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Christmas migrates from England to the copper region

Throughout the Lake Superior Copper Mining Region, mine operators place a great deal of emphasis on religion, along those constitutional guarantees regarding its freedoms. In many instances, mining management donated lots to religious congregations for the construction of churches, often contributing substantially to the cost of construction material. There were, of course, ulterior motives at play.

Mine managers and owners believed that church and religion brought a great measure of stability to the population of mining locations, meaning more husbands and young men would find comfort in church on Sunday morning than drinking and fighting. Church attendance (hopefully) brought more stability to workers’ homes, decreasing friction that could negatively impact a worker’s efficiency on the job. Then, of course, there was the added element that church attendance was just good for the mind and soul.

The first management at the mines were men who were primarily members of the Quaker religion, or the Society of Friends. Another break-away group from the Church of England, the Quakers were established in 1650, but were polar opposites of the Puritans and the Pilgrims. Where the Puritans believed that the best way to put down opposition to their doctrine was to imprison or kill those who dissented, the Quakers advocated for peace. The Quakers experienced intense ridicule and rejection for their belief that there is something of God in every human being, and so each person is of unique and equal worth. In this belief, Quakers, therefore placed equal value on people equally, including women. In the Quaker faith, women were of equal value and worth to men, which is why when Cyrus Mendenhall employed women in his fishing business, they held positions right along side his male employees.

Quakers also believed that priests and rituals such as those found in the Church of England and Catholicism were an unnecessary barrier between God and the Christian, and so placed great emphasis on inner spiritual experience and religious truth, believed that one’s conscience was the basis of morality. Because of this, Quakers believed in tolerance. While they did not believe in or recognize religious holidays such as Christmas and Easter, they did not persecute religions that did. It is interesting to note that the mining location at the Cliff Mine, called Clfton, had a Catholic church, and Episcopal church and a Cornish Methodist church, but no meeting house for Quakers.

Among the Protestant missionaries was a Methodist minister, John Pitezel, who placed great importance and significance upon not only Christmas, but the old traditional ways of decorating that had been brought to the British Isles by the Vikings in the eighth and ninth centuries. These were among the customs outlawed by Oliver Cromwell and his parliament in the 1640s.

Pitezel was transferred by his superiors in 1844 from Sault Ste. Marie to the Keweenaw, near L’Anse, to minister to the Ojibway in the region. And when he came, he brought the pagan traditions of Christmas with him. In his diary, which later became his memoir, “Lights and Shades of Missionary Life,” he wrote in 1846:

“Christmas eve, was, with us, a season owned of God. We had our house neatly trimmed with evergreens furnished to hand in such abundance, and well lighted. The meeting was attended by our own and some of the Catholic Indians. We met again the next day and had public worship, and baptized two children.”

Pitezel’s passing mention of trimming the house with evergreens predated by two years the new custom introduced by German-born Prince Albert, consort of Queen Victoria of decorating an evergreen tree for Christmas, which he and the queen did in Windsor Palace in 1848. Or course, any new thing done in Great Britain had to be duplicated in America, but Albert’s concept of a Christmas tree was not really new to the United States.

During the American Revolution, in the winter of 1781, Hessian soldiers (German mercenaries hired by the British Crown) were stationed at Quebec, according to Patricia Claus, in her Dec. 4, 2021 article for the Greek Reporter, General Friedrich Adolf Eiedesel and his wife held a Christmas party for officers at Sorel, Quebec, at which was a fir tree decorated with candles and fruits.

It was the 19th century English author Charles Dickens, however, who redefined Christmas with his novella, A Christmas Carol, by stripping the day of religion in favor of spirituality, morality, love of family and the value of charity to the human condition. As Gary Parkinson, in his Dec. 2019 article, How Charles Dickens helped to redefine the modern Christmas (https://newseu.cgtn.com/news.com), Dickens laced his morality tale with “warnings and prompts, some subtler than others. The overall message of charitable help was obvious enough to affect the humble and the mighty, but anthropologist John Gannon suspects Dickens worried about consumerism: he notes that the happy family present-giving is disrupted when the baby has swallowed “a fictitious turkey, on a wooden platter.” Gannon argues that the author is saying ‘though it is necessary to embody the spirit of this new consumerist ethic it may well go on to haunt our houses unpleasantly.'”

Parkinson goes on the say that Dickens’ Christmas is also surprisingly secular, considering his own faith. Characters make passing reference to Biblical events, but the festivities are focused on family rather than faith – whether it’s the Cratchits’ humble meal or the jolly evening of parlor games that Scrooge is shown by the Spirit of Christmas Present.

“While it’s undeniable that religion is much less central to the average Christmas than it was 200 years ago,”Parkinson points out, “it would be foolish to suggest this shift was caused or even particularly perpetuated by Dickens.”

Parkinson concluded his article by saying:

“Even so, the idea of families getting together, swapping presents and generosity – even saying ‘Merry Christmas,’ a phrase which had been around for three centuries but rarely used – owes at least a little to Dickens. Whether he formed it, predicted it, described it or merely told a good tale, Christmas wouldn’t be quite the same without him.”

Dickens began writing the piece in Oct. 1843, releasing it to the public in time for Christmas of that year, the same year the Lake Superior copper region was opened for mining. But aside from Pitezel’s brief mention of Christmas, there is very little else to suggest the holiday was even acknowledged in the early years of settlement. In fact, a report written to the War Department from General Walter Cunningham, Mineral Land Agent at Copper Harbor, was dated as being written on Dec. 25, 1843.

As Dickens’ novella spread across Great Britain and the United States, immigrants entering the region would bring it with them, along with the spirit it communicated. As immigration from Eastern Europe increased, these new arrivals would bring their Christmas traditions with them, as well. The Christmas Spirit, and the accompanying celebrations, did arrive on the southern shore of Lake Superior; it just took some time in getting there.

Graham Jaehnig has a BA of Social Science/History from Michigan Technological University, and an MA in English/Creative Nonfiction Writing from Southern New Hampshire University. He is internationally known for his writing on Cornish immigration to the United States mining districts.

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