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An Upton Family Christmas

by David Moffat

Elizabeth Upton purchased The House of the Seven Gables in 1883 and for the next 25 years, her artistic family called the place home. Her husband, Henry O. Upton, was a composer, musician, and dancing teacher; her daughter Henrietta taught oration and dancing; her son Henry, Jr. was a pianist; and another daughter, Ida, was a painter. In those years, the Uptons popularized the old house’s connection to Nathaniel Hawthorne, opening their home to tourists by the early 1890s and selling souvenirs. While the family today is most associated with promoting the gothic spookiness of Hawthorne’s dark tale, they had bright and cheery Christmas traditions like many New England families of their time.

The earliest English settlers in New England and their descendants viewed the celebration of Christmas as sinful and disruptive, but by the late nineteenth century, Christmas traditions like those practiced today had become enshrined in the local culture. Christmas came to exalt two of the chief values of Victorian America: family and Christian piety. The sentiment is captured by George William Curtis, an essayist from Rhode Island, wrote in Harper’s Magazine in 1883: “It is the most human and kindly of seasons, as fully penetrated and irradiated with the feeling of human brotherhood, which is the essential spirit of Christianity, as the month of June with sunshine and the balmy breath of roses.” Later he makes mention of the trappings of Christmas as it had come to be celebrated: “the lighting of Christmas trees and hanging up of Christmas stockings, the profuse giving, the happy family meetings, the dinner, the game, the dance…”

Little is known about how the Uptons celebrated Christmas, although it certainly would have included the singing of Christmas carols with such a musical family. The Upton Family Scrapbook was donated years ago to The Gables and includes two unique sources. First is a photograph of the Upton family Christmas tree from 1903. Almost touching the ceiling, it is a tall evergreen loaded with streamers, wrapped boxes, balls, ribbons, candy canes, and other ornaments. At its base presents are piled high. The fun-loving side of the Uptons is most apparent in the recollection of Elizabeth Upton Haywood Eaton, a great-granddaughter of Elizabeth and Henry. She recollects that at Christmas, Santa Claus would emerge from the small firewood closet hidden in the paneling of the parlor.

We’re sure that when St. Nick visits The House of the Seven Gables these days, he’s happy to find we’ve put a staircase in the chimney to make his job a little easier.

Date: December 1, 2020

Author: sperling

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