Around the Island

Tracking the ghost of Christmas past: An eminent Island historian takes a look back

By Patricia Shillingburg

Christmas is the time most in tune with our memories of the holidays that have gone before. It’s why we cherish our individual traditions, why we pass them carefully down the generations, to remember special times during the season of light and celebration.

Looking into the history of Shelter Island, today’s residents might wonder about the details of Mary and Thomas Dering’s first Christmas at Sylvester Manor in 1762.

What would the enslaved people at the Manor have cooked to celebrate the feast for their many guests? Goose, turkey or a roast of lamb? What beverages did they serve? Grog or a nog? Wine from local grapes or rum from the West Indies?

How did they decorate their home, inside and out? Did they use candles and dainty treats on their tree? When would they exchange gifts, Christmas Eve or Christmas morning? Personal gifts or big-ticket items? The mind flutters with the possibilities.

Actually, Christmas did not happen at all.

Thomas Dering was born and raised in Boston and Mary was educated there. Boston, founded by Puritans, didn’t celebrate Christmas. In fact, in 1659 the town fathers declared the celebration of Christmas not just sinful, but illegal. Most likely this extreme crankiness had to do with traditions of worship. Christmas was an Anglican and “Papist” — Roman Catholic — holy day, certainly not a Puritan one.

According to research done by the New York Times, a Massachusetts minister named Increase Mather explained in 1687 that Christmas was observed on December 25 not because “Christ was born in that month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into ‘Christian’ celebrations.”

The law was rescinded in 1681, but nothing changed very much.

In Virginia, the Puritans’ colonial cousins were Anglican, or what they would consider “Papist Lite.” Pope Julius I had declared December 25 Christ’s birthday in the 4th century. (Christ was probably born in the spring.) The Anglicans took the Feast of the Nativity on December 25 seriously, with three sermons rather than the two of a normal Sunday.

After a virtuous — and long — day of worship, the Virginia cousins might celebrate with friends and family at a great feast in the family home. A bird, such as a goose or turkey might grace the table and the meal might end with an array of desserts, the selections and display being a statement of the hostess’s standing in her community.

The master of the house might end the day with a gift of a coin or two to his servants and the enslaved people.

Congress held its very first session on December 25, 1789. There was no mention that it was Christmas.

Christmas as we know it began in the 1840s when Prince Albert, husband to Queen Victoria, introduced the tannenbaum to their living room. Washington Irving created Santa flying in a sleigh; Charles Dickens created the classic tale of kindness discovered in a “Christmas Carol.” Copywriter Robert L. May created Rudolf to lure customers into Montgomery Ward, and, as they say, the rest is history.

Christmas may have begun as a celebration of Christ’s birthday two millenia ago, but once the American imagination embraced it as a time of joy and celebration, it became something entirely different.

It may remain a three-sermon day for a few, but for the rest of us it is a national holiday of family togetherness, good cheer, happy expectations and maybe a bit of excessive gift giving.

To all Islanders, a Merry Christmas and a Happy Holiday Season!

This story was first published in the Reporter a number of years ago. Ms. Shillingburg, along with her husband Edward, published several books on the Island’s colonial and Revolutionary War periods.

Ms. Shillingburg passed away in January 2016.