Jamestown Historical Society Feature
Many of the early settlers of Jamestown were members of the Society of Friends, or Quakers. Historically, Quakers were against the celebration of special days. “All days are the gift of the most high,” they asserted. Christmas was no more important than any other day.
The early Baptists – the second church group to establish itself in Jamestown – also frowned on the celebration of Christmas, although as early as 1772 the Baptist Church of Newport introduced special religious observances on the day.
Nineteenth-century Jamestown followed the lead of the rest of the country in celebrating Christmas with religious services and, as time went on, with more secular festivities. No account of a Jamestown Christmas before the advent of the steam ferries between Jamestown and Newport could be found, but a story of Christmas Eve at the First Baptist Sabbath School near Carr Lane in 1874, the year after the first ferry, has the ring of a continuing tradition. The Christmas tree was loaded with decorations and with gifts for the children, who gave a concert. Santa Claus arrived despite a heavy snow.
The religious significance of the day was not forgotten. In 1881, members of different religious groups – mostly Baptists and Episcopalians – joined together to have Christmas Eve services at Douglas Hall, the town-built nondenominational church that stood in the artillery lot at Four Corners. The Rev. Samuel I. Carr, pastor of the Central Baptist Church, addressed the group, although reports suggest the event was primarily a social gathering.
Some people still had to work, of course. In the early 20th century, the Newport Daily News reported the Jamestown post office would observe the usual holiday hours and would be open on Christmas Day from 9:30 to 11:30 a.m., and from 4:30 to 5:30 p.m. The newspaper also reported there would be no noon trips of the ferry to Newport so crew members could enjoy their Christmas dinners.
The ferryboat was also the site of Christmas fun. An annual Christmas party was held on an 8 a.m. trip of the Governor Carr, when the high-school girls and those going to work at that hour exchanged gifts. Cake, candy and nuts were served. (Evidently the boys on their way to high school didn’t participate in the festivities.)
In the 1950s and 1960s, an annual community Christmas card stood outside Lang’s Dry Goods Store at East Ferry, where the Purple Door Bead Shop is now. The billboard-like structure was decorated to resemble a large greeting card. For a donation toward the purchase of books for the Jamestown School library, islanders could sign their names to the card and extend Christmas greetings to friends without mailing cards.
Music seems vital to Christmas celebrations. When the first community tree was put in place on the fire station lot in 1927, the year before the fire station was built, the choirs of the three churches, accompanied by the Sir Galahad orchestra, sang Christmas carols. Carols are still sung at the tree lighting at East Ferry. Most of the trees, both in the early days and since the tradition of a community tree was revived in 1980, were donated by Jamestowners.
In the early 20th century, immigrants from Portugal and the Azores brought their tradition of a Christmas Eve parade – complete with band – to the island. The band played carols, and the members were invited into the homes they visited for a feast.
Since 1949, the Jamestown Community Chorus – initially under the direction of Rita Murray, then Virginia Tennant Eastman, Capt. Wilbur Holmes, and since 1989, B.J. Whitehouse – has contributed an annual Christmas concert to the musical mix.
Lighting, too, has been important. The tree lights were dimmed during the early part of World War II, although in 1943, Christmas lights were again permitted with the caution that people should keep in mind the conservation of electricity and with the warning that blackouts might be necessary.
During the war, one of the most secret installations on the East Coast was Mickey, Jamestown’s big radar station on Beavertail Road. In 1952, a Christmas greeting signaled the end of the secrecy. Naval personnel at the station, working in their off hours with salvaged material, built a 5-foot star outlined in electric lights on top of the 110-foot tower. The star threw its beams down on three 15- foot high magi and their camels on the top of the barracks.
Lights on the toll plaza of the Jamestown Bridge in 1959 signaled not just the season but an unexpected increase in December bridge traffic, up 24 percent over the same period the previous year.
The newest holiday activities in Jamestown are the Christmas Eve pageant on Shoreby Hill green, introduced by Jeanne Bunkley in 1975, and the New Year’s First Day Plunge, formerly the Penguin Plunge, which began in 1977. Both quickly became Jamestown traditions.