Christmas

DECEMBER night. The winter solstice turned four days ago, he remembers. So the days get longer, as his father used to say, but the cold gets stronger.

Plenty cold already, in fact. The first snow, sifting across the New England village green, puffs in flurries around the pool of lantern-light at his feet as he walks. Home soon: Around the corner from the Meeting House he'll see the parsonage.

Strange how, despite the bustle inside, it always looks dark. If he could afford to let her use more than a single candle on the $400 he is paid each year , he would. She loves light - as a good wife should, he thinks, making a mental note for Sunday's sermon.

''And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.'' Luke, Chapter 2: another good mother, and beautiful words. He had read them to his family that morning. Since then, he knew, she would have been at the hearth - stirring onion soup in the kettle hung from the trammel, turning the joint of meat in the reflector oven, tending the Dutch oven where the pie baked. The girls would have been peeling potatoes and carrots, tossing scraps into the wooden piggin. His son, between carrying in wood and water, will have waited impatiently: Game board under his arm, he'll have been after his sisters to play nine men's morris.

They deserve it, he thinks, recalling how they had labored over that wreath. Under their mother's instruction, they wove the grapevine ring, trimming it with hemlock boughs and halves of bright red pomegranates. She even put some sprigs of bittersweet and crisp autumn leaves on the windowsills. That, alas, caused some mumblings in the village.

Well, let them mumble. A village winter is a dark time: And blessed they surely were for the shining redness of cranberries and apples and the amber shades of corn. Bring it all inside. Let the beams hang with the riches of the world's color. She loves color, too, he thought, making another note.m

An old New England Christmas? Certainly. There's only one hitch. When the parson arrived home that Christmas day in 1830, the Meeting House on the hill would have remained dark. There was no Christmas service - none at all. In the New England Congregational Church, Christmas was not a holiday.

If we could have heard his sermon the next Sunday, it might have touched on Christmas. But only, perhaps, to reaffirm the wisdom of his Puritan forefathers , who had fled what they thought of as the ''pagan'' ceremonies of the Church of England.

Only the Sabbath, they taught, was mentioned as a day of worship in the Bible. Christmas, like Easter and the saints' days, was a business day in early New England. On Christmas Day in 1621, Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony rebuked a group of recent arrivals who told him that ''it went against their consciences to work.'' As late as 1830, when a mill agent in Mansfield, Mass., rang his bell as usual at 6:05 on Christmas morning, he noted that ''all hands'' showed up.

There were holidays, of course, but of national rather than scriptural origin. Thanksgiving was the occasion (as Christmas is today) for family get-togethers. And the Fourth of July (Independence Day) was filled with cannon firings and speechmaking.

But the refusal to celebrate Christmas persisted past the middle of the 19th century - well after the Congregational Church (which, as the state church of Massachusetts, had been funded by the legislature) was separated from the commonwealth in 1834.

Before then, Episcopalians were the foremost celebrants of New England Christmas. And their services held a fascination even for the Puritans. During her girlhood in a Congregational parsonage in Litchfield, Conn., Harriet Beecher Stowe once visited an Episcopal church on Christmas Eve - decorated with evergreen boughs, candles, and ''a great gold star.'' The service, she later wrote, was ''sweet and beautiful,'' making the onlooker ''regret that the Church of England had ever expelled the Puritan leaders from an inheritance of such lovely possibilities.''

Separation from that ''inheritance,'' however, did not lead the Puritans to dispense with seasonal ornamentation. Winter decoration arose, at first, simply out of a need to store food indoors. On a sideboard they piled apples in pyramids. Squash, pumpkin, apple, and pear slices, threaded on twine, would be festooned from beams to dry beside what we now call ''Indian'' corn. Holly, rose hips, and crab apples might be brought indoors - less for use than for decoration. And (especially if company were expected) the rooms might be decorated with wreaths and swags of evergreens, laced with dried flowers or bright-colored ribbons. Color? Yes, indeed - the New England villagers, contrary to the popular notion of their black-and-white austerity, had a love of color that shows up in wallpapers, ribbons, and fabrics. But it was not, in 1830, Christmas color.

It took another decade, at least, before the New England villages began to follow the fashions of Boston and New York, where Christmas decorations had become the vogue. Clement Moore had written his famous ''Visit from Saint Nicholas'' ('' 'Twas the night before Christmas'') in 1822. In 1856 Christmas became a legal holiday in New England. Somewhere in the latter half of the century, too, the Christmas tree arrived in New England.

By then, the ''old New England Christmas'' was well launched - a tradition that lasts down to our day.

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