Our first American Christmas was a happy time — and a sad time too. There was laughter and there were tears. It was a day of hope and great gloom too.
Christmas was celebrated for the first time in continental America on the tiny island of St. Croix, off the coast of Eastport, Maine in 1604, 16 years before the pilgrims landed at Plymouth. The island was called St. Croix by the 79 Frenchmen who settled there. It was because of the resemblance of the meetings of the rivers above the island to a cross.
No women or children were present that memorable Christmas Day. The rough wooden tables did not tremble under the weight of food. The gifts, if any, were handmade. And there were overtones of death lurking close by. Indeed, it was a bittersweet Christmas Day.
Yet, there was the comfort of religious services, the warmth of Spanish wine and the pleasant chill of icy cider. There was the traditional French sense of humor to chase the gloom away. The first American Christmas was a blend of sadness and laughter, of anguish and of beauty and of bitter despair and eternal hope.
The first American Christmas, in its own way, had a magnificence that will never be matched by gay ornaments — silver tinsel, rich green holiday trees and bright packages secured by attractive red ribbons.
The French expedition had departed from Europe on
April 7, 1604, bound for the New World. The expedition commander was an explorer named Pierre de Gast. Samuel
de Champlain, who served as mapmaker on the trip,
was second in command. There were 120 men aboard
two sailing ships. One of the ships was the ReNomme.
The other remains unidentified.
Crews were made up of skilled workmen and quite “a number of vagabonds.” There were doctors on both ships. There were also two Roman Catholic priests and a Calvinist minister making the trip. Historians have been able to identify only one of the clergymen. He was Father Nicholas Aubrey.
After a stop in New Brunswick, the ships arrived at St. Croix Island. The landing is believed to have been made between June 25 and 27. The exact date is not known.
Following a few brief exploratory trips led by de Champlain, the island settlers set to work to build “a stout defense against savages.” They used lumber brought over from France, but ironically, the only “savages” in the area were the Passamaquoddy Indians, and they proved to be friendly to the French.
The Frenchmen planted three small gardens. The crops were good that year and the vegetables they harvested helped those who survived to endure the long winter ahead.
There were 12 houses in the settlement, plus a small chapel situated a short distance from the other dwellings. The chapel was ecumenical. The Huguenot, Father Aubrey and his colleague all conducted services there. In addition, the three clergymen had to share the same dwelling.
In October, the French ships departed for home, leaving behind de Gast, de Champlain and 77 others. They left just in time. A fierce Maine winter arrived early that year. Later, de Champlain wrote: “The snows began on the sixth of October. On the third of December, we saw ice pass which came from some frozen river.
The cold was sharp….. During this winter, all our liquors froze except the Spanish wine. Cider was dispensed by the pound.
“…since most of us, having slept poorly and suffering from an insufficiency of fuel, which we could not obtain on account of the ice, had scarcely any strength, and also because we ate salt meat, which produced bad blood…. We were obliged to use very bad water and drink melted snow, as there were no springs, no brooks…
“During the winter, many of our company were attacked by a malady called the mal de la terre — otherwise known as scurvy, as I have since heard from learned men…. We were unable to find any remedies for these maladies.”
On Christmas Eve 1604, all 79 Frenchmen were alive, though several were seriously ill. No doubt, as they sat in the chilly darkness waiting for the dawn of the holy day, their minds were filled with thoughts of home and the loved ones they had left on the other side of the vast ocean.
Pierre de Gast, it is believed, assigned the three clergymen the task of presiding over the Christmas celebration. That was what Father Aubrey and his two anonymous associates had to arrange, in addition to church services. All that happened on that day.
Exact accounts of the event are not available. If any were ever written, they vanished centuries ago.
In 1973, Rev. Clarence J. d’Entrement, who, at the time, was St. Croix historian and secretary of La Societe Historique Acadienne, after extensive research, did paint a word picture of what happened during America’s first Christmas.
“Obviously, there were church services in the morning, both Catholic and Protestant,” said the historian. “The clergy was in charge of the programs. We do not know what they said during the sermons. Nor will we ever know what hymns were sung at the services.
“And it is also known that on ‘special days,’ the settlers were permitted to drink Spanish wine and frozen cider. To the French, Christmas is indeed a special day. It is possible that the settlers wrote, produced and acted on their own Christmas play that day. This was a French Christmas. In France, at the time, it was the custom of the people to invent plays for amusement and to pass the time. I have no doubt several plays were written by the St. Croix settlers during that long winter. In all probability, one of them was a Christmas play.”
The food that day was salted meat and vegetables from the gardens. Also, a shellfish called the “cockle” was served. The Passamaquoddy Indians nourished themselves on this food during the winter and the Frenchmen followed their good example. Since food was in short supply, the settlers did not invite the Indians to their humble holiday feast.
No doubt, the wine and cider nourished sagging spirits that Christmas Day. There must have been happy songs and laughter too. The hours flew by. Darkness came, joy faded and the wind lashed its way through the lonely settlement. Christmas was over.
In the weeks that followed, 35 members of the tiny French community died. Another 33 hovered close to death, but somehow managed to survive. Only 11 of the Frenchmen endured the winter without sickness.
Father Aubrey died. So did his Calvinist colleague. The two clergymen shared the same grave.
In 1606, French poet Marc Lescarbot, after spending several months on the island, wrote “An Ode To The Isle of St. Croix.” The concluding lines read:
But above all I honor our dead,
The sacred ground where rests their weary head.
Viewing its site, my eyes shed a tear;
Weighing their fate, my heart has bounced with fear.
Repose in peace;
My ardent pleas
Seek your glory
On December 24, 1604, for the first time, it was Christmas Eve in America. The brave men trembled in the darkness of St. Croix Island as they waited for the light.
Thus did Christmas come to America.
This story appeared in the
December 2005 edition of Lighthouse Digest Magazine. The print edition contains more stories than our internet edition, and each story generally contains more photographs - often many more - in the print edition. For subscription information about the print edition, click here.
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