Back in 1875, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote about the very first Christmas in America, exactly 400 years ago today. She went through all the pilgrims’ journals and did considerable research. Many of the things which caught her attention then are equally relevant to Americans today.
A new ‘promised land’
Pilgrims split from the church of England because it was resistant to reform. They didn’t like being forced to pray in private, so were determined to cross the wild Atlantic ocean to America where they could carve out a new “promised land.”
They expected to use two boats but ended up with one, the Mayflower. It wasn’t all that large considering there were 102 passengers, with a ships crew of 30, crossing an entire ocean. In the year 1620, they spent a grueling 10 weeks chasing the setting sun until they finally reached the shores of New England. They first dropped anchor near the tip of of Cape Cod, Massachusetts, on November 11, 1620.
The east coast of America was described as “an inexorable wall, against which forbidding and angry waves incessantly dash, and around which shifting winds continually rave.” As a consequence, “the approaches to safe harbors are few in number, intricate and difficult, requiring the skill of practiced pilots.” Cape Cod is one of those safe harbors. “But, as if with a pitying spirit of hospitality, old Cape Cod, breaking from the iron line of the coast, like a generous-hearted sailor intent on helpfulness, stretches an hundred miles outward, and, curving his sheltering arms in a protective circle, gives a noble harborage.” After 10 weeks at see they were happy to see it.
The sound of freedom
Fall was in the New England air. “The fir trees, the pine trees, and the bay, rejoice together in freedom, for as yet the axe has spared them; in the noble bay no shipping has found shelter; no voice or sound of civilized man has broken the sweet calm of the forest. The oak leaves, now turned to crimson and maroon by the autumn frosts, reflect themselves in flushes of color on the still waters.”
The colony’s official journal notes, “being now passed the vast ocean and sea of troubles, before their preparation unto further proceedings as to seek out a place for habitation, they fell down on their knees and blessed the Lord, the God of heaven, who had brought them over the vast and furious ocean, and delivered them from all perils and miseries thereof.” Reverend Brewster led a prayer and each family had their own songbook. They spent quite a while in song, rejoicing that they made it safely back to land in such a wondrous place.
America was a virgin wilderness full of savages. Women and children were forced to stay on board the ship anchored in the harbor while men braved lions and bears along the shore. “That day, so soon as we could, we set ashore some fifteen or sixteen men well armed, with some to fetch wood, for we had none left; as also to see what the land was and what inhabitants they could meet with.”
The bounty of the forest
“At even tide the boat came back laden to the water’s edge with the first gettings and givings from the new soil of America.” the expedition record notes, “At night our people returned” They didn’t find any people or inhabitants, but they loaded “their boat with juniper, which smelled very sweet and strong, and of which we burned for the most part while we were there.”
Christmas was already in the air and Captain Miles Standish brought back red holly berries and Christmas greens for the children to dress their cabins with. “Yea, my little maid, there is a brave lot of holly berries for thee to dress the cabin withal. We shall not want for Christmas greens here, though the houses and churches are yet to come,” he told little Love Winslow. Reverend Brewster agreed the new land was friendly. “Yea, Brother Miles,” said Elder Brewster, “the trees of the Lord are full of sap in this land, even the cedars of Lebanon, which he hath planted. It hath the look to me of a land which the Lord our God hath blessed.”
There were all kinds of good things in the forest but Elder Brewster had something else on his mind. “Know ye, brethren, what in this land smelleth sweetest to me?” said Elder Brewster. “It is the smell of liberty. The soil is free–no man hath claim thereon.”
Our first New England water
The pilgrims remained camped in the Mayflower, anchored in Cape Cod harbor through November while they scouted for a suitable place to build their new home. They held a picnic day, when “our women went on shore to wash and all to refresh themselves.” The wilderness was so wild that “the little spaniel of John Goodman was chased by two wolves, and was fain to take refuge between his master’s legs for shelter. Goodman had nothing in hand, says the journal, but took up a stick and threw at one of them and hit him, and they presently ran away.”
Amazingly the one thing they couldn’t find was fresh water, and they were almost out. “having marched through boughs and bushes and under hills and valleys which tore our very armor in pieces, yet could meet with no inhabitants nor find any fresh water which we greatly stood in need of.” They finally found some. “About ten o’clock we came into a deep valley full of brush, sweet gaile and long grass, through which we found little paths or tracks; and we saw there a deer and found springs of water, of which we were heartily glad, and sat us down and drunk our first New England water with as much delight as we ever drunk drink in all our lives.”
On the 15th of December they found a spot for their colony, weighed anchor, and sailed down the coast to Plymouth harbor. “This harbor is a bay greater than Cape Cod, compassed with a goodly land, and in the bay two fine islands uninhabited, wherein are nothing but woods, oaks, pines, walnuts, beeches, sassafras, vines, and other trees which we know not. The bay is a most hopeful place, innumerable stores of fowl, and excellent good; and it cannot but be of fish in their season. Skate, cod, and turbot, and herring we have tasted of–abundance of mussels (clams) the best we ever saw; and crabs and lobsters in their time, infinite.”
A shadow over Christmas holidays
On Saturday morning, the 23rd of December, “The little Mayflower lies swinging at her moorings in the harbor, while every man and boy who could use a tool has gone on shore to cut down and prepare timber for future houses.” Mary Winslow and Rose Standish “are sitting together on deck, fashioning garments, while little Love Winslow is playing at their feet with such toys as the new world afforded her–strings of acorns and scarlet holly- berries and some bird-claws and arrowheads and bright-colored ears of Indian corn, which Captain Miles Standish has brought home to her from one of their explorations.” The holiday is shadowed by another death, bringing the total to six by Christmas eve.
Because Christmas fell on a working Monday, it was celebrated on the 24th. They left lives of relative comfort in England for the privations of the wilderness, and wondered “How shall we keep it in these woods?” Old Margery answered just like at home, “men and boys going forth singing and bearing home branches of holly, and pine, and mistletoe for Christmas greens.” They laughed about forgetting to go “help dress the churches. God help the poor children, they will grow up in the wilderness and never see such brave sights as I have. They will never know what a church is, such as they are in old England.” That’s all right. “Oh, but, Margery,” said Mary Winslow, “we have a ‘better country’ than old England.”
Sunday morning the Pilgrims gathered on the ship. The weather was gray with low-lying snow clouds and “snowflakes hovering through the air.” There “was Christmas in the thoughts of every man and woman among them–albeit it was the Christmas of wanderers and exiles in a wilderness looking back to bright home-fires across stormy waters.”
The men brought back branches of green pine and holly which the women stuck about the ship. “Bits and snatches of Christmas carols were floating all around the ship, like land-birds blown far out to sea.” At worship service, “Elder Brewster read from the New Testament the whole story of the Nativity, and then gave a sort of Christmas homily from the words of St. Paul, in the eighth chapter of Romans, the sixth and seventh verses.”
Small beginning and great weakness
The point of the sermon was “Now, forasmuch as our Saviour Christ left His riches and throne in glory and came in weakness and poverty to this world, that he might work out a mighty salvation that shall be to all people, how can we better keep Christmas than to follow in his steps? We be a little company who have forsaken houses and lands and possessions, and come here unto the wilderness that we may prepare a resting-place whereto others shall come to reap what we shall sow. And to-morrow we shall keep our first Christmas, not in flesh-pleasing, and in reveling and in fullness of bread, but in small beginning and great weakness, as our Lord Christ kept it when He was born in a stable and lay in a manger.”
“To-morrow, God willing, we will all go forth to do good, honest Christian work, and begin the first house-building in this our New England–it may be roughly fashioned, but as good a house, I’ll warrant me, as our Lord Christ had on the Christmas Day we wot of. And let us not faint in heart because the wisdom of the world despiseth what we do.” Elder Brewster concluded, “let us hope that, like as great salvation to all people came out of small beginnings of Bethlehem, so the work which we shall begin to-morrow shall be for the good of many nations.”
The colony log notes, “Monday, the 25th, being Christmas Day, we went ashore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry; and so no man rested all that day. But towards night some, as they were at work, heard a noise of Indians, which caused us all to go to our muskets; but we heard no further, so we came aboard again, leaving some to keep guard. That night we had a sore storm of wind and rain. But at night the ship- master caused us to have some beer aboard.”