Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Merry Christmas, Amherst! From Rejection to Grudging Acceptance

On Christmas Day a century before Amherst became a town, Mass Moments tells us:
in 1659, a law was passed by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony requiring a five-shilling fine from anyone caught "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way." Christmas Day was deemed by the Puritans to be a time of seasonal excess with no Biblical authority. The law was repealed in 1681 along with several other laws, under pressure from the government in London. It was not until 1856 that Christmas Day became a state holiday in Massachusetts. For two centuries preceding that date, the observance of Christmas — or lack thereof — represented a cultural tug of war between Puritan ideals and British tradition. 
The celebration of Christmas was thus slow to establish itself in Congregationalist Amherst, as well. In fact, when Emily Dickinson's sister-in-law Susan decorated her house ("The Evergreens") ever so modestly with a few wreaths, it caused something of a scandal, and the townsfolk began to whisper about popery.

wreath on the door of the 1856 Evergreens
The Emily Dickinson Museum has for some time been decorating the 1856 Evergreens in this fashion, but this year, it launched a special new holiday tour, devoted to explaining the evolution of Christmas habits in Amherst and the Dickinson households in the nineteenth century. Christmas is past, and I am behind schedule, but I may yet post about it because the question of Christmas decorations and historical accuracy is one that vexes many a house museum at this time of year and poses an interesting theoretical and practical question for curators and program directors.

In the meantime, greetings of the season!

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