Feasting and Fasting in Puritan New England

thanksgivingThe familiar story of the First Thanksgiving in Plymouth Colony was created in the 19th century and the myth is so charming we cling to it even though we know it’s a distortion of the historical facts. While the New England colonists occasionally celebrated days of thanksgiving, fast days were more common.

These days, we often think of fasting – if we think of it at all – as a way of shedding pounds gained through too much feasting. But for the Puritans, fasting was always a religious observance, with the focus was on God, not their own waistlines.

Puritans held fasts or “solemn days of humiliation” to pray for God’s mercy and help. They prayed about everything from bad weather, poor harvests and sickness, to military img_0936defeats and international tensions. On fast days no food was eaten from sundown to sundown. Daily work was set aside and people gathered at the meetinghouse to hear a jeremiad, a sermon lamenting the reasons for God’s displeasure such as greed, pride, laziness, or sensuality. After worship they were expected to spend the rest of the day in sober reflection on the problem. Sometimes, such as after King Philip’s War, a day of fasting was followed by a day of thanksgiving.

The notebook of the Reverend John Fiske of Wenham in Massachusetts Bay Colony provides a window into some Puritan fasts in the 1600s:

Oct. 19, 1644 – A solemn day of humiliation kept regarding the dominance of the Presbyterian faction in England.

Jan. 2, 1645 – A solemn day of humiliation kept because of “the extremity of the season,” and concern for the church and town.

Jan. 1, 1647 – A fast due to “the affliction of sickness and death of some in this town,” that God’s would stay his hand from “this day hence.”

Feb. 20, 1648 – A colony-wide fast by order of the General Court [the governing body of the Colony] for England, the West Indies and Massachusetts Bay Colony.

April 15, 1648 – A day of humiliation for a member who had resisted the church’s discipline.

Feb. 28, 1661 – A “day of humiliation before the scriptures” to seek reconciliation with everyone in the church.

Not many of us want to go back to Puritan days. We’d have a hard time dealing with the restrictions and rigidity of their lifestyle. But maybe we’ve discarded some of their practices at a cost. In this time of national division and material excess, maybe it’s worth considering ways we could incorporate a few periods of sober reflection into our lives.

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Aftermaths

Wars have aftermaths, and King Philip’s War was no exception.  Few families in Massachusetts Bay Colony were untouched by King Philip’s War and its aftermath.  Although the English colonists considered the war over with the death of Metacomet in August of 1676, hostilities continued for years and bled into the French and Indian War.  Recently, when I was researching my family history, I discovered that one of my own ancestors was a victim of the war’s aftermath.

Indians_Attacking_a_Garrison_HouseAt eleven o’clock on the bright fall morning of September 19th, 1677, a group of about fifty natives attacked the north end of the frontier town of Hatfield, Massachusetts.  Even though the colonists had built a defensive stockade the year before, they were caught off guard.  The men were helping to frame a new house or working in the fields south of the palisade.  The natives never even tried to enter the stockade, instead attacking the houses outside the twelve-foot walls.  Some men standing on top of the new house were shot and fell; others were captured and bound.  Thirteen homes were invaded; seven were burned.  Women and children were killed or captured. The men in the fields saw the smoke and rushed back to the village, but by the time they got there, the Indians had marched their seventeen captives across the fields and turned north on the Poctumtuck path toward Deerfield.  They were bound for Canada.

Among the twelve dead was my ancestor, Mary Meekins, wife of the selectman Samuel Belding.  She left behind seven children, ranging in age from eight to twenty-two.

I imagine that Samuel was shattered.  He no doubt mourned the death of his wife and probably considered her innocent.  Chances are this reinforced the belief he likely shared with many of his fellow colonists – that the Indians were savages.

But there’s always more to the story.

A year and a half before Mary was killed, Samuel had participated in a savage and brutal attack on natives at the falls above Deerfield (now Turner’s Falls).  About one hundred and sixty men launched a surprise assault at dawn which left the natives reeling.  Rushing the sleeping camp, the men fired indiscriminately into their homes, and killed those who tried to escape.  Between 130 to 180 natives were slaughtered – men, women, and children, young and old.  Others drowned in the river as they tried to flee. The native village was then set on fire and all their food stores destroyed.

Even when victory is declared and a people or a nation are encouraged to think a war is over, there are always tensions simmering just under the surface – tensions that may erupt in new violence.  It takes years – often generations – to heal from war’s horrors.  As wise people have often said, it’s easy to start a war; it’s difficult to end one.  Even when it seems to be over, it probably isn’t.

Imagined Encounters IV: Mary Rowlandson in Old Age

Mary Rowlandson died in 1711, in her early seventies.  In an early draft of Flight of the Sparrow I imagined her sitting in her dooryard near the end of her life, looking back on her captivity and pondering how it shaped her life:

I sit in the doorway of the house in the chair my stepson set out for me this morning.  I have taken my scissors out of my pocket and they lie in my lap.  I like to look upon them, though my fingers have so stiffened that I can no longer hold them properly.  They glint in the sunlight, mocking me with their reminder that my days of usefulness and duty have passed.  Yet I take them with me everywhere.  I cannot be separated from them, for they once saved my life.

My second husband built this house.  Samuel Talcott was an upright man, a captain in the militia, a man of boldness and daring.  When he asked me to wed, he promised to provide for me well, and so he has.  In his will he left me a room with a bed and a chest, use of the oven and cellar, land for a garden, and a cow for my own.  His son has honored his word.  I have meat and bread and beer.

Yet I am restive.  It is as if those months of captivity traveling up and down the wilderness, so many years ago, left me with a hunger for adventure that could not be slaked by a pious and civilized life.  As if I once discovered something that filled and gladdened me, but then lost it forever.

My book was my passage back to civilization, the price of my acceptance.  If I had imagined that the good people of Boston would receive me with open arms, I was soon rid of the illusion.  I became the chief subject of the Boston gossips; even my own husband feared that I had been contaminated by the savages.  When Reverend Mather asked that I write an account of my ordeal, it opened a door to my restoration.

Yet I have wondered since if it was too high a price to pay.  If the necessary twisting of the truth corrupted me even more than my reluctant sojourn among the Indians.

I am old now, nearly seventy years.  I did not expect to live so long.  My back is bent like that of the old Pequot woman I oftimes see on the streets of Wethersfield.  She walks with her head bowed as if studying the ground in quest of a place to lie down for her final rest.  She has no doubt borne heavy burdens on her back all her life, whereas I carried them only during my time of captivity.  Yet we are bent the same.

I am troubled with thoughts of my son, Joss, who was recently arrested, and even now lies in the Hartford goal, awaiting trial.  I will post bond for him, though I secretly doubt that he is innocent of the charges against him.  He has nursed a troubled spirit ever since that terrible winter morning when our home in Lancaster was assaulted by Indians and we were carried off into the wilderness.  He was not yet grown, still possessed of a boy’s liveliness and curiosity, and though he only spent a few months with the Indians, he was corrupted forever.

He is accused of the crime of selling his wife’s brother into Virginia as an indentured servant.  This is purported to have happened five years ago.  I do not want to credit it, yet I have long understood that Joss possesses some malevolent darkness within, and I suspect he is capable of this.  And more.

Still, he is my only son.  I must do what I can to save him.  I will use the scissors of my reputation to cut him free from this new captivity.

Life is not what we expect it to be when we are young.  The world is transformed, even as we move through it.  The ground heaves beneath our feet.  The sky darkens suddenly and thunder crashes down.  Whole villages are laid waste; strong houses are consumed in flame.  We are assaulted by our enemies.  We are crushed and betrayed by those we believed were our friends.  We are corrupted by our own iniquity.

And yet we are redeemed, again and again.

Linen and Laundry

Hausbuch_Wolfegg_18v_19r_BadehausThe 17th century brought a change in English standards of cleanliness. In the middle ages, public bathhouses were common and popular throughout Europe. But concern over the licentious behavior of patrons along with the spread of the plague put a damper on public bathing. People began to believe that it wasn’t safe to immerse their whole bodies in water as medical theories developed about the dangers posed by extremes of temperature and moisture. Hot water opened the skin’s pores, making the body more susceptible to “venomous air.” And cold water chilled the body and blocked perspiration. It seemed as if dirt on the skin was healthier than water.

But Europeans were still concerned with cleanliness. They just didn’t believe that water-based methods were a safe way to achieve it. By the 1600’s, wiping away sweat and rubbing the skin had replaced bathing as the accepted way to clean parts of the body covered by clothing. Europeans reasoned that the necessary rubbing could be done by simply wearing clothes, relying on the friction of the cloth against the skin to clean it. So the custom of wearing linen next to the skin became increasingly popular. They believed it was sufficient to remove the dirt and far better than immersing the body in water.

adc4ed86f475688226487a4353ca9e98Medical theories of the day supported this approach. Doctors believed that sweating allowed the body to expel toxins through the pores, and if they weren’t sufficiently driven out they could reenter the body and “corrupt” the blood, resulting in disease and even death. Wearing linen next to the skin protected one from disease by absorbing the toxins. Linen was the cloth of choice because it could be easily washed (unlike woolens, leather, and fur).

A man’s undergarment was a shirt, while a woman’s was known as a shift. White linen became the standard fabric for these. But linen production was labor-intensive; flax had to be grown, rotted, beaten, combed and spun before it could be woven into cloth. As a result it was expensive, and linen cloth was often valued more highly than any other household possession.

Because linens, especially undergarments, were supposedly swarming with toxins after a day’s work, they had to be washed often. From the beginning, laundry was regarded as women’s work. It was an exhausting, lengthy process, rarely done alone. The practice of weekly washing didn’t emerge until the late 1700’s; instead it was a seasonal, group task. Large amounts of water had to be heated for both washing and rinsing; the linens had to be beaten (or “bucked”) Stains were removed by soaking clothes in urine overnight. Soap-making was also a lengthy process that took a week or more, using tallow (rendered animal fat) and lye (made from ashes).

Though the English colonists valued cleanliness, the natives regarded them as dirty and smelly. Natives bathed their bodies regularly and didn’t make a connection between water and disease. The skins and furs they wore were weather-resistant. Over the generations, we seem to have combined both approaches to cleanliness – we bathe regularly, wear weather-resistant clothing, and also do loads and loads of laundry.

piles of laundry

Love and Marriage Among the Puritans

PilgrimsThe Massachusetts Bay Puritan understanding of marriage was governed by strict laws and customs. Couples were required to publish marriage “banns” – an announcement of their intention at three successive public meetings – or attach a written notice to the meeting house door 14 days before the wedding. They did not consider marriage a religious sacrament, but a civil matter, regulated by the state. The officiant at a wedding was a magistrate, not a minister, a practice that continued until 1686.
Feasting was common after the ceremony, and there was always more than enough cake, rum, and “sack” (fortified wine) to go around. The marriage had to be sexually consummated to be considered valid. If a man was impotent, the marriage was annulled.

Once married, any kind of permanent separation was strictly prohibited. A man who refused to live with his wife was subjected to severe punishment, even flogging. If a man or woman came to the colony and it was discovered they had left a spouse behind in England, they were promptly sent back.

Divorce, though rare, was allowed if it could be proven that either the husband or wife had neglected a fundamental duty. The grounds for divorce included adultery, desertion, and nonsupport by the husband. Massachusetts granted 27 divorces between 1639 and 1692.

ScarletHusbands and wives were not only required to live together, but must do so peacefully. The law forbade them to beat, curse, or quarrel with each other.  Adultery was technically a capital offense, but offenders were executed rarely. More commonly they were fined, whipped, or branded. Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter showcases the Puritan practice of public shaming including wearing the letter “A” and on the gallows with a rope around the neck.

Late Summer 061A married Puritan woman gave everything she owned to her husband, and focused on running his household. According to the early Puritan cleric John Cotton, her duties included “to see that nothing be wasted or prodigally spent.” She was completely under her husband’s authority and was expected to be submissive and obedient. She was not allowed to make any important decisions without his knowledge and approval. Husbands were cautioned not to expect too much of their wives, who were viewed as “weaker vessels,” both physically and mentally.

It’s tempting to wonder where love comes into all this. Actually, love was considered central to a Puritan marriage. It was viewed as a duty and an obligation required by God of all who entered a marriage covenant.

However, love was regarded as the product of marriage – not the reason for it. Love was more rational than romantic, and most marriages were arranged. Social rank was more important than affection in deciding who would be a good mate. A proper marriage didn’t start with two people falling in love, but with two people separately deciding it was time to marry and choosing someone suitable.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, the Puritans weren’t prudish, and there’s plenty of evidence that, once married, they thoroughly enjoyed sex and romance. The works of Anne Bradstreet are widely noted as good examples, as is Thomas Hooker’s description of a devoted husband:

“The man whose heart is endeared to the woman he loves, he dreams of her in the night, hath her in his eye and apprehension when he awakes, museth on her as he sits at table, walks with her when he travels and parlies with her in each place where he comes . . .”

Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, MA

It stands about seven feet tall against a wall in the special collections room of the Thayer Memorial Library in Lancaster, Massachusetts: the heavy wooden cupboard that Mary Rowlandson inherited when her husband, Joseph, died in Wethersfield, Connecticut.  I had the privilege of seeing it when I was in Lancaster early in May to talk about my novel Flight of the Sparrow. It’s both exciting and a little eerie when I see a real-life artifact belonging to one of the historical people I’ve written about.  I stood there, studying it, imagining Mary’s hands opening the bottom cupboard door to put away a carefully folded tablecloth, or pulling out one of the drawers to retrieve her embroidery scissors.  In her time, the upper part of the cupboard was probably draped in a piece of fine cloth, possibly lace-trimmed linen.

It is the work of Peter Blin, the French Huguenot joiner whose work was renowned in Wethersfield.  Built of solid English oak, the joined “court cupboard” is held together with mortise and tenon joints instead of nails.  Nearly indestructible, such chests were a symbol of permanence, stability and power.

Mary Rowlandson's Cupboard

Mary Rowlandson’s Cupboard

The Rowlandson cupboard is carved with tulips and gillyflowers and decorated with trimmings painted black to resemble the ebony trim used on high-fashion pieces in England. The shelf is supported by turned columns and provides a flat space on top for displaying valuable containers and plates.  Below, three doors and two drawers give access to the storage spaces.  The overhanging shelf is supported by pilasters and provides a flat space for displaying silver or ceramic vessels.

The cupboard, though almost certainly the Rowlandsons’ prize furniture piece, was less valuable than the linens it held.  Cloth was one of the most expensive commodities in the early colonies.  The eight tablecloths, twenty-eight towels and napkins were valued at five pounds, while the cupboard itself was valued at two.

When I was visiting Salem, Massachusetts, several years ago, I took a tour of an early 18th century home.  The guide mentioned that researchers had found a list of instructions the homeowner had written for his servants, detailing what to do if the house caught fire.  I was shocked to learn that the bed hangings were to be rescued before the children.

In her narrative, Mary Rowlandson claimed that her time in the wilderness had taught her “the extreme vanity” of the world.  While she no doubt found pleasure in the beauty and utility of her cupboard, I suspect that her own harrowing experiences had given her the wisdom to the perceive the limitations of material things.

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

Display shelf in Plimoth Plantation home

 

On the Record

old bookReading early town and church records can often be tedious, but worth the effort when it turns up interesting incidents that undermine our common ideas about Puritans.  There’s a contentious vitality just under the surface of daily life, a tension that sometimes even leaks into the official records.  If nothing else, these records prove that living in a community was no easier in the 17th century than it is today.

The early records of the town of Lancaster, Massachusetts, contain references to some ideas and behavior that may challenge our preconceptions about the Puritans.  Here are just three:

  1. In 1651 there was a controversy between groups in Lancaster over what should be held in common. As good Puritans, they looked to their Bibles for guidance in all things, and some  focused particular attention on the early church practice of holding all things in common (as described in the New Testament book of Acts).  One George Whaley reported that Goodwife Hall had asserted that all things should be held in common, “men’s wives also.”  Later, Whaley was charged with slander, though the case was never tried.
  2. In the original town covenant, there was a clause prohibiting distribution of land to any people who had been excommunicated, or “otherwise prophane and scandalus,” or any known to err against the “Doctrin and Discipline of the Churches.” This was for the “better preserving of the puritie of Religion.”
  3. On a Sunday in 1656, after worship, a woman named Mary Gates was “called forth to give satisfaction for some offense done against Master Rowlandson,” the town’s minister. Goodwife Gates defended herself, insisting that she had already given him satisfaction.  Mr. Rowlandson then replied “by sum arguments” proving that she had not done so, at which point Gates’s daughter, Marie, stood up and without permission and “very boldly in the public assembly” contradicted the minister and said she would swear an oath to it.  The case went to court and, not surprisingly, Mary Gates lost her case, was fined and ordered to pay the court costs for both sides.

 

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What Did the Puritans Have Against the Quakers?

quakersRecently I joined a wonderful book group in Mississippi via Skype and was asked about the differences between the Quakers and the Puritans.  I knew that the Puritans didn’t like the Quakers, and that they persecuted and exiled them from Massachusetts Bay Colony.  But I didn’t know much more than that.  So I did a little digging.

Today Quakers are known as a peaceful people who embrace nonviolence and spiritual principles and who were strong advocates for the abolition of slavery in the 19th century. But in early 17th century New England, they were outlawed, imprisoned, exiled, and sometimes executed.  Why?

Both the Puritans and the Church of England regarded Quakers as “heretics.” In Massachusetts Bay Colony, the Congregational Way (which the Puritans believed was the purified Church of England) was the only legal religion.  Every resident was required to attend Sabbath worship and to pay local taxes to support the minister and church.  Just as in England, it was treasonous to oppose the state religion.

quakers2The Quakers who came to Massachusetts in the 1650’s were as righteous and fanatical as the Puritans.  They knew very well they weren’t coming to a colony where their way of worship would be tolerated.  They were there to make points about their own religion.  And they weren’t quiet about it.  In fact, they were often uncivil and overbearing and not always truthful.  They made a practice of interrupting worship services, and of creating a raucous uproar by yelling and banging pots and pans in the streets.  They shouted people down who didn’t agree with them and humiliated public figures with name-calling and ridicule. Sometimes they even stripped off their clothes in public. The Puritans responded to these outrages with fines, which escalated into more severe punishments, including boring holes in their tongues, whippings, banishments, and even executions.

We condemn the Puritans for their intolerance and persecution of other religious groups, and rightly so.  But the 17th century Quakers weren’t quite the meek and innocent victims they’re portrayed as.  Even Roger Williams, the early proponent of religious freedom who was banished from Massachusetts Bay Colony, was so irritated by Quaker incivility and lack of respect that he considered restricting their liberties. The Quakers were pretty disagreeable at times.  Not so very different from the Puritans themselves.

Imagined Encounters III: A Puritan Childhood

One of the things I like best about writing historical fiction is vividly imagining what it must have been like to live in another time and place.  As I’m shaping a novel, I do a lot of preparatory writing that never makes it into the book.  Here’s a sample in which I explored Mary Rowlandson’s childhood, combining the limited biographical information about her with research I did on the experience of Massachusetts Bay Puritans.

shipShe remembered the crossing as a haze of bright sunshine and black water, dirty white sails slapping at the sky, and darkness.  The images hung on the walls of her mind like portraits in a great hall.  She was not certain they were memories – perhaps she had been told of light and bright square sails and a black sea and lying beside her mother below decks, encased in the creaking, rocking hull.  Perhaps she dreamt it.  She was two years old.

In Salem, her father’s land was six miles from the harbor, surrounded by fields and woods through which their cattle wandered.  The house was a sturdy two-room box wrapped in fresh-milled clapboards, large enough to shelter all the family and servants.  At night Mary slept in the loft on a pallet between her older sisters, listening to the forest sounds.  Owl screams and wolf howls made her shiver and burrow against her sisters’ warm bodies.  Sometimes the wind shrieked and rain beat on the roof but her father had built the house well and she felt safe.

Once Mary, pulling weeds in the kitchen garden at her mother’s direction, was struck in the shoulder by the hoof of a stray cow, and the wound festered so she lay fevered in her parents’ great bed for a week.  She remembered watching morning light trickle through the oiled paper of the room’s single window.  She remembered her mother stroking her brow with a wet rag.  She remembered thinking that illness was a luxury to be savored.  Later she learned that such thoughts were sinful.  Indolence was a particular evil, a devil’s trap she must work hard to avoid.

On her fourth birthday, as she stood in the great fireplace tending a roasting fowl, repeatedly twisting the cords so that the goose spun slowly, its fat splattered up onto her face instead of into the chipped dish she’d carefully set beneath it.  Her mother made a poultice of cooling herbs that eased the pain, but Mary would not go near the fire again for weeks.  Her mother set her to other tasks.  Her chin and left cheek carried three dark red scars that slowly faded to white.

Saturdays were a flurry of flour and heat; her mother opened and shut the wooden oven door again and again, as she waited for the fire to make it hot enough for baking.  Finally, when black soot flaked away from the ceiling bricks and the whole interior shone with pale brown light, it was time.  Mary would watch her mother scrape coal chips out with the long oven peel.  They fell gently as snow into the bucket.  Then it was Mary’s task to pass the food to her mother: loaves of brown rye bread, wheat flour drop cakes, meat pies, fat brown potatoes, and great crocks of beans sweetened with maple sugar.

Mary was seven when her father moved the family north to help incorporate the town of Wenham.  The children huddled together under blankets in a rocking wagon drawn by the family’s two oxen. Mary tended her infant sister, Sarah, between feedings.  It was not until they settled into the new house that she apprehended that her mother’s sadness was not a part of her nature, but a consequence of the loneliness she had experienced in Salem.  Physical isolation from other women was too heavy a burden to bear.

05__3Wenham was all mud and half-built houses, swine and fowl and goats clotting the streets.   But living there, close to neighbors, her mother became bright and strong.  Like a plant; responding to the summer light, she seemed to grow taller and more vigorous. “This be civilization,” she declared on a rainy Sabbath morning as the family joined others picking their way through deep muck to the meeting house.  She was smiling, though her skirts dripped with mud to her knees.

Mary remembered sitting on the hard family pew on a Sabbath morning in February while her mother wept beside her.  Wept over the power of God’s grace, which she told Mary later had touched her heart like a burning coal.  “Sin flayed me like a knife,” she said that evening, the words trembling on her tongue as the firelight glimmered.   Mary’s feet and hands were still numb with cold.  She leaned into her mother’s skirts, seeking warmth, but her mother pushed her gently away.  Mary saw that her mother was devoted utterly to God, that she loved Him more than husband or children.  She understood that God demanded she do the same, that she must model herself after her mother.  But her mother’s godliness was a mountain she could not climb.  Mary heard the story of her mother’s conversion so many times that it became a gospel of its own, a sacred if unwritten scripture, as familiar as the psalms.

From the moment she joined the church, Mary’s mother mounted a vigilant watch over her children’s souls.  Her daughters especially, for it was well established that females were easily drawn to pagan ways.  Their graceful habits often hid untamed passions.  They must be guided with particular severity lest they stumble on the path of Christian virtue.  Thus, she endeavored to break their wills, that her children might cleave to God.

Mary knew that her mother considered her particularly wild, cursed with a spirit of independence and determination.  Sometimes she said it was because of Mary’s flame-bright hair; sometimes she whispered that some corruption that had overtaken her while Mary was still in the womb.  Mary knew that she often taxed her mother beyond patience.  Yet gradually she came to understand that the challenges she presented created the very paste that bound them.

There had been a particular moment of humiliation when, at eleven, Mary had presented her mother with a collar she had worked.  “This is monstrous!” Her mother had held the collar at arm’s length, pinching it between her thumb and forefinger as if the linen were covered in offal and not her daughter’s painstaking stitches.  “Did I not set you at your sewing when you were four, just as I did your sisters?  Did I not show you with my own fingers how to make neat and regular stitches?  Did I not tell you to make more care in your stitching than in anything you do?  Have I not made it plain that a sturdy-made seam is the chief sign of a diligent woman?  And a well-proportioned embroidery her crown?”

Mary bowed her head, though a rebellious flush crept up her neck to her cheeks and she had to clench the stool seat with her fingers, lest she fly off like an infuriated hawk, all wings and feathers and sharp cries.

“This is slovenly work.”  Her mother peered more closely at the offending scrap, before tossing it back into Mary’s lap.  “Slovenly.  I want you to tear it out – every stitch – and begin again.”

Mary snatched the cloth before it slid to the floor and stared down at her work.  As if she could see anything through the burning blur in her eyes.  “Every stitch?”

“Mary.”  Her mother placed a firm hand under Mary’s chin and forced it upward so Mary had no choice but to look into her eyes.  They were the same soft gray they had always been, deceptively gentle.  But Mary knew that her mother reserved her tenderness for infants and young animals.  When it came to everyone else, she was the Lord’s task mistress.

“Mary, you are a woman near grown.  There is no excuse for slovenliness.  You shame me.”  Shame.  Her mother used the word again, surely knowing that it was as cruel as a knife plunged into the flesh, that it reduced her to a trembling, fear-struck babe.

“I’m sorry,” Mary whispered.  “I had not the time.”

“There is always time, Mary.  God provides for what needs be done.”  Her mother finally released her, and Mary’s head dropped to her chest.  Anger battled regret.  She did not look at her mother, though she was aware of her movements at the hearth, heard her fussing with the porridge, stirring up the fire, checking the corn cakes in the oven.

“Does God need embroidery, Mother?”  Mary regretted her words as soon as they were out.  She had been whipped for less.

Need embroidery?”  Her mother turned in a swish of apron and skirts and petticoats.  “Now you would blaspheme His word?  Is it not written that the good wife sews fine cloth without destroying it?  That a woman must be a crown to her husband?”

Mary longed to stop her ears.  She had heard the lecture so many times she could recite it.  It took all her willpower to stay on the stool and let her mother’s voice wash over her, like a sea in flood.  Mary set her teeth and tongue so that she would not respond again in haste and anger.  Yet even as she waited for the tirade to end, she was forming objections in her mind, promising herself that when she was married and mistress of her own house she would never sew, except from necessity.  She would hire a girl to do the fancy work; she would barter clothes-making with her sisters and friends, exchange food for mending tasks.  And she would never ask a daughter of her own to embroider anything.

“Look ye, daughter.”  Mary raised her head and saw her mother reach into her pocket and draw out her scissors.  The small silver pair that Mary’s father had brought from England after his journey to settle their financial affairs.  They were her mother’s most treasured possession; she never lent them to anyone, yet now she was holding them out to Mary.   “Take them.  Take out your stitches and start again.”

When Mary didn’t move, her mother reached down, pried opened her hand and firmly placed the scissors in her palm. Mary’s throat clenched.  She saw something in her mother’s face that she’d never seen before, and she wasn’t sure she wanted to know what it was.  Sorrow?  Regret?  Some dark and nameless need?  Mary looked down at her hand.  The scissors glinted in the firelight.  She picked them up and cut away her careful stitches, one by one.

That night, Mary lay on her pallet in the loft between her sisters, pretending that she was her mother’s favorite.  She imagined that some bright morning her mother would tell her to put aside her churning and they would walk down to the river, just the two of them, alone.  Her mother would confide that she had struggled against her feeling for years, but could no longer deny her preference, that she was helplessly captive in her bond to Mary, that they were two souls so attuned to each other that it was impossible to know where one left off and the other began.

 

A Puritan’s Christmas Chronicles

In 17th century New England it was not atheists or secular humanists who declared a “war on Christmas,” but Christians themselves.  As I noted in my 2013 post, “A Long Time Coming,” [https://amybeldingbrown.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/a-long-time-coming/], the Puritans reacted to the elements of excess and paganism in Christmas celebrations by shutting it down.  Samuel_Sewall

Samuel Sewall was a Puritan judge and businessman who lived in Boston.  He kept a diary from the age of 22 until his death.  Knowing that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681, I spent some time looking at his entries for December 25th.  Though his first mention of Christmas comes four years after the ban was lifted, it’s clear that the practice of “Christmas-keeping” continued to be a concern for pious Puritans.  Sewall takes pains to note that shops were open and commerce was vigorous.

Here are his entries (including his 17th century spellings) between 1685 and 1706.  (Some years are missing because he made no entry for December 25th.)

1685   Dec. 25.  Friday.  Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual.  Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it.  A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.

Dec. 28.  Cous Fissenden here, Saith he came for Skins last Friday and [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.

Dec. 31.  Mr. Allen preaches from 2 Tim. 2. 19.  Sasith should pray for the Natives that they may name Christ.  Spoke against Observing the 25 Instant, called it Antichristian Heresie: Spokke against the Name.  Canker began in the Tongue.

1686  Satterday, ,Dec 25.  Shops open today and generally and persons about their occasions.  Some, but few, Carts at Town with wood, though the day exceeding fair and pleasant.

1687  Sabbath, Dec. 25.  Have the Lord’s Supper at the South Church, break up about noon, at which time I heard that Mr. Mater was, on Saturday between 1. and 2. PM, Arrested by Larkin, to answer for trespass on Mr. Randolp, 500 £. damage.  Major Richards and Capt. Turell bound.  Just as Morn-Exercise ends Mr. Cotton Mather’s child dies; yet he preaches at Charlestown in the afternoon.

1691   December 25, 1691.  Mr. Moodey takes his journey towards Portsmouth this day.  Cold and Snowy.  Shops open and business carried on as at other times.

1694  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Shops are open, men at work; Carts of Pork, Hay, Coal, Wood come to Town as on other days.  Mr. Mccarty’s shop is open.

1696  Dec 25, 1696.  We bury our little daughter.  In the chamber, Joseph in course reads Ecclesiastes 3, a time to be born and a time to die – Elisabeth, Rev. 22, Hannah the 38th Psalm.  I speak to each, as God helped, to our mutual comfort I hope.  I order’d Sam. to read the 102 Psalm.  Elisha Cooke, Edw. Hutchinson, John Baily, and Josia Willard bear my little daughter to the Tomb.

1697   Decembr 25.  97.  Snowy day: Shops are open and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood and Fagots as formerly, save what abatement may be allowed on account of the wether.  This morning we read in course the 14, 15, and 16th Psalms.  From the 4th v. of the 16th Ps. I took occasion to dehort mine from Christmas-keeping and charged them to forbear.

1703  Dec. 26, Sabbath; very sore vehement Storm of Snow; exceeding high Tide, which did much hurt in Cellars and lower Rooms, and carried many Stacks of Hay quite away.  It seems Roxbury Meeting was held at Mr. Walter’s Dwelling-house.  The Christmas keepers had a very pleasant day, Gov and Mr. Dudley at Church, and Mr. Dudley made a pretty large Entertainment after.

1704  Dec 25. Monday, a Storm of Snow, yet many Sleds come to Town, with Wood, Hoops, Coal &c as is usual.

1705  Tuesday, Dec. 25.  Very cold Day but Serene Morning, Sleds, Slays, and Horses pass as usually, and shops open.

1706  Mid-week, Dec. 25.  Shops open, carts come to Town with Wood, Fagots, Hay, and Horses with Provisions, as usually.  I bought me a great Tooth’d Comb at Dwight’s; 6s.