Happy Holidays – In Holliston

Today, our calendars are filled with many holidays and even Chase’s Calendar of Events assigns something to commemorate every day of the year.  By the way, January 2022, according to Chase, is “officially” Be Kind to Food Servers Month, Oatmeal Month, Rising Star Month – worldwide – and Book Blitz Month, all worthy to be celebrated.  But it wasn’t always like that.

Once upon a time, holidays and days for commemoration of one thing or another, were sparsely scattered upon the calendar, and even fewer were “official” holidays proclaimed by such august bodies as the Great and General Court of Massachusetts. After all, the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted a law in 1659 called “Penalty for Keeping Christmas,” and Christmas, called “Foolstide” by the detractors, blamed the holiday on pagans and Catholics. They instead set aside the day for “fasting and humiliation” – and arrest, apparently – activities that seemed like Puritan obsessions. 

But, of course, you can’t keep a good holiday illegal. Celebrations were carried on behind closed doors, and well into the 1800s businesses and schools in Massachusetts remained open on December 25 while many churches stayed closed. Go figure. Not until 1856 did Christmas finally become a public holiday in Massachusetts.  In 1858, when the Holliston Bank posted its new business hours. New Year’s Day was not mentioned as a bank holiday. No parties, no reveling on the eve? Was it just another day on the calendar? At least as far as the Holliston Bank was concerned, it was just another day of work for them. What went on behind or outside of closed doors was another story altogether.

“The advent of the New Year has been—from time immemorial—kept as a day of rejoicing. By the Greeks it was a solemn festival; by the Romans one of feasting and congratulation.  Throughout Christendom it is kept as a holiday. Bells are rung at midnight to celebrate the exit of the old, and the advent of the new year.

“The commencement of the year has at different times been assigned to the 25th of December or Christmas Day, the first day of January or the day of circumcision, and the 25th of March or Easter day, commemorative of the Resurrection.” – Pittsfield Berkshire County Eagle, December 31, 1858.

Day of Circumcision??? Well, you can look up that story via Google, but it is rather interesting that January 1 was finally settled upon as the official, accepted, first day of the year. The Gregorian calendar replaced the Julian calendar in 1752, but up to that year, the new year began on March 25, nearer to the spring – also known as the vernal – equinox which does seem to be a logical time to begin a new year. Dates before that year still confuse and confound modern-day historians, and historical notes often write the day with a slash – 1752/53. Take, for instance, the dates on gravestones even here in Holliston that pre-date the change. The Great Sickness occurred here in January and February 1752.  The Gregorian calendar went into effect later in 1753, when eleven days were dropped from the month of September. 

Thanksgiving Day was declared a national holiday in 1870. Massachusetts was ahead of the times and had many days of thanksgiving long before the year that made it a national holiday.

Fourth of July became a holiday right from the start. A day in summer, where people gathered for picnics, parties, parades, fireworks, games, military displays, flag waving and the inevitable long political and patriotic speeches. We should also be thankful that the Declaration of Independence was not signed in February.

What about Commencement Day at Harvard University? Why would that day end up being one of the few holidays celebrated in Massachusetts – along with Training Day and Election Day – not a bad idea as we consider whether the first Tuesday in November be once again a holiday.  We can look to the mindset of the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Election, Commencement and Training Days were their only, sort of, holy days – as they kept no saint days. Their deep respect for education was obvious. After 1730, Commencement Day was set for a Friday so that there would be enough time for “frolicking” over Saturday – and certainly be finished by Saturday evening as the Puritan Sabbath began at sundown. In Holliston, one of the friction points between the establishment and the arriving Irish immigrants in the 19th century was over the Saturday night “frivolities” of the new immigrants.

What about “Fast” on the bank holiday calendar? Here was a holiday popular in New England, and as Governor Nathaniel Banks explained in 1859: “It is a custom which our forefathers instituted as a substitute for the Lenten season of the then national church, and in accordance with what had been practiced from the earliest period. Its object was a beneficent one – to nurture the religious element – to quicken that sense of dependence which man ought to feel on his Maker – to strengthen the barriers against evil – to encourage good resolutions – to purify the heart. The Annual Fast, for such purposes, dates from the commencement of our colony, and progress towards perfection has not been so complete as to warrant any relaxation from observances that tend to strengthen virtue and infuse life into religion.”

Among the features of Fast Day, 1859, was an address by the Honorable Robert C. Winthrop (a notably noble Puritan descendant) at the Music Hall. This famed orator of that era, certainly a proper person to speak on Fast Day, encouraging no doubt, the puritanical – and legally mandated – obligations of fasting, humiliation and prayer.

And yet by 1859, cracks had already begun to appear in the Fast Day façade. Soon, the citizens of Boston, Massachusetts, and New England, changed what Fast Day came to signify. Fast Day was seen as the “holiday” to counterbalance the joyfulness and frivolity of Thanksgiving and Christmas. Such sobering words from Governor Banks surely set the mood. Fast Day was traditionally the first Thursday in April, a time when the first signs of Spring approached, and the people were looking once again to enjoy outside activities. With luck, that first Thursday of April might be a day where the sun was a little warmer, grass was beginning to grow, birds returned from the southland, the sun was a little higher in the sky as it had just passed the equinox, and sometimes all of that happened! What was a New Englander to do? Fast? Feel humiliated? And pray more than every Sunday?

Life changes along with the seasons. Soon, Fast Day soon was called, in jest of course, “Farce Day.” Instead of attending another day in church listening to another gloomy or humiliating sermon, or a prayerful lecture in the Music Hall without uplifting songs, people instead began to enjoy Fast Day as a chance to enjoy an early springtime day with the hope for more good weather coming soon. Another activity was gaining popularity at the same time: baseball. The game’s popularity spread throughout New England faster than an April shower, and Fast Day soon opened with more people gravitating to the places where baseball games were played than to the pews of churches, and Fast Day became Boston’s original opening day for baseball. Ball games had also been a tradition at Easter as a springtime ritual in Europe, and a game of ball also became a springtime ritual in New England. Henry David Thoreau mentioned Fast Day in his diary in 1856: “I associate this day, when I can remember it, with games of base-ball played over beyond the hills in the russet fields toward Sleepy Hollow, where the snow was just melted and dried up.” 

Debate over the abolishment of Fast Day began in earnest in 1893 when only a shadow of the original intent of the holiday remained. The Boston Journal of February 8, 1893, said that the Massachusetts governors “for years had been in effect the umpire in the national game, and when he set the date of Fast Day he said in effect: ‘Play ball!’ Debate in the Great and General Court began in 1893 with abolitionists battling the defenders of the old tradition. Neither side won that year and the battle continued into 1894, when the faction calling for abolishment won out. But this posed a problem as the legislature soon found out: no one wanted to lose a holiday once that day had become a welcome day off from work. A replacement needed to be found and a new, practical reason for that day was required.

Massachusetts was rid of Fast Day at last, and some other formal means of proclaiming the baseball season had to be found. The 19th day of April, a day about two weeks later in the season when fans and players hoped for warmer weather, was a perfect replacement and fulfilled the proper requirement with historic value. The day commemorated the Battle of Lexington and Concord. The day also marked the shedding of first blood by the soldiers of Massachusetts when they changed trains in Baltimore on their way to defend Washington, D.C. in 1861 – a day still vividly remembered in 1893 – and for good measure, was also the day Governor Andros was overthrown and placed under house arrest by the Boston militia in 1689. For many years ahead, April 19 became the new official Opening Day for baseball in Boston. And still, today, a baseball game is commenced at 11 AM on Patriots Day, the same hour that the lectures and church services promoting fasting, humiliation and prayer were held on Fast Day. And perhaps, Red Sox fans and players, and marathon participants, occasionally find fasting, humiliation and prayer useful rituals as they observe the holiday in Boston – on whichever day in April is declared Patriots Day.

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Joanne Hulbert

1 Comment

  1. Henry Dellicker on December 26, 2021 at 11:03 am

    Thank you, Joanne, for such complete and interesting information. Jackie and I often wonder how our ancestors survived through the growth of the colony and state of Massachusetts.

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