Sights, Sounds Culled from Christmas Past

History and Landscape
Published December 26, 1996

Sights, Sounds Culled from Christmas Past

| Published December 26, 1996

Christmas tree in Military Park, 1947. The Newark Public Library

If we were still part of Great Britain or associated with the Commonwealth, today we would probably be celebrating Boxing Day, and might as a result be knocking on the door of friends, relations, and neighbors to exchange presents. With the American Revolutionary War 200 years ago, all that ended.

Long before the Revolution, Christmas was observed by the Newark Puritans who worshipped at Old First Church. It was a far different celebration from today or even those of our Victorian ancestors. One only needs to remember that Newark was one of the strictest of Calvinist communities—one that had originated in the ultra-conservative New Haven Colony. In England, as well as other parts of colonial America, the holiday was often abused, its meaning lost, and its religious significance downgraded. Unlike Yuletide celebrations in Cavalier Virginia, the Dutch Christmases of Bergen County, the Swedish celebrations in New Jersey's Delaware region, or the Catholic colony of Lord Baltimore in Maryland, our local Puritan forefathers took a dour look at celebrating the Lord's birthday.

Not that little attention was paid to the event, but it was deliberately designed to be austere and devoid of any 'frivolous' traditions or excesses now associated with the holiday. For Newark's founders there were no Christmas trees, holly branches, Yuletide logs, Christmas turkeys, songs, dances, steaming punch, and certainly not the exchange of presents. Instead, the Puritans relied upon the Bible for knowledge, and the gun for protection. A primitive and hard existence dictated by an equally demanding environment. 'No one but the very young had time to do anything but work … there was in fact little time for holidays or merrymaking' of any type.

The gradual change in Newark's celebrations of Christmas occurred with the emergence of Trinity Church in the 1740s. You remember the incident involving Col. Josiah Ogden, who left church on a Sunday afternoon to harvest his wheat crop and was expelled from the congregation, and the bringing of the Church of England to Newark to establish Trinity Church? Well, with the breaking of the theological hold of Old First over Newark's political life, came the influx of new ideas, traditions, and even a more liberal way of life. In 1755 there was reference to an 'assembly' at the Trinity Church for a Christmas prayer service, and later other Newark churches began to celebrate in the same manner. New Jersey's most celebrated reference to the holiday occurred in 1776 during Washington's retreat, when references were made to merrymaking by Hessian soldiers who seemingly ignored General Washington's military moves along the Delaware River and his eventual American Christmas Eve victory.

Today's Christmas celebrations have come about gradually as a result of more than a century of change. Christmas has borrowed from many national groups as well as individuals. From the Germans we took the Christmas tree, from the Irish we borrowed the mass, from the Dutch we copied Saint Nicklass or St. Nicholas. German pfeffernusse, Irish songs, and English Yule logs were all to contribute to the celebration of a new religious as well as a secular holiday. Not only did local events help shape today's Christmas celebration, those of the region and the nation also left their imprint. In 1809, Washington Irving's Knickerbocker stories of Christmas set the stage for a Dutch Christmastide, and in 1823, in neighboring New York, Clement C. Moore's narrative, 'A Visit from St. Nicholas, ' did more to establish the setting for a modern Christmas than any other volume in holiday literature. From this warm and cheerful story, many of our modern concepts of Christmas have emerged. Just a few miles to the west of Newark, in Morristown, famed 19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast portrayed a Santa Claus that many of us think of as the 'real' Santa Claus for Harper's Magazine in 1863 and 1866. By combining the visual image of Nast's Santa Claus and Clement Moore's great lines, 'Twas the night before Christmas, ' the stage was now set for our modern-day holiday season.

Here in Newark, the evolution of a modern Christmas was noted in the early 1830s with a Christmas lottery and turkey shoots. But it was in church that the most important events took place, such as great musical concerts first of sacred, and later secular music. Newark's Handel and Haydn Society was well-known for many years. In England, Prince Albert had just introduced the Christmas tree to Windsor and soon the rest of Britain, America, New Jersey and Newark were following the new tradition. The use of evergreen interior decorations was appearing in the great Broad Street churches, and the commercial export of freshly cut trees from New Jersey was soon in demand in New York City. St. Matthew's German Episcopal Church, under the sponsorship of Rev. Mr. Rose, gave out presents around the church Christmas tree, 'according to an old Saxon custom.' In the same year, the Ladies Sewing Circle Auxiliary of the Newark Orphan Asylum Association had a tree with gifts for the orphans. 'This was probably the first Christmas tree in Newark except for the small trees found in the homes of the German and Swiss settlers on the Hill (Clinton Hill Section).' The year 1859 was an especially important date in our Christmas holiday calendar, for it was the year that Charles Dickens completed 'A Christmas Carol' and the last happy holiday before the fear and eventual outbreak of the terrible American Civil War in 1861. As Newark's Christmas spirit seemed to reach a crescendo by the end of the 1850s, the Dickensian spirit was felt everywhere—Scrooge, the Cratchit family, and all the rest seemed to blend with the need and desire for happy times at Christmas. The Sundav School Times carried Christmas stories for the first time; the Episcopal, Catholic, and German downtown churches were decorated with greens; the Central Presbyterian Church held a Christmas fair; and a thousand children attended a church service at St. John's Church. According to John T. Cunningham 'One would not have believed that possible on Christmas Eve in downtown Newark. Crowds thronged the streets and swept through its stores like a conquering army. Outside, boys hawked the fir trees and evergreen boughs cut from the Orange Mountains or dragged from the cedar swamps in the Meadows. Shoppers carried lanterns, and in some cases flaming pine knots, to light the way.' Today, we hold Christmas and its meaning close to our hearts, and celebrate it much the same way as we have done during the past 135 years.

Chanukah, the great weeklong Jewish Festival of Lights, began on Friday, December 6 this year, commemorating the rededication of the Temple of Jerusalem, which was reconquered by Judas Maccabaeus in 165 B.C. after the Syrian rule of King Antiochus IV. The holiday is celebrated by lighting of candles for eight successive sundowns, thus giving it the name, the Festival of Lights. Over the centuries the victory of the Jewish nation has been remembered with varying degrees of intensity. Today, menorahs are found throughout the state, as well as on the steps of Newark City Hall. According to Warren Grover, President of the Jewish Historical Society of MetroWest, the holiday has been celebrated in Newark since the 19th century. However, with the advent of Nazism in the 1930s, the Holocaust and World War II, and then the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, Chanukah has become the symbol of Jewish resilience in the face of adversity.

Thirty years ago, a new December holiday was originated by West Coast history professor Maulana Karenga to celebrate 'the first fruits of the harvest and emphasize America's rich African-American heritage.' The event has been observed here in Newark from the very beginning with pre-Kwanzaa events held at the Newark Public Library and Newark librarian James Brown involved in the early days of the celebration. The holiday is based upon seven ideas which are designed to benefit the community: unity (umoja); self-determination (kujichagulia), collective work and responsibility (ujima); cooperative economics (ujamaa); purpose (nia); creativity (kuumba); and faith (imani). This year's Pre-Kwanzaa celebration at the Newark Public Library included the Afro-One Dance, Drama, and Drum Theatre, Inc. with the keynote address by Dr. Patricia Reid-Merritt, who spoke on 'Embracing Our Heritage, Embracing Ourselves: Strengthening the African-American Family and Community.' 'Working together, sharing, caring, and being good to one another is all part of this splendid new holiday,' according to Catherine Lenix-Hooker, executive director of the Krueger-Scott Mansion. Celeste Bateman, director of the Newark Recreation/Cultural Affairs Division, describes the ritual of Kwanzaa as 'the fruits of our labors … The wonderful thing about Kwanzaa is that it transcends religious affiliations and politics. Celebrate Kwanzaa with your family and friends. Harambee! (Meaning: Let's pull together.)' Whether your holiday is greeted by Merry Christmas, Happy Chanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, or Season's Greetings, may it be blessed, joyous, rewarding and jolly!