The first Christmas in Marietta featured a 2 for 1 deal. No, it was not a "buy one get one" retail promotion. It was two holidays that were celebrated on the same day: Thanksgiving and Christmas were to be celebrated on December 25, 1788.
A proclamation dated December 17, 1788 was issued by "His Excellency Arthur St. Clair, Esquire, Governor and Commander in Chief," stating that "For as much as it is encumbent on all men to acknowledge with gratitude their infinite obligations to Almighty God for benefits received...do hereby ordain that Thursday the 25th of December be observed as a day of solemn Thanksgiving and Praise..., and I do probihit all servile labor on that day."
It is unclear why Thanksgiving was not observed at the usual time. The Governors Chart of Laws, published by Rufus Putnam on April 9,1788, included both Thanksgiving and Christmas, among other holidays: "Be it ordained that all members of the colony must celebrate 22d February, 7th April, 4th July, annually. Also in a proper manner observe the 28th November, 25th December, and 1st day January, annually."
Christmas then was not the mega-event that it has become today. Moreover, the New England settlers in Marietta were probably not used to celebrating Christmas. Their puritan ancestors had actually banned Christmas celebrations in 1659. They believed that Christmas was not biblical, had pagan origins, and in practice was more drunken revelry than pious observance. Christmas had been reinstated but was still only loosely observed by the bah-humbug New Englanders in the late 1700's.
1788 had been an historic yet challenging year. Marietta was a new (and the first!) settlement in the newly established Northwest Territory of the United States, the first such territory outside the original 13 states. The town was being laid out, a few houses were built, a fortified community elegantly named Campus Martius (Latin, meaning "Field of Mars") was started, and Indian treaty negotiations were well underway at nearby Fort Harmar. The surrounding lands were being surveyed, and 30 families had recently moved into town. It was a "crazy busy" place.
Yet there were stresses. Food was short at times since the first harvest was limited. Indians seemed friendly, but the peace seemed tenuous to many. There was discord among leaders and citizens. The weather that winter was severe; the rivers froze. Ice and snow made travel - and survival - a challenge. But, life went on.
It was an event filled December, 1788 in Marietta. The diary of James Backus - a young Ohio Company shareholder, businessman, and civic official - supplies much of the commentary. Quotes are from his journal unless otherwise noted.
On December 13 nearly 200 Indians were reportedly present for treaty negotiations; the following day there was a parade and military inspection. On December 15, there was a ball. It was the talk of the town, "All of the conversation of the Settlers centered in the Ball." Backus himself "Went to the Ball....drank good wine & came home groggy." He reported the next day: "Tuesday, 16. Fine morning but felt no better for the Ball." Judge Parsons, in a letter to his friend, the Reverend Manasseh Cutler, mentioned the ball in glowing terms - with no mention of a hangover: "We had the first Ball in our Country at which were present fifteen ladies as well accomplished in the manners of polite circles as any I have seen in the old states."
The ball was a pleasant distraction from the rigors of frontier living. However, Governor St. Clair viewed the revelry - and the frequent drunkenness of the Indians - with concern. The Indian negotiations were too sensitive and the threat to public safety too great to risk an alcohol fueled incident - from Indians or settlers.
St. Clair issued a warrant on December 16 for the confiscation of all "spirituous liquors" until treaty negotiations were finalized. The same James Backus, as a recently commissioned deputy sheriff, was responsible for seizing the liquor. He does not mention this in his diary. He kept detailed records and issued receipts for the later return of the liquor.
Community activity was henceforth more sedate and, well, sober. Dr Solomon Drown arrived in Marietta on December 19 and reported "more decorum (was) observed than in the British Parliament when I was there."
On Christmas/Thanksgiving morning, locals were jolted alert by a three gun salute from Fort Harmar answered by a three shot cannon blast from Campus Martius. Later there was a church service. Judge Parsons gave a sermon from Psalm 103, verse 2.
Dr. Drown gave an account of the day to his family in Providence, "It being Christmas, public worship was introduced by reading...in the Church Prayer Book. Gen'l Parsons read a sermon adapted to the occasion. Good singing. I dined at General Goodale's and as this is such a new country, perhaps you will like to know our bill of fare. A boiled dish, Turkey, beef and bacon, cabbage, turnips and potatoes, butter, etc., A roast turkey 17 pounds. A turkey pie, custards, wheat bread, etc." There was no mention about those disruptive spirituous liquors.
Christmas Day at Fort Harmar may have been similar to that reported by soldier Joseph Buell's journal in 1787: "This being Christmas Day, the sergeants celebrated it by a dinner to which was added a plentiful supply of wine." Backus' journal notes that on December 26 there was "another ball." New Years Eve and New Years Day were also occasions for merriment and "musick."
The new year of 1789 began with events of note. The Indian peace treaty was signed January 9. There was a gathering of Indian chiefs, a dinner, and parade. On that same day, General James Mitchell Varnum passed away quietly of tuberculosis. An elaborate funeral including citizens, leaders, military honors, and masonic rites followed. Later in January, a son was born to the family of Nathaniel Cushing; he was named James Varnum Cushing. The cycle of life moved on in the new settlement and surrounding territory.
Phillips, Josephine E., "The Tide of Time, the Old Northwest Territory's First Christmas," The Tallow Light, Vol.1, No. 3, January, 1967.
Journal of James Backus, various entries, as reported in the Josephine Phillips article above.
Backus, William W., Geneological Memoir of the Backus Family, The Press of the Bulletin Co., Norwich CT, 1889, pages 37-42, accesssed at https://archive.org/stream/genealogicalmemo00back#page/38/mode/2up
The Week Staff, The Week, December 20, 2011, accessed at http://theweek.com/articles/479313/when-americans-banned-christmas
Howe, Henry, Historical Collections of Ohio, an Encyclopedia of the State, Volume II, C. J. Krehbiel, Cincinnati, Ohio, 1907, page 803, viewed at https://books.google.com/
Note: Special thanks to Campus Martius Museum Education Specialist Glenna Hoff for sending your author The Tallow Light article after a casual conversation and to Charlotte Keim for providing The Week article about Christmas.