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Maine's First Christmas Observance

Did you know that the very first Christmas observance in New England, if not the first in our country, was in Maine? It was on a desolate little island at the mouth of the St. Croix River, about sixteen miles below Calais, called "The Isle of the Holy Cross" by the adventurous little band who had settled there.

You have read all about the first Thanksgiving day, appointed by Gov. Bradford to celebrate the first successful harvest of the Colonists on the Ply-mouth shore; but our school histories have nothing to say about the first Christmas, celebrated, not by the Massachusetts colonists, who did not approve of Christmas merry-makings, but by a little band of Frenchmen, headed by DeMonts and Champlain, six-teen years before the coming of the Pilgrims. We may feel sure that this was the first Christmas celebration, for it was the first settlement attempted by white men, even for a few months, on our shores.

The Maine Christmas of 1604 was as different as possible from the Christmas days you know. To begin with, there were no women or children to take part in the festivities and what is Christmas without the little folks! There was no. Christmas tree, although trees were the most abundant things the island afforded and easily could have been cut but what would have been the use of a tree when they had no presents to hang on it and no children to admire and exclaim over it? The usual Christmas dainties were lacking, too, as you might expect, where men must do all the cooking and there were no shops from which to purchase supplies. Yet we read that they had a feast and you who know the delicious taste of a roast haunch of venison or a savory rabbit stew, may believe it was very good indeed, for game was plentiful. There were a few luxuries, too, brought from the old country, for they had not yet felt the need of hoarding their food supply.

It was a white Christmas, such as we in Maine know so well. Snow came early that year and covered everything with a thick, white blanket while the river was filled with ice. What if the wind did roar through the trees and whistle down the flues! Their houses were well built and there was plenty of wood to heap upon the fires. These gay, light-hearted and venturesome Frenchmen, always ready for laughter and jest, were quite different from the sober and serious minded Pilgrims of Plymouth. Fortunately, they could not foresee the terrible severity of the winter and the sufferings they must undergo before spring, and they celebrated their holiday in merry and carefree mood.

But first, they attended solemn services in the little chapel, just completed. There were probably two services, one for the Protestants, conducted by their minister, the other for the Catholics, with a priest in charge. The older men gathered in the large hall, built for recreation and meetings, around the blazing fires, and told stories of previous adventures and recalled happy days in France. The young men went skating upon the river and rabbit-hunting along the shores.

Later came the feasting and merry making. A special feature of the entertainment was the reading of a little paper, called the "Master William," which enlivened their spirits during the winter. Of course it was written instead of printed, and there was but one copy, which was passed around from one to another or read aloud before the company. It contained the daily events and gossip of the settlement, and we may be sure the witty Frenchmen worked in some bright jokes at each other's expense. It is a pity no copies of this first American newspaper were preserved. However, Champlain makes mention of it in his journal.

While DeMonts was commissioned the head of the expedition to form a colony on the North American shores, Samuel Champlain, historian and navigator, was the real, live spirit of the party and responsible for much of the Christmas gaiety. It was he who led the explorations, who gave courage and ambition to the men and even to the leader, DeMonts, him-self, and who made the first reliable and fairly accurate maps and charts of the Maine and Massachusetts coast. No more gallant and picturesque character is to be found in our early history than this "true Viking.''

Probably you know Champlain best in connection with the lake which bears his name, on the western border of Vermont, and as the founder of Quebec. You may never have thought of him in connection with the history of your own State. The general histories of the United States seem to have neglected that part of his career, but Champlain himself thought it of sufficient importance to give many pages of his journal and his "Voyages'' to descriptions of the Maine coast and his temporary settlement at St. Croix.

champlainmap
One of Champlain's Maps, Showing DeMonts Colony on St. Croix Island

They are still to be seen, these curious journals of Champlain, written in French, in stiff, precise handwriting, something like that you see in very old copybooks, generously illustrated with colored pictures of the ports, islands, harbors and rivers he visited, besprinkled with the beasts, birds and fish that inhabited them, all drawn as your small brother might draw them and with quite as entire disregard of the rules of drawing. However, when Champlain drew pictures of Indians feasting, dancing and scalping their victims, he left no room for doubts as to what his pictures represented.
Champlain was born in 1567, in the little French town of Brouage, on the Bay of Biscay. His father was a captain in the royal navy and one of his uncles was pilot in the king's service. So you see he was familiar with boats from his childhood. He was equally familiar with warfare, for all through his boyhood, civil and religious wars were going on in France, and Brouage was an important military post. He saw his home town frequently attacked, captured, restored and re-captured, and soldiers and the noise of battle were matter-of-course to him. There were periods of peace, however, and then Samuel attended good schools and learned to write fluently, to draw maps and think for himself.
Of course Samuel fought for his king. He was made a quartermaster, but little is known of his army life. He also took every opportunity to travel and on one voyage visited the West Indies and finally explored inland as far as the city of Mexico. He stopped at Panama and the idea occurred to him that a ship canal cut thru the Isthmus would be a great institution and ''shorten the voyage to the South Sea more than 1500 leagues." Such a canal, as you remember, was opened to the world but a very few years ago, more than two centuries and a half after Champlain thought of it.

On his first trip to North American shores, Champlain sailed up the St. Lawrence River as far as Montreal. Returning with a wonderful narrative of his adventures, he found King Henry and his viceroy, DeMonts, planning the founding of a colony in Acadie, on the northern shores of America.

What more natural, in looking for a pilot for the expedition, than that they should turn to Champlain, an experienced and courageous navigator, who was both soldier and sailor and who combined bravery with prudence and determination with light-heartedness.

So, in the early spring of 1604, Champlain sailed with DeMonts in one of his vessels. Pontgrave, with whom Champlain had made the trip up the St. Lawrence the year before, followed a few days later, with supplies for the new colony.
Picture in your mind the quaint little vessel, no larger than the fishing smack of today, gliding under the frowning crags of Grand Manan, on a beautiful morning in early summer, and up the river which marks today the boundary of Maine and New Brunswick. Crowded on the decks was as curiously assorted a company as ever set out to found a colony. The best of France were mingled with the meanest. There were nobles from the court of Henry IV and thieves from the Paris prisons. There were Catholic priests rubbing elbows with Huguenot ministers; there were volunteers from noble families and ruffians flying from justice.

While the company lacked the unity which made the famous Plymouth colony live, in spite of hardships, there were competent men as leaders and DeMonts had companions of his own kind. There were two of his old comrades in service, Jean Biencourt and the Baron de Poutrincourt; Samuel Champlain, skilled pilot and royal geographer; Sieur Raleau, DeMonts' secretary; Messire Aubry, priest; M. Simon, mineralogist, two surgeons and other men of education and position, who are mentioned by Champlain in his journal. Later, they were joined by Lescarbot, a jolly, good-humored fellow, who proved such a "good sport" that he added much to the cheer of the colony and he left some of the most entertaining accounts that have been written of any of the early explorations. He was a natural born story-teller and entertainer, a poet and familiar with classic myth and literature, as his writings show. Less matter-of-fact than Champlain, he had an eye for the humorous and the picturesque.

They had sailed but a few miles up the river of the Etechemins, when they came upon a small island, containing some twelve or fifteen acres, and fenced round with rocks and shoals. Both Champlain and DeMonts were much taken with this island.

Anchors went overboard and all hastened to go on land. That very day a barricade was commenced on a little inlet and a place made for the cannon, the men working as fast as they could, considering the mosquitoes, for Champlain wrote: "the little flies annoyed ns excessively in our work, for there were several of our men whose faces were so swollen by their bites that they could scarcely see."

DeMonts named the island St. Croix because "two leagues higher there were two brooks which came crosswise to fall within this large branch of the sea."

According to all accounts, the island presented a very busy scene for the next few weeks. At its southern extremity, DeMonts planted the heavy guns. Not so many years ago cannon balls were dug out of the sward here, and, near the close of the eighteenth century, when the boundary between the United States and Canada was being settled, the commissioners traced the foundations of buildings long since crumbled away, the only remains of the first settlement on the Maine coast.

First there was the line of palisades to be established on the north side of the island. Champlain showed himself to be no less useful on land than on sea. He it was who drew the plans for the new colony. He located the buildings for sheltering its members, the workshops, a well and two great garden plats. When DeMonts had located the storehouse and seen it started, he gave his attention to a residence for himself, which, the chronicles say, was built by good workmen.

The end of August saw the work so well advanced that DeMonts sent his friend, Poutrincourt, back to France, he agreeing to return in the spring with reinforcements and supplies. DeMonts kept one ship with Capt. Timothee to command it, and seventy-nine men. This was three months before the Christmas day of which you have just read.

Emmie Bailey Whitney

 


Source: Maine My State, The Maine Writers Research Club, The Journal Print Shop, Lewiston, Maine, 1919

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