Wednesday, December 15, 2010

A Child's Yankee Christmas in Connecticut

by Andy Lang

On the first Christmas in New England, Indians arrived at the doors of the Pilgrims’ rustic meeting house bearing barrels of a spiritous liquor distilled from cranberries and pine needles. They found the church doors locked, and the entire community huddled inside their homes. Christmas, their ministers had told them, was a “paganish Mummerie of indecent Revells and the Werke of Antichrist, fit only for the deluded Hereticks of the Romish Persuasion.” So the Pilgrims spent the entire day reading their Bibles and petitioning God to cast the Pope of Rome into the Lake of Fire. Disappointed, the Indians returned to their villages, opened their gifts and drank toasts to the Corn God.

It was not a propitious beginning for a region whose Christmas traditions were later immortalized by Bing Crosby and the legions of New Yorkers who swarmed every December into towns and villages across Connecticut to experience an “authentic New England Christmas.” But by the end of the 1600s, the Puritans had reluctantly legalized the holiday, and an American classic was born.

Superficially, the traditional Christmas in New England resembled the familiar holiday celebrated everywhere in North America. But in fact, its customs had a radically different origin in the unique social and religious history of the region. Although today Christmas has been commercialized in New England as everywhere else, I still remember from my childhood in the 1950s the somewhat eccentric but heart-warming family rituals of a real “Yankee Christmas in Connecticut.” As a high school student, while these memories were still fresh, I wrote the following prize-winning essay for the Future Patriotic Journalists contest sponsored by the Legion of Sons of Veterans of Elective Foreign Surgery.

We children always knew Christmas was near when our teachers released us early from school one crisp December day and led us to the village green where we were allowed to paint the faces of the prisoners shackled in the community's stocks. Before long, the lawn between the Meeting House and the Grange was a magical landscape of bright colors!

But this was not the only splash of Christmas color: in fact, every fir tree was decorated with bright red ornaments, all resembling the letter “A.” The origin of this custom may surprise you. You see, the day before Christmas was the only day of the year when the Women Caught in Adultery, who had been banished to the wilderness, were allowed to return. Before they passed through the village gates, however, they were required to hang their scarlet letters on nearby trees—the first “Christmas trees” in New England. The Adulterous Women then were led in procession to the Meeting House where the minister harangued them for several hours about the Lake of Fire.

As Christmas Eve approached, the children of the village looked forward to one of our favorite customs of the season: the Winnowing of the Wiccans. (The tradition was originally called the Winnowing of the Witches, but the gender-inclusive term was substituted after passage of the Equal Repression Amendment by Connecticut’s General Assembly.)

Suspected wiccans (usually anybody who had a cat) were thrown into the river to determine their guilt or innocence. If they floated, they were proven to be servants of the devil and were summarily banished into the wilderness. But if they sank beneath the frigid waters, they were exonerated, and a special prayer was said in their memory. Our parents indulgently allowed us to jeer at the accused: this was the origin of the expression “Christmas Jeer.”

You can hardly imagine the excitement we children felt as we woke early on Christmas morn. Like children anywhere else, we rushed downstairs to see what was lying beneath the Christmas tree! Now, Christmas gift-giving in New England was a very different concept than in the rest of the country. That was primarily because we didn’t have a “Santa Claus.” Our minister told us that “Santa” was “an irreverent Invention of the deluded Dutch” inspired by “the fleshly Flummery of New Amsterdam.” But we didn’t feel deprived, because we had something much better: “Rant o’ Flaws.”

“Ranta” was a jolly symbol of the season. During most of the year, our parents told us, Ranta lived in the North Pole with his industrious helpers (called “deacons”) compiling lists of all the sins committed by children all over the world. Then, during the hectic shopping days before Christmas, Ranta appeared in our village—a cadaverous figure dressed in a long black gown, black skullcap and black silk stockings. How we cheered as he stalked through the village, fixing each of us in his accusing stare! One by one we were summoned by Ranta’s bony, pointing finger to climb up and sit on his skinny knee, there to be enraptured by his vivid stories about Jesus casting sinners into the Lake of Fire.

On Christmas eve, while we slept snug and secure in our beds, Ranta would sneak down the chimney and carry off the gifts our parents had laid out the night before. That was, in any case, how our parents explained the mysterious non-appearance of our gifts underneath the tree. But we had a wonderful time anyway as they described the Last Judgment Fire and Brimstone Chemistry Set, the Sorrowful Barbie Wailing at the Foot of the Cross, and all the other exciting presents they had bought for us!

In northern New England, children would wake on Christmas morn to find the fields outside covered in a wonderful blanket of fresh snow. These “White Christmases” were rare in the warmer climate of southern Connecticut, but we never felt deprived. We looked forward every year to the impenetrably thick fog that would roll in from Long Island Sound and immerse the village in a suffocating gloom pierced only by the laughter of children and the groaning of prisoners shackled in the village green. The fog was rank with the sulphurous smell of “rotten eggs” emanating from the polluted clam beds outside of town, so we called it a “Christmas Egg Fog.”

You can imagine our excitement as we hurriedly put on our buckled shoes and wide-brimmed hats and ran outside to play in the fog. But before long our parents would emerge and we would walk together as a family to the Meeting House. There, yet another treat was in store! The minister, no doubt exhausted by his all-night harangue of the Women Caught in Adultery, shortened his sermon from seven to only six hours! By the time we left church at three o’clock in the afternoon, it seemed as if hardly any time had passed. Still bursting with energy, we rushed back home eagerly anticipating our Christmas Dinner!

We always ate hearty meals in New England: my mother’s fried turkey wattle with lard drippings was famous throughout the county. But the Christmas feast was something special. At the center of the table was, of course, the steamed Christmas Cod garnished with stems and twigs. Plates piled high with boiled cabbage, seemingly endless stacks of duck jerky and bowls of savory nettle soup completed the festive scene. And yet, as we devoured the meal, we knew the best was yet to come: the special Christmas dessert, served only once a year, of cranberry and muskrat pudding!

Soon our plates were piled high with discarded cranberry pits and muskrat bones. But the fun didn’t stop there! The child who found the longest muskrat tail could look forward to a special treat: the privilege of leading the other children through the village for the final tradition of an old-fashioned Yankee Christmas—the Ridiculing of the Religious Minorities!

Originally called the Browbeating of the Baptists, who were once the only religious minority in our village, by the 1950s we had a variety of diverse minorities to ridicule. In addition to the Browbeating of the Baptists, there was also the Aggravating of the Agnostics, the Bullying of the Buddhists, the Character Assassinating of the Charismatics, the Confusing of the Confucians, the Eschewing of the Episcopalians (also known as the Avoiding of the Anglicans), the Harrowing of the Hebrews, the Mooning of the Muslims, the Leg-Pulling of the Latter Day Saints, the Loathing of the Lutherans, the Nagging of the Nazarenes, the Pummelling of the Papists, the Shunning of the Schwenkfelders, and so forth.

Finally, after an exhausting day of Christmas fun, we were ready for bed. We could hardly keep our eyes open as the family knelt down for the customary three hours of night prayers. After singing all 150 psalms, we prayed to God to keep mommy and daddy safe and to cast the Pope of Rome into the Lake of Fire. Then we climbed into bed, and almost immediately sleep stole across our young faces. We dreamed of painted prisoners and scarlet letters, of floating witches and sulphurous fogs, of cranberries and muskrat tails, and another magical Christmas was past!


At 11:17 AM, Anonymous Pilgrim Doug said...

Andy your heartwarming story has brought extra depth to our celebration of Christmas. I well remember the joys of Mugging the Moravians and Poking the Presbyterians. Your vivid recollections have warmed the very cockles of my heart.

At 12:22 PM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

Doug, if can brighten the day of just one little child, then it was all worth it.

At 11:26 PM, Blogger Richard L. Floyd said...

So glad to see your blog is back! I almost took you off my blogroll for inactivity, but glad I didn't.

And thank you for the heartwarming memories. New England Puritanism is so often misrepresented as unappreciative of irony. I'm glad somebody finally got it right. When your current gig ends, I'm sure Currier and Ives needs a sales rep.

At 10:21 PM, Blogger Matt said...

Well, someone comes back with a roar! Sitting here in cold-but-bare Cheshire, you've got my mouth watering for that duck jerky, just a week hence. Thanks, Andy, for the memories.

At 10:59 PM, Anonymous jane pelz said...

Three hundred and seventy-five years in New England and I dishonor my family by moving to New Mexico. I keep telling people here that we don't really celebrate Christmas. OK. one present each and a nice meal and spending the day together playing WII and reading verses from the New English Bible in between games. I keep telling my New Mexican friends that Thanksgiving is our high holy day and that i make two turkeys and eleven side dishes, five pies and serve twenty bottles of wine and a couple of handles of hard liquor. But they all just stare blankly at me when I say this. Of course Hispanic people settled in New Mexico in 1580. So, they don't see what our fuss is about. :-)

At 9:12 AM, Blogger Andy Lang said...

Bottles of wine, Jane? I thought Congregationalists only served wine in boxes. :-)

Matt, I'm actually going to be staying with my sister (Mary Elizabeth Lang and her husband, Bruce) in Cheshire the days after Christmas. We've a family reunion at their home on Sunday. Duck jerky and savory nettle soup, alas, will not be served. That's because they're Episcopalians.

At 8:36 PM, Blogger landsdown44 said...

Andy, may I suggest a title, "sarcasm gone wild ", paraphrasing another great American tradition.


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