Through the years, mvm has published a Christmas edition of Little Bits in which we take a look back at fun and interesting bits of lore from our region’s past. Here’s some highlights. Take a moment to take a trip down memory lane and reflect on the world that was.
ONE: A Christmas Boxing Tradition
In the early 1900s, unmarried mill workers became holiday orphans when Thanksgiving and Christmas rolled around. Lodgings for single men didn’t supply holiday meals, and restaurants were closed, forcing the workers to turn to the one place they would be guaranteed a cheerful spread: the local bar. Here, Christmas loners could dine with like-minded company and escape the seclusion of their rooming houses. After their meals, men from our local mill cities attended Christmas boxing matches. A rare occurrence in fistic annals, Christmas Day boxing was popular in Lawrence, Lowell, Haverhill and Nashua, N.H.
TWO: The First Christmas Tree in Andover
We owe our traditional Christmas tree to Harriet Beecher Stowe, the author of the anti-slavery novel “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” Stowe may have stunned her neighbors in 1854 when she invited them to her cheerfully decorated Andover home for a gala Christmas party with a Christmas tree and humorous gifts for guests.
Christmas trees were almost unheard of in America at that time. Stowe, however, was a world traveler and an avid reader who had likely seen or read about the German Christmas tradition of lighting candles and placing them on the branches of a small tree set inside the house.
THREE: Oh Christmas Stack, Oh Christmas Stack
While you might not think of mill edifices as festive, a pair of local companies prove that even smokestacks can become symbols of light and hope.
Lowell’s Wannalancit Mills is currently co-owned by UMass Lowell and Farley White Interests, the latter of which decided in 2000 to offer the city a Christmas present. That year, Boston Chimney & Tower Co. transformed a refurbished smokestack into a 256-foot Christmas tree by stretching 5,440 green lightbulbs over 32 cables anchored to a ring at the base that measures 102 feet in diameter. The “tree” is topped with a 19-foot star.
FOUR: All Sports Is Local
Before television, area football games featuring well-established rivals, such as the annual Thanksgiving matchup between Lowell and Lawrence high schools, were always sold out.
At these games, top colleges sent scouts to our cities to recruit much needed muscle. Each city high school developed close relationships with select colleges and, for a time, the top scholar-athletes from Lawrence attended Columbia, while Lowell’s best went to Harvard.
FIVE: Ymittos Candle Company
Ymittos Candle Manufacturing Co., named after a suburb of Athens, Greece, employs a small group of Old World-style candle artisans who handcraft their waxy wares behind the brick walls of their storefront on Dutton Street in Lowell. Ymittos provided candles for nearly all of the “Pirates of the Caribbean” films, as well as “Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter” and Steven Spielberg’s “Lincoln.”
SIX: Christmas at Sea
The Custom House Maritime Museum in Newburyport is home to a rich collection of historic artifacts, including logs kept by ship captains, captains’ wives and their children. Some of the most treasured log entries describe Christmas at sea.
In one example, Charles Brown, son of the captain of the “Agate,” was bound for Shanghai on Dec. 25, 1876, when he wrote: “Today is Christmas, to all outward appearances the same as any day to us, but we all seem to think of the past on such days as these. They are the milestones of our existence, and better thoughts and feelings animate us today than commonly. ‘Peace on Earth, good will toward men’ has the same signification to us as to others who are in a position more to be enjoyed.”
SEVEN: Nathaniel Currier
It might be the carol “Sleigh Ride” that reminds us of the famed prints and engravings created by Nathaniel Currier and James Merritt Ives — famously known as Currier & Ives. Their images of horses, landscapes, historic scenes and, most memorably, winter “stories,” have a special place in our hearts, especially during the holiday season. Many Currier & Ives images were inspired by Currier’s time in Amesbury, where he kept a vacation home on Lions Mouth Road.
EIGHT: The Disappearance and Re-creation of Haverhill’s Christmas Bell
From 1949 to the early 1980s, the arrival of a huge Christmas bell was a signal to Haverhill’s citizens that the holiday season had begun. The bell hung above the plaza in Washington Square. Built by a metal fabrication instructor at Whittier Regional Vocational Technical High School, it featured a horn speaker inside that produced ringing sounds. The fate of that original bell remains unknown. Various Haverhill residents who were around when it disappeared cite wildly different stories: that it fell off the truck on its way to Washington Square and shattered; that it was stored at Winnekenni Castle and was stolen from there; and even that it had been taken and buried in someone’s driveway in Pelham, N.H.
We may never know for sure what happened to the old bell, but thanks to the hard work of some dedicated community members, and with the help of his students, current Whittier metal fabrication instructor Stephen Palmer created a new bell that made its debut at the annual Lorraine Post 29 VFW Santa Parade downtown. Due to changes in building and safety codes, the bell could no longer be hung at its old location over Washington Square, so a new home was found suspended above Washington Street between Casa Blanca Mexican Restaurant and the now-defunct Haverhill Music Centre.