During its first 200 years, Boston Puritanically refused to acknowledge Christmas as a special day of the year. The legislature actually banned observances in 1659, and December 25 was a school day for long afterward. As many Yankees stalwartly and proudly noted in their journals, the 25th was simply “an ordinary day.” You could be fined for any outward show of holiday festivities, though there seems to be no evidence that actually happened. Still, nowhere in the Bible is the date set, and, frankly, the faithful did note that so many of its customs had blatantly pagan origins. Christmas in Massachusetts didn’t become a public holiday until 1856.
Slowly, though, things have changed, and Christmas in New England has become something of an ideal setting. And so, with its many fine live cultural performances, Boston is now considered a prime destination at this time of year, especially when snow heightens the effect.
Here are ten events to take in.
- Boston Pops. Launched by Arthur Fiedler in 1973, the orchestra’s holiday shows now get 45 performances in Symphony Hall in less than four weeks. It’s a joyous blend of Santa and sacred.
- Boston Ballet. While nearly every dance company in America does something with Tchaikovsky’s “Nutcracker” – it is, after all, a prime source of income – the Boston Ballet company delivers one of the nation’s most sumptuous productions, with 34 performances at the Opera House beginning at the end of November.
- Handel and Haydn Society. The American premiere of Messiah was given by this organization in 1818, and over the years the piece has become an annual staple. Even though the work was intended as an Easter observance, it has universally shifted to Advent season. The H&H has evolved into a leading early music ensemble, but it’s by no means the only one in town. This highly acclaimed annual performances of the masterpiece has some sterling competition.
- Speaking of early music. Vocal groups like Boston Camerata and Blue Heron come up with holiday rarities. And the city is rife with fine choral ensembles digging into the musical archives to add to the listener’s discoveries.
- The Revels. Across the Charles River in Cambridge, the Boston Revels’ colorful Christmas production fills the Shakespearean Globe-inspired Sanders Theater at Harvard with 18 family-oriented performances. Founded in 1970, each year now features a special focus – this year, it’s Depression-era America, including blues and bluegrass; last year was Norway; the year before, Renaissance Venice. The celebratory event blends storytelling, acting, dancing, musical soloists, children’s and adult choruses that move as families across the set, plus traditional fare including singalongs, Morris dancers, sword dancers, a mummer’s play, and the intermission line dance that takes the audience from their seats into the marble lobby. It’s more of a secular solstice celebration, but when you’re dealing with folkways like this, Christmas is inescapable.
- Theater. It’s not all Charles Dickens, though there’s plenty of that around. The professional Huntington and American Repertory Theater companies, especially, can be counted on for original fare.
- Lessons and Carols. Beantown is an Episcopal stronghold, and Vaughan Williams’ setting of scripture and carols has earned its following. Could anywhere be more spectacular for this touch of Edwardian Yuletide than, say, Trinity Church on Copley Square or the Church of the Nativity just down the street?
- Boston Baroque. A more recent tradition is this orchestra’s two New Year’s concerts – one the evening of the 31st, the other on the following afternoon – both in Harvard’s Sanders Theater. A wonderful blend of formal and informal to welcome the annual transition.
- Pontine Theater. To the north, closer to where I live, a two-person team can be counted to put on an original show based on Victorian-era New England stories. They create and make their own sets, puppets, and costumes in addition to writing the script. It’s unique to Portsmouth, New Hampshire, but still in the Boston orb.
- The Nubble Light. A bit further up the road, the iconic lighthouse at Cape Neddick in York, Maine, is outlined in strings of light. Since the lighthouse sits on a small island just offshore, it’s already widely photographed – one of the top two or three I see in published pictures. But this time of year, the effect from sunset on is breathtaking. At Long Sands around the corner, surfers in wetsuits are likely riding the waves. It’s hardly befitting the season, but I thought I’d mention it anyway … just in case you’re driving up.
And that’s before we getting to ice skating or hockey, for those looking for something more active.
With the release of Subway Visions, I’ve been returning to considerations of urban affairs. It’s not all New York City, either, even though the novel takes place there.
For me, the big city these days is Boston. I live an hour to the north – or northeast, more technically. I can even take the train in, as well as the hourly bus, which is quite comfortable and also links us to the airport. (You’d be surprised at the number of pilots and other airline personnel who are boarding from here.)
So we can go in for concerts or museums or dim sum on weekday mornings. We’re not exactly stuck in the sticks.
On the other hand, I live in a city of nearly 30,000 – the largest of a cluster of small cities that together form a larger population base to sustain our varied interests.
Portsmouth, 15 minutes to our south, is wealthier and more fashionable. It has probably as many restaurants per capita as Manhattan as well as several theater companies, the Music Hall, and art galleries.
The state university is ten minutes to our west, and about a third of its students rent apartments in our city. The school runs its own buses to serve them and anyone else who wants to pay to ride. Its library, of course, is a marvelous resource for independent writers and scholars.
In other words, I have no reason to feel deprived. Well, sometimes I wish the Harvard Book Store were closer or Symphony Hall. But I still have my choir in Watertown.
Looking at this has me recalling my mentor in political science, Vincent Ostrom, who coined the concept of “polycentric” to describe the overlapping jurisdictions that govern American polity. A city typically falls within a county, for instance, as well as a state and then the nation. Nowadays there may also be special districts to address things like water, pollution, or transportation needs.
As mayor of Baltimore, William Donald Schaefer took the concept in another direction by enhancing neighborhood identity and decision-making to revitalize a big city. Adjustments could be made in neighborhood settings even while having a central tax base, police and fire services, water and sewer system, and so on.
So my city has a much different identity and feel from Portsmouth or Durham or Rochester or Somersworth or the Berwicks over the state line in Maine. And yet we’re all conscious, even proud, of our identity as the Seacoast Region.
Do you see how these many circles begin to overlap, each adding to the richness we enjoy?
As the hippie phrase used to go, “Small is beautiful.” But, in this universe I’m describing, it doesn’t have to be confining or impoverishing, either.
For now, I do feel I have the best of both worlds.