Christmas in the St. Croix Valley: An Historical Perspective

"Merry Christmas from the St. Croix Historical Society. The card above is from our collection of Calais penny postcards dating back to the early 1900s. In those days folks went to places like Ryan’s Bookstore on Main Street and bought postcards specially printed for Calais and sent their holiday greetings to friends and family for just a penny-half the regular postage rate. Today we’re sending it to you for even less than a penny but have to admit it doesn’t have the personal touch of a card with a handwritten greeting on the back." (Image courtesy of the St. Croix Historical Society)

The following is an edited version of an email sent to members of the St. Croix Historical Society’s mailing list. To join the list and receive the emails, complete with all images, send an email to:jaclaw1@gmail.com.

Calais has a very special place in the history of Christmas in the United States. The first Christmas on this continent north of the Spanish possessions in Florida was celebrated in Calais on St. Croix Island in 1604. The conditions on the island, then occupied by De Monts and Champlain and the French settlers, was far from ideal: ice flows were passing the island on December 3rd, and conditions were about to get much worse. 

“Winter came upon us sooner than we expected,” Champlain noted in his journal, “and prevented us from doing many things which we had proposed . . . the snows began on the 6th of October . . . on the 3rd of December, we saw ice pass in the river.”

Certainly, December 25th, 1604 saw the first Protestant Christmas celebrated in North America as there was both a Catholic priest and Protestant Huguenot minister on the expedition. The two had been recruited on the theory they would foster peace and harmony among the crew which was of both faiths. In fact, they hated each other with such a passion they became a serious problem for the expedition.

De Monts had pressed into service gentlemen and rogues, artisans and soldiers, all sorts and conditions of men. A Huguenot himself, he even included a Catholic priest as well as a Huguenot minister, which may have been good politics considering the situation in France, but which Champlain, a Catholic, thought did more harm than good to morale afloat or ashore. Champlain reports at least one occasion on which priest and minister “fell to with their fists on questions of faith ... I leave you to judge if it was a pleasant thing to see ... a fine spectacle they made aiming and dodging blows while the sailors gathered and backed them according to their sectarian prejudices...,” as reported in an article by historian and reporter for The Calais Advertiser Ned Lamb.

Lamb further described Christmas on the island: “Blessed with good health and ample food, the pioneers made Christmas Day a happy holiday—'un Joyeux Noel’—even though separated by thousands of miles from home and families. One may hope that, for this day at least, the heated and often bloody quarrel brought with them from France could be cooled by the frosty air, buried under clean white snow.

“There is little about religious matters or services in the record; no doubt because of the bitterness of the eternal controversy; but surely religious services were held by both Catholic and Protestant groups, each the first in any settlement north of the Floridas. The altar candles flickering in the wintry gusts must have thrown but a dim light for the handful of men shivering in the rude chapel, and the rustic surroundings were indeed far removed from the pomp and grandeur of a Midnight Mass at Notre Dame in Paris; but whether in Brittany or Acadia, the Christmas story was the same.”

The river soon froze and, of the 79 who celebrated that first Christmas, 35 died before the winter was over. Death quieted one bitter quarrel: it claimed priest and minister at the same time, and the irreverent burial squad laid both in one grave, “to see if they would lie peaceably together there.”

Christmas in the 1800s

Christmas in the 1800s was far different than it is today. The Fourth of July was a much more important holiday. While Christmas was observed as a special occasion by some, many folks did not much alter their normal routine.  Nellie Holmes, who lived in the Holmestead with her brother Frank, did visit friends on Christmas and exchange small gifts and tokens of friendship but it doesn’t appear parents lavished presents on the children. In 1851 Nellie went for a Christmas sleigh ride on the frozen St. Croix with friends. The most extensive diaries of the time (1820-1860’s) are those of Richard Hayden of Robbinston, a surveyor and schoolteacher and jack of all trades who in his spare time studied Euclid and solved complicated math problems.

On Christmas day 1829 Hayden dined at the Vose house in Robbinston. Built in 1800, it is the oldest house still standing in Robbinston. Later that day, Hayden was visited by John Brewer who lived in the Mansion House. However, on other Christmases, Hayden notes little out of the ordinary. In fact, Christmas was not even a school holiday.

Generally, Christmas was a day like any other for the Haydens. He does say in 1833 that he saw a group of 12 sleighs arrive from Calais on Christmas day to visit a Mr. Hastings. In the winter, getting around was nearly impossible unless the roads remained sufficiently frozen for sleighing.

The Christmas tree, which has become such an important industry locally, is not mentioned in historical accounts until 1844 when according to Knowlton’s history, the Unitarian minister Rev. Edward Stone “arranged the first Christmas tree ever seen in Calais”. The Unitarian Church was formed in the 1830s in reaction to the harsh Calvinist creed of the Congregationalists, then the only church in town. They built their church at the bottom of Calais Avenue in 1834 and it stood on the site until a couple of years ago. Unitarians were fairly tolerant and progressive but sadly for Rev. Stone, there was a limit to the toleration in Calais in the 1840s.

From Knowlton’s Annals of Calais Maine (1875): “Next (1844) came Rev. Edward Stone, a native of Framingham, Mass., where in a good old age and full of peace, he still resides. He was a graduate of Brown Un-iversity and Harvard Divinity School, and therefore "thoroughly furnished" for a pastor's position. His influence in community was always for the right. In the pulpit he was persuasive and convincing; in the Sunday School, skillful and ef-ficient. He got up and arranged the first Christmas Tree ever seen in Calais; and his large, outline maps of Palestine, drawn by his own hand, greatly facilitated the study of the Scriptures by the Bible class. Under his ministry, the Church grew "in grace and in the knowledge of the Lord." But there was "a lion in the way." Mr. Stone clearly saw the great sin of slavery, and deeply sympathized with its helpless victims; and in his every public prayer, besought the help of God on their behalf. This displeased the politicians and resulted in his losing some influential friends; and having occupied the pulpit from July 6, 1844, to May 13, 1849, he resigned and left town.”

 

If Rev. Stone was even partially responsible for the popularity of the Christmas tree he did the St. Croix Valley a great favor. As early as 1880 a train carload of Christmas trees was shipped from St. Stephen to New York and by 1900 it became a major industry. In 1927 Perry alone sent 55 railroad flatcar loads south and according to Perry history, “The making of Christmas wreaths is also a considerable contribution to the town’s economy every year and gives the women a share of the income from the family woodlot.” By the 1930s this end of Washington County was sending hundreds of carloads to markets in New York and Pennsylvania and many trees from New Brunswick were being shipped from Calais. The industry continues to provide a needed boost to the local economy.