Thursday, December 23, 2010

Canton's Christmastide Traditions

James Dunbar's Poem "Santa Claus" in the collection 
of the Canton Historical Society (photo by George T. Comeau)

Samuel B. Noyes sat down to write his weekly column for the Norfolk County Gazette. It was Christmas week in 1887, and he thought back at how quickly the year had slipped by. This had been a pretty industrious year for the town of Canton. Our small community was a boomtown; the factories had been going full tilt and Elijah Morse had broken ground on his new factory on Washington Street. Kinsley Iron Works was enlarging their shop, new safety tracks were placed on the Viaduct, a new almshouse was built for the poor, and a new Episcopal Church was being built. All in all, it was a very busy year in a bustling town.

Samuel B. Noyes, prominent Canton attorney
and local historian. (Courtesy of the Canton
Historical Society)
Noyes, a prominent lawyer, saw himself as a historian. In fact, Noyes was descended from the Noyes’ that had settled Newbury, Massachusetts, and he reveled in knowing that the family home in the small town of Newbury was one of the oldest in the state, having been built in 1646. The family connections meant that Noyes knew everyone and in fact was part of a prominent Canton delegation that attended Daniel Webster’s funeral in October 1852.
Noyes enjoyed all things Canton and was a friend of Daniel Huntoon, the town’s preeminent historian. Huntoon had died just over a year ago (almost to the day), and now Noyes felt as though it was his duty to adopt local history and stories that his dear friend was so well known for. Noyes’ intensive research, recollections and accounts would be accurate for history’s sake.

Christmas was the topic at hand, and he decided he would dedicate his column to the various celebrations across the community. The holiday began on Friday afternoon as the children opened their schoolrooms to public exhibitions fitting the holiday. The children would sing songs, have small plays, and generally celebrate the season with music and poetry. Santa Claus exchanged his reindeer and sleigh for horse and carriage. Each school was a stop on Santa’s rounds where he distributed confections and fruit to all the children.

The children also had gifts to present, and in the Eliot school, Miss Capen and Miss Sumner were given thoughtful little gifts — perhaps a silk handkerchief or a small, ivory-handled fan purchased in one of the many shops along Washington Street. Teachers, in turn, exchanged smiles knowing that the holiday would bring a welcomed break from the routine of the winter lessons.

It was that handwritten poem by James Dunbar that reminded Noyes of the joy and spirit of Christmas: “I have come, little friends, I have come at your call, A right Merry Christmas, man woman and child. I have just left the top of Blue Hill you must know, where I spied you all out, peering over the snow. I spied out the roof with my double lens glass. I could see through the windows each laddie and lass. I have popguns and whistles and tops for the boys, I have knickknacks and notions and holiday toys. I go my rounds over mountain and hill; no stockings I find which I do not well fill. Three cheers, Mr. Draper, three cheers for this day! Distribute these presents, begin right away!”

At each church there were festivities and celebration. At the “old church” at Canton Corner the organist began services with Mozart’s Gloria, and the choir rose to meet the drone of the pipes with “Exulting Angels.” The heavy fragrance of evergreen and mountain laurel filled the air, and Noyes was enchanted by a large basket of scarlet geraniums that he described as blazing like “the star” itself before the altar.

The large Roman Catholic Church on Washington Street was overfilled to capacity. This was the sixth mass of the day, and Noyes felt the spirit of the season overwhelm the wooden building. This denomination had grown steadily from five men working for Joseph Warren Revere in the 1830s to now the largest part of the community. These were the Irish: the workers, immigrants, and the poor. Yet their church steeple dominated the skyline as if reaching for heaven itself. As poor as these working families were, they were extremely devout and attentive to their spiritual needs. Noyes peeked inside the double doors and was met with the heavy smell of wet wool mixed with pine boughs. The inside of this church was magnificent and ablaze with light.

Interior view of St. John the Evangelist Church in 1912.
(Courtesy of the Canton Historical Society)
Catholics had been in Canton since 1814, regular masses had been said here since 1831 at least once a month and sometimes even more often. In short, this was a significant foothold in a largely Protestant town. Noyes wondered if it would continue to grow and how it might change to accommodate this growing movement in Canton.

Father Flatley was the head of the Catholics in Canton, and he had been in Canton before there was even a parish here. Flatley’s early ministrations were in a small church, almost a barn, on what would become known as Chapel Hill. In 1850 the small building served as the Church of St. Mary. Noyes marveled at how far the ministry had developed in 26 years. There were hundreds of Catholic families in Canton, and they had their own cemetery at Canton Corner, one of the earliest in the state. In fact, by 1861, they were an independent parish with a second mission in Stoughton.

In a few short years, Father Flatley was able to raise enough money, more than $4,000, to buy land and build an impressive wooden church with enough lumber left over for a small chapel in the adjoining town of Sharon. Noyes looked up in wonder at the high tapering tower; inside the church there were magnificent frescoes of archangels on bended knee. Valuable candelabras blazed on the altar, and a second altar was dedicated to the Sacred Heart. In the center rear wall of the church were three enormous stained glass windows that flooded the church with light. The Blessed Virgin Mary and St. John the Evangelist in superb details watched over the entire congregation as they sang their Christmas hymns.

An early 20th century Christmas Card from
L.L. Billings, Canton, MA. (Courtesy
of the Canton Historical Society)
As Noyes turned to walk back toward Washington Street, he walked down an avenue of pine trees, laden with snow, and he could hear the brogues of the families singing clear and loud in the early evening services. Over $600 was raised that year as a Christmas offering by these worshippers.

Noyes never imagined that St. John’s wooden church would one day be replaced with a modern, steel and brick building after nearly 100 years of service to Canton’s Roman Catholics. The old Unitarian Church at Canton Corner has stood for over 187 years and the echoes of Christmas’ past still resound from the pulpit.

The thoughts and prayers of Christmas were felt throughout the Canton of 1887. The focus on simple gifts, fellowship of neighbors, and Christian charity were well understood. Among Noyes’ final thoughts in that column were dedicated toward “useful and beautiful gifts that love and friendship bestowed upon himself.” Canton is as it was over a hundred years ago — a town of love and friendship.

This story ran in the Canton Citizen on December 23, 2010.

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