America’s Early Celebrations

The American colonies came from a country that had a rich heritage of significant dates, with spring and autumn benchmarking the agricultural year, Lady Day 25th march (still the start of our financial year) and lots of other dates marking the legal and religious calendars, with fairs and markets often held on saints days. And of course, there was Gunpowder day that still looms large while the national anniversaries and birthdays of the Stuarts and Tudors have faded.

The Pilgrims had a similar climate s could have adapted the English calendar, but of course they didn’t believe in them. In the south, the Anglicans could have continued them but their agricultural year didn’t have such seasonal pauses. Tobacco isn’t just harvested and stored; it has to be cured, packed and then planted for the next year. And all the colonies were dependent on the Atlantic sailing seasons, so dancing round maypoles or setting fire to anything that didn’t run away just never took off.  But the constant flow of sailors and servants meant that the American magistrates had to deal with these pesky outbursts. This is from Bonfires &Bells by David Cressy:

While the godly were at services, the rowdies were in the streets. In November 1682 Benjamin James and others were brought before the Suffolk County Court for gathering people together to start a bonfire in Boston. On 5 NOvember 1685 ‘although it rained hard, yet there was a a bonfire made on the common. About 50 people attended it’. On the following night the weather improved, and ‘about 200 hallowed about a fire on the common’. Merchants and magistrates were apprehensive that the celebration might lead to disturbances but for most years int he late 17th century the night passed without violence. At Marblehead in 1702 the day was enlivened with a bull-baiting, to be followed by distribution of the meat to the poor.

With the ascension of William III the Gunpowder Treason anniversary became merged with celebration of the king’s birthday on 4 November and with the annual autumn thanksgiving. Puritan fastidiousness gave way to English Protestant patriotism. At Boston in 1607 ‘guns fired with respect to the king’s birthday. At night great illuminations made in the Town House, governor and council and man gentlemen there. About 8 Mr Brattle and Newman let fly their fireworks from Cotton Hill. Governor and council went thither with a trumpet sounding.

On 10 November 1735 local paper reported: the guns were fired at Castle William, in token of joy for the happy deliverance of our nation … In the evening there was a bonfire on Dorchester Neck…Apprentices went out in boats to watch the spectacle and 4 of them were drowned on their way back’

Nice to see the idiots known as apprentices were not changed by crossing the Atlantic.

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