We here in Massachusetts are often given a bleak history when learning about the origins of the Christmas holiday as we know it. Early settlers were overwhelmingly Puritans and, we are told, banned it outright. It wasn’t until the days of Charles Dickens and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree that the old English traditions began to come over to America. As with most of these stories, the truth is somewhat muddier and varied from place to place.
While it is true that the early Massachusetts Bay colony frowned on the excesses of English Christmas, it was only banned for just over 20 years in the mid-17th century. Even so, there were plenty of dissenters who stayed under the radar and likely celebrated anyway. Those people who belongs to other sects, or who were Jewish, tended to eventually settle in Rhode Island where co-mingling of religions was better tolerated. Back up in Massachusetts, in the 18th century, most everyone viewed Christmas as a minor religious holiday, if they celebrated it at all. There were a number of squabbles over the years between ministers, weighing the merits of celebrating a religious event with a man-made date, so your congregation could very well influence your holiday spirit. Among the most damning evidence against celebrating Christmas on December 25th, according to Reverend John Barnard of Marblehead: not only did God not bother to put a date in the Bible for us to celebrate, but as we all know, Jesus couldn’t have been born in December, as it would have been too cold outside for the shepherds to be watching their flocks by night.
Regardless of which church you went to, however, there would have been hints of Christmas in the air, as newspapers often printed stories from other colonies where the holiday was celebrated more often, and adapted the festive spirit to pursue their own interests (some things never change). In the New York newspapers, you might see advertisements for “Christmas Pieces”, essentially early blank Christmas cards, printed with festive borders, which boys would fill in for their parents. In New England, you were more likely to see the occasional bit of religious poetry, but Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper, thought he could do better.
Thomas’s end-of-year message for 1771, written from the point of view of your humble local paperboy, hits all the right notes, starting with a Christmas wish, veering into political territory, and ending with a good, old-fashioned call for money:
The Carrier of
The Massachusetts Spy
Wishes all his kind Customers
A Merry Christmas
A Happy New Year
And presents the following, viz.
Hail happy day, important year!
Be more propitious than the last;
In thee let mighty truth appear,
And every tool and tyrant blast.
From this unbought, unfetter’d PRESS,
Which laws and constitutions show;
That it the happy land may bless,
With lessons which they ought to know.
Nor shall the frowns of low’ring skies,
Nor party rage of selfish men,
Forbid the boy who brings your SPYS,
To serve and pleasure you again.
But Sirs, since your indulgent hands
Are yearly wont my heart to chear,
Some pence will rivet your commands
And fix my wishes for the year.
Boston, January 1, 1772
-Sarah McDonough, Program Manager
It was just a country tavern, part bar, part restaurant, part general store, smelling of wood and tobacco, supplying the same farmers year in and year out with the comforts and necessities of existence and giving them common ground to share the passage of their small-town lives.
However, Buckman Tavern in Lexington Center was also at the heart of history, a key staging ground at the birth of America. In the years after adoption of the Constitution, the customers who frequented Buckman and the town's other taverns were some of the men who'd seen the very first action of any United States soldiers, and who'd done their town immortal service by making it the first to fight for freedom.
Those same customers populate the pages of a ledger book kept by the tavern owner Rufus Merriam, who ran Buckman from 1794 to 1815. His colonial script - though of course by 1794, Massachusetts was no longer a colony - documents the daily needs and wants of his neighbors. And those neighbors seemed to want a lot of rum! But spirits were only a portion of what Merriam sold.
This handsome ledger, an invaluable artifact of the nation's earliest days and the lives of its most famous residents, was in danger of falling apart beyond the point of usefulness. Recently, it's been brought back to supple life by a benefactor who's devoted decades to halting the disappearance of our history.
Susan Bennett learned that Conservation Evening 2018, a fundraiser to save and restore four precious ledgers from Buckman and Munroe Tavern, had gotten most of the way, but not all the way, to raising sufficient money to restore all four. Bennett knows something about fundraising, and restoration. She's the quiet powerhouse who oversaw the renovations of Munroe and Buckman Taverns and Hancock-Clarke House, and the erasure of debt on the Lexington Depot during twelve impactful years as the Society's executive director.
Her love for Lexington and its history is obviously undiminished - and so is her awareness that it takes more than affection to preserve the past. That's why she stepped forward to help make up the difference between what was needed and what Conservation Evening raised. The deaccession and sale of an Edward Curtis print unrelated to Lexington got the ledger restoration project all the way across the finish line.
Earlier this month, Bennett got to see first handhand what her generosity had wrought, and what she'd bequeathed to future generations. She came to the new Archives and Research Center (ARC) at Munroe Tavern to meet Society archives manager Elizabeth Mubarek, who was carrying the newly-restored ledger in its custom-fitted box, and looked, in the sparkling sunshine of a New England morning, not unlike an Archives Elf hurrying a holiday present to an expectant recipient. "One less box to move," said a grinning Mubarek, who has worked to pack and prepare hundreds as the ARC is filled with four centuries of records and ephemera.
Bennett gave the ledger the once-over of a seasoned museum professional and pronounced herself pleased. "People in Lexington don't realize how incredible our collections are. And it's really important to spread the word about how incredible they are," she said. And touring the new state-of-the-art shelving and cabinetry, she said to Mubarek: "It's nice to see the Society so committed to the best level of care for its collections. You guys have taken it forward beautifully."
A report on the book's condition from the Northeast Document Conservation Center in Andover, which did the restoration work, describes the damage and then the steps that were taken to undo it. Even couched as it is in conservation-ese ("The full-leather tight-back binding was very worn, abraded, and torn"), it still reads like a short story with a happy ending ("Tears were mended with Japanese kozo paper.")
Mubarek puts it a bit more tellingly: "Parts of the cover were coming off in flakes, and it was moldy." But now, the pages turn easily and read clearly. The cover feels delicious, like deerskin - not that the staff is planning on allowing much touching.
Whichever description you go by, it's clear what Bennett's generosity has enabled: the freezing of time by NEDCC, or even the undoing of time - rolling back the damage of centuries. And she's done it in the name of a dear friend and fellow historian, Mary Keenan. Keenan's a stalwart of the Society who keeps the minutes of Board meetings and has pitched in at every turn over the years.
Her motivation, however, goes much deeper than public-spiritedness. She is a trained and experienced historian who taught at Lexington High School for many years, and the author of "In Haste, Julia." Published in 2011, "In Haste, Julia" is likely to see a new wave of interest this year. It tells the story of Julia Robbins Barrett, born in East Lexington and destined to travel New England pushing the causes of abolition and women's rights, including the right to vote. She, and Keenan, are sure to get their due again as the Society celebrates the centennial of women's suffrage in 2020.
As she stood with Bennett amidst the gleaming wood and metal shelving of the new ARC, Keenan grinned the grin of a teenager and recalled getting the call from Bennett that she'd be donating her $5,000 in Keenan's name. "I was flabbergasted," Keenan said. "Oh, how do I express it? I was just delighted."
Perhaps the greatest protection the project has afforded the ledgers, and the greatest benefit to researchers interested in what they can reveal, is that digitization of every page was part of the work. That means the book itself can rest securely in its specially-made box, in a locked cabinet at the Society's vastly-improved archives, while historians can peruse its details to their heart's content.
Keenan said the preservation and digitization will enable researchers to trace "the web of connections" among the Lexingtonians who commenced the Revolution War. "You can see exactly when the Revolution was occuring because of the changes in what people were buying," she said.
And, in typical Society fashion, Bennett and Keenan already seem to have turned their attention to the next job that needs doing. The Society needs funds to preserve other priceless items, just as the ledgers were put to rights. One suspects it won't be long before the two history lovers will be beating the bushes, looking for modern Lexingtonians to add their names to another ledger, this one electronic, recording the donations of those willing to answer the call of historical preservation.
-Guest Contributor Craig Sandler, Managing Partner, State House News Service
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.