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Sentimental, Secular Christmas Starts in New England

Americans' daydreams of a cheery, old-fashioned Christmas often drift to the snowy Northeast. As writer Amy Whorf McGuiggan lays out in her nostalgic new book, Christmas in New England, "It seems that no matter where one lives, everyone's Christmas is, at least in part, a New England Christmas."

Evergreen trees and candlelight concerts on the green: New England. Frosty windows and roaring fires: New England. Sleigh rides across the snow: New England again.

Ms. McGuiggan carefully describes the sweet, romantic images of the holiday by Massachusetts painter Norman Rockwell. Some of the earliest and lushest Christmas trees shipped to towns across the country were harvested in Maine, the "Evergreen State." New England natives wrote beloved Christmas hymns like "O Little Town of Bethlehem" and the secular classic "Jingle Bells." New York gets credit for the first depictions of Santa Claus as a plump and jolly old elf, but Mrs. Claus was a New Englander's creation. Christmas cards, flying Santa Clauses dropping gifts to remote towns and lighthouses, and even Christmas bows and ribbons and wrap got their start in New England as well.

This toasty holiday cheer is all the more remarkable because a good chunk of New England despised Christmas for the longest time. Early settlers called "Pilgrims" were Christian purists who thought the season of Christ's birth should be reserved for pious contemplation. It was only when central and southern European immigrants began flocking into the region in the mid-19th century that New England began to embrace Christmas trees and paper snowflakes and a potent holiday drink or two.

And once they got the hang of it, otherwise proper, starchy New Englanders helped to put the "merry" into Christmas.

Christmas in New England: A Treasury of Traditions, from the Yule Log and the Christmas Tree to Flying Santa and the Enchanted Village, by Amy Whorf McGuiggan, is published by Commonwealth Editions, Beverly, Massachusetts.