Christmas for the Irish in Boston, then and now: Even in 2020, history offers holiday hope

The word “merry” seems out of place as this year’s Christmas season approaches at the height of the pandemic. Still, hope can be found in the imminent availability of Covid-19 vaccines. 

In 1918, the first year of the Spanish Flu pandemic, Boston and its Irish population endured a similarly gloomy holiday scenario. That was not unusual for men and women with ties to the “old sod – historically, the early arrivals from Ireland had been banned from celebrating Dec. 25 in the city.

     From 1800 to 1850, the Irish could scarcely have picked a worse place than Boston to mark Christmas. The original Boston Puritans had loathed “Popish” Yuletide rituals so much that, in 1659, the Massachusetts General Court had enacted laws against honoring the day. Anyone caught toasting the occasion suffered a five-shilling fine. Above all, for the Mathers and other Puritan luminaries, Christmas celebrations symbolized “Papists” and their church.

     In such a climate, Boston’s Irish celebrated the holiday in muted fashion until their political clout swelled in the late 1800s. In Ireland, the holiday had largely revolved around Mass and family, not the raucous celebrations of feverish Puritan and Yankee imaginations, so the early Irish of Boston noted the holiday simply, with many families keeping children home from schools on Christmas later in the century.

     At the Church of the Holy Cross, on Franklin Street, and later at the Cathedral of the Holy Cross, in the South End, Christmas Masses were held in the opening decades of the nineteenth century, always under suspicion of the local Yankees. As German Catholic immigrants arrived and began attending the local “Irish churches,” the newcomers introduced locals to Christmas trees and greeting cards; a thaw in the region’s traditional, Puritan-steeped Christmas notions was slowly emerging.

     The Christmas season of 1887 brought a “holiday” card that inflamed Irish from Dublin to Boston. The card, issued by Angus Thomas and entitled “Ode to the Specials (police),” belittled the largely Irish crowd that had gathered at Trafalgar Square in London on Nov. 13, 1887, to protest the imprisonment of Irish MP William O’Brien. Thrown in jail for having orchestrated riots against landlords, O’Brien had become a hero to his countrymen in both Ireland and Boston not only for his stand against the rent collectors and their agents, but also for his refusal to wear prison clothing and his campaign to wrangle political prisoner status for fellow Irishmen in British cells.

     On that Sunday, a throng defying Commissioner of Police Sir Charles Warren’s ban on open-air meetings assembled at Trafalgar “to demand the release of William O’Brien, MP.” Constables, foot guards, and life guards waded into the crowd to clear the square. No shots were fired, but fists, feet, and clubs killed two people. The protestors’ phrase described the tragedy, a term to chill the Irish again and again: “Bloody Sunday.”

     Shortly after the melee, Angus Thomas released his vitriolic card, hardly a subject to foster “peace and goodwill to all men.” His “Christmas” theme featured not the images of St. Nick nor a Nativity scene, but a club—a police truncheon. His idea of humor was the following sarcastic line about the weapon swung against O’Brien’s supporters: “To be used with great care.”

     By the time of 1887’s “Bloody Sunday,” Boston’s Irish were a genuine community, slowly amassing clout at the ballot box and bucking Yankee strangleholds on business and the courts. If any in the Irish wards ever needed a reminder that as hard as life in Brahmin Boston could be, their countrymen overseas still faced greater obstacles, the Bloody Sunday “Christmas Card” was vivid proof.

     Thankfully, as the nineteenth century drew to a close, Boston’s Irish could celebrate Christmas as openly as they wanted, with family parties and dinners, church socials, and midnight Mass turning the Yuletide season into a genuine holiday. As Thomas H. O’Connor writes in “Boston Catholics” –  “They participated in a perpetual calendar of familiar religious devotions that…bound them more firmly together as members of their own distinctive parishes.”

     During the period of Advent in late November and early December, for example, persons of all ages prepared for the coming of the Christmas season by attending daily Mass. They then enjoyed the celebration of midnight Mass on Christmas Eve, often followed by festive and early morning breakfasts with friends and relatives.

     Those scenes would have been unthinkable for Boston’s earliest Irish immigrants living in the city where Puritans banned the holiday and punished transgressors with fines or the stocks. Some 270 years later, through religion, reflection and revelry, Boston’s Irish could finally celebrate Christmas in “grand fashion.”

     Today, even though a somber, scaled-down holiday beckons, rarely have the seasonal themes of hope and giving—marked in 2020 by masks, social-distancing, and hygienic common sense—loomed so large. Those practices, as in 1918, are the greatest gift we can give to family, friends, and the community at large.