Before malls, extravagant gift-giving and blinding displays of outdoor lighting, Christmas in Hopkinton was more quaint and homespun. Stories passed down through generations, and memories of longtime residents, paint a picture of a simpler time, when families would trade gifts at Town Hall and the social event of the season was the Woman’s Club party at the home of George V. Brown, founder of the Boston Athletic Association.
In fact, Christmas was not even celebrated – in Hopkinton or elsewhere in New England -- until a new wave of immigrants arrived in the mid-1800s, shaking up the prim culture instilled by those kill-joy Puritans.
“Christmas was not a big deal in the early 1800s because of the Puritan tradition,” says Russ Greve of the Hopkinton Historical Society. “The first Irish immigrants, who arrived in the mid-1800s, brought the tradition of the Christmas tree.” Later waves of immigrants, including Italians and Armenians, would bring their own holiday traditions, Greve points out.
The book “Brampton Sketches,” written by Hopkinton resident Mary Claflin and published in 1890, also paints a grim picture of the holidays. Patterned after Hopkinton in the 1800s, the fictitious town of Brampton was a place whose residents were “whole, honest, upright, God-fearing people,” and “the keeping of Christmas was frowned upon as something pertaining to Popery.”
By the mid-1800s immigrants and their Pope would add new life to Christmas, but before the turn of the century several Hopkinton disasters would darken the festive mood. Three major fires in the late 1800s destroyed many of the town’s buildings. When the shoe factories closed down, Hopkinton lost its economic center as well.
Early in the 1900s, as the town regrouped, new Christmas traditions began to emerge. Current resident Sandy Altamura, a descendant of Mary Claflin, remembers stories told by her great-aunt Carrie Claflin about family get-togethers at the Town Hall.
“Everybody would bring presents for the kids and place them around a tree,” Altamura said. “My aunt came from a huge family, with lots of land but little money. While some of the children from wealthier families got bigger gifts, my aunt always got something small and practical, like a pair of socks.”
Her great-aunt’s stories, says Altamura, paint a picture of a town that “was homespun, close and wonderful.”
The town during the 1930s celebrated the holidays with parties, music, giving gifts to the less fortunate, and contests for the best-decorated doorway. The Hopkinton Woman’s Club spearheaded many of the festivities, according to a cache of newspaper clippings about the club in the Hopkinton Public Library’s history room.
The Woman’s Club – often with dozens of high school students in tow – would walk through town to sing Christmas carols to the sick and elderly, then gather for refreshments at BAA founder Brown’s home, Maplewood Farm, at 200 Hayden Rowe. “After the districts were covered the carolers gathered at the old Engine house at Maplewood Farm, where they were served hot coffee, sandwiches and doughnuts by the Woman’s Club Hospitality Committee,” one account said.
As part of their 1933 holiday program, the women also enjoyed a one-act play entitled “No Men Wanted.” The club also coordinated the lighting of the community Christmas tree on the common, and town-wide contests for the best-decorated door. Top prizes in 1937 went to Franklin Logan on Clinton Street; Josephine Madigan on Ash Street; Russell Neale on Hayden Rowe; Mary Wallace on Maple Street; and doorways in other districts.
The club’s annual Christmas party took place at Maplewood Farm. Said one 1934 newspaper account: “Mrs. Brown, assisted by Mrs. Harry Hemenway, trimmed the Christmas tree and arranged the wall decorations. A crib, with a sleeping babe, and the three wise men with their camels, completed an effective Christmas scene. Carols were sung, with Mrs. Melvin Dinsmore at the piano.” The group also voted that year to send 35 books to an impoverished school in the Ozarks.
Hopkinton’s own schools also marked the holidays in a special way. A 1981 story by the late Hopkinton historian Gordon Hopper described a 1929 celebration at the former Bear Hill School, once located at the corner of School and Pond streets:
“Money was collected that year by May Temple and used to purchase coffee, presents and candy. Coffee was made by Melvin Cheney, believed to have been accomplished in a large washboiler. Local ladies made and brought cakes to the Christmas party.” Students would sing to their parents; teachers would hand out presents; and local women would make candy bags from cheesecloth. The Cheney family, big landowners in the Bear Hill area, would cut down a fir for a Christmas tree and decorate it.
The advent of World War II cast a pall on the town’s Christmas festivities. At the 1939 Woman’s Club program, guest speaker Mrs. Malcolm Green’s theme was “The International Situation.”
“There never was a time, since the advent of the Prince of Peace, when there was so little peace on Earth,” she said. “Mothers of sons must do something. The same intelligence that plans engines of war ought to be able to think of some other solution.”
Fast-forward to Christmas four decades later, and Hopkinton is still quiet, homespun and filled with a sense of community. Hopkinton-born Jim Long, who now lives in Tennessee, remembers walking home from his after-school job at the Exxon station and enjoying the sights and smells of the holidays:
“On those cold, crisp nights you could see your breath frost up before you as I walked the incline towards my parent’s house on Ash Street,” recalled Long. “From Sampson’s I could smell the aromas of prime rib and goulash. That was a great family-run restaurant…Crossing in front of St. John’s rectory you could hear a faint angelic choir.” The bell tower of the library, Long recalled, had a speaker that played Christmas carols.
“I remember some of those nights, those cold, windy walks home in winter at Christmas time, and their sounds, smells and God’s twinkling the stars above,” he said. “The little town that shaped a lot of nice kind folks…where everybody would wave at you if you drove by or were on foot. Our little Norman Rockwell New England town.”