children received gifts; an unnamed giver left a
cow worth forty-five dollars in Ballou's barn, while another anonymous donor placed thirty copies of Ballou's
latest book under the tree for distribution among the members. Edward K. Spann, From Commune to
Company Town 1840 - 1920, p. 82
Our family consisted of my father, mother and a sister and brother. We were living in a double house on
Church Street [Milford] where there were only four houses then. From our house to the Congregational
Church there were open fields.
My Christmas began before daylight when three children strode quietly downstairs to see what was in their
stockings fastened to the shelf in the sitting room. We soon heard, "I told you not to get up until light," but like
most parents they couldn't be firm on Christmas Day and they soon joined us. You all know the excitement
that followed. Those simple little gifts bought for each other and hidden away for weeks meant just as much
then as the expensive gifts of today. I never had over a dollar with which to buy presents for all my relatives
and friends. For Grandpa I always bought "The Old Farmer's Almanac," price ten cents.
Christmas was always spent at Grandpa [Almon] Thwing's) in Hopedale with the Field family. There was a
sharp, steep hill there and our horse, "General," took it like mad up to the side door. There stood Grandma,
sweet and serene as always, while each child tried to outdo the other, calling "Merry Christmas." Soon the
Field family arrived - five of them, with more excitement and more gifts. During the forenoon we would see
the village folk passing, carrying gifts to the old church. Some had clothes baskets full. These were to be
exchanged when we had the tree service.
After a turkey dinner of which twelve of us ate until we could eat no more, we all went to the church. There
on the platform would be the biggest, tallest Christmas tree I've ever seen indoors, loaded with wonderful
looking packages and the floor piled high with them. With eyes popping I had to sit through a service
conducted by saintly Adin Ballou. His hair was too long for present style, and white as snow. I remember
that he wore a cap on the street in winter and I also recall that he whistled through his teeth when he prayed,
which I found fascinating.
After the service those hundreds of presents were given out, and I would sit on the edge of the pew waiting
to hear "Annie Whitney" called as my grandparents always took things to the church for us. After all these
seventy years I can see William Draper (later the General), George [Albert] Draper, Eben Draper, Frank
Dutcher and Eben Bancroft (all young men) taking turns calling out the names. This took several hours.
Then back to Grandpa's for a delicious supper at which quincesauce was always served made of quince
from the bushes there on the place. Grace Mayhew and I each have to this day one of the little sauce
dishes. After the supper was cleared away, once more we trudged down to the church to see a play in which
the Bancroft sisters and the young Draper brothers always starred. The outstanding thing in one of these
plays was the shutting in a box of Lura Bancroft who was later Mrs. Charles Day.
By the time the play was ended, a tired but very happy little girl was glad to be tucked under the old fur robe
and driven back to Church Street, to be again tucked in. Anna Thwing Spaulding, Milford Daily News
On Christmas Eve the Dutcher house on Adin Street would have a lighted candle in every window.
These were real candles, not the electric imitations of today. I do not recall any other house having
illumination of this kind, and it was a pretty and dignified display. I think of its simplicity and
unpretentious beauty when I see the gaudy displays of our present era, and hear endless repetitions of
Christmas carols blaring forth from over-powered amplification of mechanical recordings. We had less
in those days, but what we did have was genuine and sincere; not tawdry and spurious. Charles Merrell.
Hopedale As I Found It.
Our Christmas Festival - 1852
Came off on Saturday afternoon and evening in a very satisfactory and pleasant manner. We rejoiced to
welcome many dear friends who live without our borders; and although our schoolhouse was densely
packed-too much so for comfort-yet there were none too many, and we wished we had a more capacious
room, in which comfortably to seat our friends.
Our Committee of arrangements spared no pains for our entertainment and comfort for which they will have
but poor pay, save in the approval of a good conscience. Yet I trust we appreciated their labors and felt
grateful to them for their works' sake. The room was prettily trimmed with nature's own green. Good
mottoes, entwined with fadeless boughs impressed our inmost souls with the glorious associations of the
day. The singing was fair, the opening remarks of Br. Wm. H. Fish, simple and appropriate, the speaking of
the children very good, the refreshments plain and abundant, the "Fairy tree" well loaded for the children,
and the presents were dispersed with great good nature, and an occasional flash of wit, that sustained the
interest to the very last. Our social gatherings are good times, but they will be better when we have a larger
I can scarcely close this notice, without saying to friends away that many thoughts on that festal evening flew
off on Love's wings in search of those whose presence on former occasions had cheered our meeting and
whose absence was now a shadow on our joy, yet we look forward with hope to the time when we shall be
garnered in one blessed "Union" above, where the principles that we all love will be the Universal creed.
Abby Hills Price, Our Christmas Festival, The Practical Christian, January 1, 1853
The photo above shows the original school and chapel on Hopedale Street between Freedom and Chapel
Streets. This may be the school referred to here, or the celebration may have been held in the Home
School. I'll try to find out.
Christmas in the Old Days
I feel deeply, the great honor conferred on me in your invitation to present reminiscences of Christmas in the
old days at Hopedale, when I consider how many there are present who are better qualified, both by age
and experience, to make this contribution to your program.
Some five or six years ago, when serving as Chairman of the Christmas Committee, it occurred to me that a
little preface to the regular exercises might be of interest, as so few who now attend the afternoon
entertainment had any idea of what led up to the present arrangement. I made a few notes, but
unfortunately, between moving and other incidents due to the lapse of time, they were not preserved, and I
am therefore obliged to make a fresh start.
In these days of Christmas trees, public and private, in all religious denominations, it is difficult to realize
that the evolution of the Christmas tree in this country covers comparatively few years; and that the little
village of Hopedale was one of the pioneers in this line, some sixty years ago.
It is desirable at the outset to remember that the Hopedale environment at that time was quite different.
Hopedale was a village of 200 to 300 people, in the town of Milford.
Our highways included the present Main Street running from Mendon to Milford past Mr. O. B. Young's, with
Freedom Street at the northerly limit as the only other road to Milford. Freedom Street at that time went to
Mendon up the steep hill past the "Saltbox" place, now occupied by the Dillon family. Hopedale Street
connected the roads through the center of the place. Dutcher Street, then called High Street, only existed in
the imagination, with the exception of the short section connecting Social and Union streets. The only road
to the cemetery was a rough cart path through a succession of pastures; and in case of a funeral, it was
necessary to pass through several pairs of bars. There were no good sidewalks.
The entire village did not include over fifty houses, nearly all for one family each. There were only two
houses west of the river, these being the one at the end of the pond, now occupied by Mr. Willard, and the
Soward house directly back of it. The only public building was the Chapel. This is the building now
occupied by Mr. Gilbert Arnold and adjoining the School grounds. This Chapel was used for all gatherings,
religious or secular, and on week days was occupied by the Public School. It had a small bell tower at the
end next to the street and was equipped with a clock made by a local artist, Mr. Almon Thwing. The bell was
used for both School and Church. (In Thomas Gaffney's memories of life in early Hopedale, he recalled that
there was a clock made by Thwing on his barn near the corner of Hopedale and Hope streets. It seems
likely to me that after the chapel/school was no longer being used for its original purpose, Thwing moved the
clock from the chapel to the barn.)
With this small isolated community, affairs of Church and State were closely identified. Up to 1856 all
families, or at least one of the heads, belonged to the Community, and thus all church services and festivals
were of general interest. My first Christmas at Hopedale was in the year 1856, and to obtain earlier data I
have looked over the file of the "Practical Christian," a semi-weekly paper edited by Mr. Ballou and published
from 1840 to 1860. Unfortunately the earlier volumes were devoted more to local news, and the first
mention of the local Christmas exercises at length, is in what was called the "Youths' Department," edited by
Mrs. Margaret E. Fish, in the January 14th issue of 1854. The following extracts are from three long columns
of special report: -- "Christmas Festival."
"The people of Hopedale had a Christmas festival of Saturday, Dec. 24th, ult., commencing at 2:30 P.M. The
exercises commenced by singing an originally hymn, composed by Joseph Bailey. A prayer was then
offered by William H. Fish, which was succeeded by a welcome spoken by Eddie Hewitt, aged about eleven,
after which we listened to a song from the infant class, "Let Us Love One Another."
An address was then delivered by Adin Ballou. (I omit the summary of the address.)
The address was followed by a song from the little children commencing, "I want to be an angel." We next
listened to a declamation for Ida Albee, and another by Eben Bancroft, little children about six years of age.
Then Willie Fish and Willie Draper spoke the dialogue between William Penn and King Charles. Two
declamations followed, one by Ellen Walker, aged about nine, another by Amanda Albee, "The Best Use of a
"The Three Prayers" was then spoken by Lizzie Wentworth, about nine years of age: a declamation followed
from Asa Inman five or six years of age. Next we had a fairy song, which the writer of this sketch was not
ethereal enough to understand.
"Take the spade of perseverance,"
"Dig the field of progress wide,"
was then spoken by Lizzie Humphry, about thirteen years of age.
Then came some thrilling music performed by Willie Draper on the seraphine, Lyman Allen on the flute and
W. W. Cook on the violin. A piece was the spoken by Frances Draper, aged about six, entitled, "Is It
Sunday?" Little Susan Thwing then spoke a piece of poetry illustrating the mother's love. Next came a piece
spoken by Joseph Harlow, aged about twelve, Asa Inman, Eben Bancroft, and Susan Thwing, showing the
unhappiness arising from selfishness.
The reporter goes on with an additional array of single declamations by Emily Sutcliff, Hattie Walker, Anne
Munyan, Elisha Davis, Allen Price, Lucy Lillie and others. Dialogues of two, four and six characters each are
interspersed with extracts and descriptions.
We then had some conundrums which were got up for the occasion by Joseph Bailey, and were in the form
of a dialogue, and spoken by four young persons. This excited some mirth which seemed to be relished
The exercises were closed by a song, "Good-night."
Midway in the program, "came a simple repast of bread and butter, plain cake, and popcorn."
"About an hour before the speaking closed, the curtains which had through the afternoon concealed the
Christmas tree, were drawn aside, and we were permitted to behold the pliant branches of the hemlock,
drooping under a load of rich presents, whose varied colors were pleasing to the eye. At seven o'clock in
the evening the distribution of presents commenced. There were four or five persons engaged in taking the
presents from the tree and reading the names of those for whom the presents were hung. After each article
was announced, and the name of the person that was to possess it, it was put into the hand of some little
girl to carry to the place where the person was seated.
After the establishment of the Home School under the management of Mr. and Mrs. Wm. S. Heywood, 1n
1856, another feature was added, namely the dramatic number. The program, as I remember it, included
single pieces and short dialogues, to include all the village children, prayer and address by the available
minister; songs by the children being sandwiched in at intervals. Many of the people carried their suppers,
eating them at intervals between the afternoon and evening parts of the entertainment. At seven o'clock, or
thereabouts came the tree, followed by a play or musical number. "Neighbor Jackwood" is one play that I
recall. Another year we had the Cantata of Esther. Some of those present will remember the curtains,
green at the center and alternate breadths of blue and reddish brown at the sides. The church building
erected in 1860 was provided with the same curtains, refitted, and the center curtains pieced out. It was a
job requiring the greatest skill to rig up these curtains for Christmas. During the balance of the year they
were stored in the attic. The fact that it was too late for the children when the tree was not shown until
evening, led to a change in the program. For quite a number of years we commenced in the afternoon at
one thirty or thereabouts. The exercises included an anthem by the choir, prayer and address by the
minister, dialogues, songs and recitations by the children usually with a piece introducing the tree. The
presents were distributed in the afternoon and it was often five o'clock by the time we adjourned. In the
evening there was a dramatic entertainment by local talent, the parts being taken in most cases by the
The Christmas committee was usually chosen on the Sunday before Thanksgiving. The Chairman was
selected largely for his ability to pay the expenses. When the tree was at the Chapel, presents were left at
the home of Mr. and Mrs. E. D. Draper and taken from there to the Chapel and hung Christmas forenoon.
When we moved to the Church, this arrangement was changed, and presents were taken by the committee
the afternoon and evening before at the Church, the committee putting as many as practicable on the tree in
the evening. Someone prepared for emergencies, always remained in the Church overnight.
One of the most effective plays ever put on was "The Chimney Corner." The stage setting was very realistic,
showing an old-time room with the mantel and corner cupboard from the old house then recently torn down.
Mr. Wm. H. Humphrey and myself worked nearly the entire time between the closing of the afternoon
entertainment until time to open in the evening in erecting this material for the stage. That evening our local
orchestra furnished the music, as we did in several other cases. Frank J. Dutcher, Hopedale,
Street, between Chapel and Freedom streets, where many of the early
Community Christmas celebrations were held. It was razed in the 1950s.
Since you've come this far, you might as well take a couple more minutes
to read about how the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts changed
from Puritan times to the nineteenth century.