Santa and the Puritans by Julia Spencer-Fleming

Santa arriving in Camden. He likes to come by boat when he visits Maine.

By this point, you may already have heard the news story about the second grade teacher in Nanuet, NY, who, presenting a geography lesson about the Arctic, decided to tell her entire class of second graders that there is no Santa. Needless to say, the follow-up story was about her personally calling the enraged parents of her students to apologize. These things do happen – although usually it’s that know-it-all third grader on the bus who gives you the “Do you know who really brings your presents?” speech. What I found alarming, reading the comments to the news item and in the blogs covering it, was the Santa-hatin’ going on. There were pearl-clutching “How can you LIE to the CHILDREN” types, and frothing evangelicals and atheists conflating belief in Santa with faith in God, and stick-dry rationalists who didn’t

Santa enjoys a little slope time at Sunday River.

want kids taught anything that wasn’t verifiably true, and Very Socially Concerned people who pointed out that Santa unjustly left poor kids just a few presents and rich kids a truckload and what kind of lesson was THAT to send to the next generation?

“Dudes,” I wanted to say. (When I’m alone at home I frequently talk like a 90s era surfer.) “Haven’t you ever heard of magic? Metaphor? Fiction? Folklore? Chill out.”

 

Santa, Mrs. Claus, and Cinnamon the Elf. They came to breakfast at my daughter's elementary school!

The original New Englanders would have recognized those commenters. The first Puritan settlers of Massachusetts (and remember, as much as we like to now deny it, Maine was a part of Massachusetts until 1820) banned Christmas outright. They deemed it a vain, popish affectation, a day with no scriptural basis, and they despised the drinking, sports, dancing and gambling that comprised the festivities in the in the 17th century. (That whole caroling, present-giving, home-and-hearth based holiday didn’t become common for another two hundred years.)

Under pressure from the royal government, the Massachusetts colony repealed the Christmas ban in 1681, but the New Englanders, a stiff-necked lot if ever there was one, kept up a ferocious disapproval of the holiday. Decorated houses were looked upon with all the shock and outrage a contemporary

Santa and Mrs. Claus at the Oxford Hills Chamber of Commerce Christmas Parade in Norway. That's Norway, Maine.

Homeowners association would give to an outdoor laundry line strung with blinking multicolor lights. Schools were open on Christmas day, and shops attempting to close (perhaps for a little Fezziwig-style party in the back room) were fined.

Throughout the eighteenth century, unregenerate Anglicans in Virginia put up pineapples and feasted their neighbors after hunting to the hounds and the bound-for-hell Catholics in Maryland toasted the season with spiced wine and held public dances to celebrate. New Englanders held firm against such pagan rituals. But, as Ebenezer Scrooge observed, however much you might like to bury Christmas with a stake of holly in its heart, the holiday is remarkably

The US Coast Gurad gives Santa a hand in the Rockland Harbor. Thanks, Coasties!

hard to kill. In the early nineteenth century, Christmas crept north, capturing the formerly non-observant Quakers of Pennsylvania and converting the Calvinist Dutch and Scots of New York into carol-singing, party-loving holiday goers. When Sinterklaas or Kris Kingle began to make his appearance on American shores, New Englanders saw right through the jolly old elf – and determined he was the anti-Christ.

But even Mainers can’t resist the fruitcakes and fir trees forever. In 1870, Christmas was made a national holiday, and the rise of the Victorian ideal – family centered, home-honoring, sentimental – made even stony New England hearts grow three sizes. Or perhaps the practical New England merchants

My youngest and I rode the Polar Express at the Maine Narrow Gauge Railway in Portland a couple years ago. When Santa came aboard at the "North Pole" it was magical.

realized there was good money to be made in December? At any rate, after two hundred and fifty years, Christmas finally caught on in Maine and Massachusetts.

 

 

Santa Claus? Despite the ongoing frowns of pearl-clutchers and rationalists, he’s in New England to stay. There’s no better answer to Puritans old and new than the answer Francis P. Church gave to Virginia O’Hanlon:

You tear apart the baby’s rattle and see what makes the noise inside, but there is a veil covering the unseen world which not the strongest man, nor even the united strength of all the strongest men that ever lived could tear apart. Only faith, poetry, love, romance, can push aside that curtain and view and picture the supernal beauty and glory beyond. Is it all real? Ah, Virginia, in all this world there is nothing else real and abiding.

No Santa Claus! Thank God! he lives and lives forever. A thousand years from now, Virginia, nay 10 times 10,000 years from now, he will continue to make glad the heart of childhood.

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5 Responses to Santa and the Puritans by Julia Spencer-Fleming

  1. Kat says:

    The teacher should have been fired for such foolishness. She was not teaching teenagers. Who is anyone to deny the rights of childhood to any child? As Dumbledore will never truly leave dear Hogwarts, Santa will live so long as someone in the world believes in him. As long as this writer lives, then there will one who does. My obituary will leave behind the contact information for my replacement.

  2. Lea Wait says:

    And then, of course, here in Maine (and now shared with 45 Coast Guard families and stations as far south as Long Island, New York) there is the Flying Santa …. who visits lighthouses. It started in 1929. Captain Willam Wincapaw, an early Maine aviator who ferried injured or sick residents of Maine islands to hospitals on the mainland and often depended on the beams from lighthouses as navigation tools in bad weather, decided to load his plane with packaes of things hard come by for lighthouse stations: magazines, candy, gum, coffee, and small toys for the children. He dropped those packages from his plane at lighthouses in the Rockland area. Words spread, and the next year he gifted more lighthouse families. Today the Friends of Flying Santa supports the flights; for more information, see http://www.www.flyingsanta.com
    Merry Christmas, Julia! Lea

  3. x-mas is just another bs commercial holiday, but I enjoy some of the music, lights, & food!

  4. Attila the Blond says:

    My, nearly 40, daughter sometimes jokingly tries to shame me about “lying” to her when she was little re Santa and that bunny in spring. But I know it is an important lesson for kids to learn early not to believe everything they are told, no matter who it is does the telling. Well, at least that is my rationalization.

    Since she has always been good at critical thinking and thinking for herself, verifying and weighing facts, I count it as a lesson well learned. She really doesn’t know if I am bluffing about my long ago motives or not.

    Score one for mom.

  5. Vicki Doudera says:

    Attila, I have never thought of it that way! Love your rationalizing.

    We need our myths and legends. Merry Christmas and ho, ho, ho!

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