A BARREL OF LAUGHS AND A BUNDLING BOARD
Harvard Commencement was a major holiday known as Commencement Day, with a splendid dinner and pieces of commencement cake which one brought home to share with one's neighbors.. In fact, there was a rather sweet custom of sharing any special dinner with one's neighors by bringing over a plate of goodies to them. Training Days were holidays where everyone gathered on the Boston Common to watch the men of military age drill and compete for prizes. Tents were erected upon the green where men, women and children repaired to celebrate the martial feats with a great dinner. Election Day was another holiday -- we should be so civilized -- with pieces of election cake distributed to one and all. The cake was a kind of fruit cake, which seems appropriate for politicians.
The Puritans celebrated what we call Halloween on November 5th, or Guy Fawkes Day. Guy was the guy who tried to blow-up the British Parliament -- he might have had more success if he'd used a piece of stale fruit cake. Anyway, people dressed in costumes and lit bonfires and built a "guy" made of straw, carrying it around the streets until they got into fights with rival "guys" or threw the guy on the nearest bonfire. After the Revolution the effigy of Benedict Arnold replaced the traditional Guy Fawkes. The American Revolution wiped out one of our early holidays, though. We no longer celebrate the King's birthday. The Fourth of July replaced that one.
Not only the autumn harvest was celebrated by a Thanksgiving holiday, but the running of the shad and the salmon were also times of celebration, as was sheep-shearing in several states, and most especially on the island of Nantucket where everyone brought picnics to watch the sheep get fleeced. The season of strawberries was an unofficial holiday with boys and girls going off with buckets into the fields and coming back with red lips -- we won't say whether the color was from the strawberries or stolen kisses.... Jolly old sports such as cock-throwing and wolf-baiting were remnants of British influence, as was fox-hunting, although New Englanders did it in the dead of winter by luring the beasts with codfish heads and slaughtering them -- the best sport of winter, they declared. Dice, cards and nine-pins -- still played in New England bowling alleys -- were frowned upon by the ministers but were common. Cards had another legitimate purpose, for invitations to a frolic were written on the backs of playing cards. Dancing was frowned upon and forbidden by the magistrates -- as one minister complained: "lascivious dancing to wanton ditties with amorous gestures and wanton dalliances." (Sounds like our mothers and fathers, doesn't it?) This dislike of dance gave me the idea for my fourth and latest book, Death of a Dancing Master. When the Boston dancing master is found murdered there are many suspects, including ministers and magistrates who harassed the man with fines and sermons. Hetty and Creasy, my two nosy Puritan detectives, also have to contend with jealous husbands and deceitful wives. The book is based upon a true incident, but the real dancing master was merely run out of town. Besides, my poor dancing master could hardly compare to the real-life blacksmith, "a lusty big man," who bragged he could "have" the miller's wife any time he chose -- in fact, he "had" her four times in one afternoon. I guess he was "a lusty big man."
Nor were our colonial ancestors lean and hungry. They ate prodigious amounts of food and drink, and I'm talking real hard liquor. The tavern bills for a minister's ordination dinner show stupendous quantities of liquor -- rum punch bowls, brandy, wine and "six people drank tea." This was out of 80 ministers. I get the impression Charlie Sheen would be outmatched by a company of Puritan ministers. We should remember that ministers were the rock stars of the day. Women sought the prestige of kneeling in private prayer with a good-lookin' minister, and young Cotton Mather was certainly that. From the leading family of clergymen, Cotton Mather, but newly widowed, found himself in a romantic pickle when an entrancing young lady named Kate begged him to pray with her. His prayers must have been potent, as she claimed him for her own and Kate's mother pushed him to marry the girl. He might very well have if his famous father, Increase Mather, hadn't termed her "an airy person," -- meaning an air-head. The handsome widower solved the problem by marrying the widow next door.
Out in the country, wooers of a fair maid might ride many miles to court her -- clearly it would be too late to ride back, so the custom of the bundling board began. The two might share a bed for the night, but a large board was placed securely between man and maid. (Space was scarce in most houses in those days.) The custom seems to have lasted longest on Cape Cod. You can see that life was not so dull in Puritan days -- people ate, drank and loved without our hang-ups about calories, AA or expensive psychiatry. When you think about it, it doesn't seem so bad a life, does it? ###
Bio: M. E. Kemp writes a series of historical mysteries with two nosy Puritans as detectives. She believes that American history is just as colorful and bloody as medieval Great Britain and set out to prove it with four books, the last of which, DEATH OF A DANCING MASTER, is her latest. Her books are all based upon real incidents but in this case the dancing master was run out of Boston; it was her decision to murder him. Kemp lives in Saratoga Springs with hubby Jack Rothstein and two kitties, Boris and Natasha, her most severe critics. They literally tear her scripts to shreds. ###
Thank you, M.E., for being my guest today. I loved your post.