Christmas 1916

South Shore towns demonstrate holiday pageantry despite the looming shadow of war abroad.

By John Galluzzo

Nobody really wanted to consider what was coming in the winter of 1916, 100 years ago this December. Stories of scorched landscapes and destroyed lives in Europe during World War I had made for a miserable two years for a nation teeming with recent immigrants. President Woodrow Wilson had kept his promise to “keep us out of war” since the conflict began in 1914 but the buzzword “preparedness” was being whispered around many South Shore neighborhoods just two years later.

It had been a difficult year. As late as September, 1916, schools were closed throughout the northeast after an announcement on June 17 in Brooklyn that sent waves of fear throughout the region; “infantile paralysis,” or Anterior Poliomyelitis (polio) was on the march. Children were warned to stay away from amusement parks—coincidentally, Paragon Park suffered a major fire that summer—and to avoid drinking water from fountains. The publishers of the Hull Beacon sent out a request for cleanliness in the September 15 edition, with the rationale that “an epidemic would put a ban on our little town, which would work to serious disadvantage to it as a summer resort.” For some, there was a silver lining. Local businessmen began talking to their state officials about permanently pushing back the start of school to give a late season shot-in-the-arm to lagging seaside tourist destination establishments.

In late fall, much was in motion. Cohasset, a decidedly dry community, was mobilizing for another coming conflict, a war on rum, that would culminate with the passage of the Volstead Act in 1919 and led up to the era of Prohibition. In Hull, a giant new roller coaster began to rise into the sky at Paragon Park and despite the fact that the price of paint had doubled within the year locally (a result of the war in Europe) Hingham was catching onto the “City Beautiful” movement.

Still, the news of the war dominated the days and nights of December. Word was sent out that Miss Marion Holmes, a Red Cross nurse, would be speaking in Cohasset, hoping to raise funds to bring back with her to France when she returned to aid the people there. In Hull, where the Village Park had been flooded and frozen and the sounds of blades cutting the ice could be heard in the vale between the hills, the soldiers at Fort Revere watched the news with extra interest, even as they watched the movies provided to them by the Y.M.C.A.

On Christmas Eve, an odd mix of seasonal revelry and patriotism came to the South Shore as evidenced by the articles on the front page of the Hull Beacon on December 29, 1916. In Cohasset, “A large number of towns-people gathered around the beautifully decorated community Tree on Christmas eve to listen to the carols sung by the Choral Club and join in the singing of that ancient hymn, ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ and ‘America.’” In Hingham, festivities started on Saturday night, December 23, when the Hingham Veteran Firemen’s Association held a “round of fun and good fellowship” that lasted into the wee hours. The next night, Hingham Methodists took to the streets to visit shut-ins, singing carols and leaving each one “a beautiful potted plant as a token of Christmas.” Meanwhile, local Episcopalians boarded horse-drawn “barges” and sang the same carols to their lungs’ full capabilities. In Hull, the wintering families gathered at the Methodist-Episcopalian Church for their Christmas Eve festival, where “The little tots spoke well and the words of Mr. Nickerson [the school superintendent] were gratifying to all.”

For pageantry, though, no town could beat Norwell. “The Community Christmas Tree at Norwell, 35 feet in height and brilliantly lighted, was a sight that well repaid those who attended the exercises at the tree Christmas Eve and Christmas night. Before the exercises began there was a piano recital at James Library, by a member of Milo Burke’s band. The procession to the tree was headed by two heralds, then came in order a brass quartet from Milo Burke’s band, the shepherds, the chorus, a good company of singers and three wise men bringing up the rear. Carols were sung by the chorus, interspersed with selections by the quartet. After the exercises at the tree were completed, the Hospitality Committee looked after the comfort of the gathering by dispensing hot coffee and doughnuts at the Library and the Arts & Crafts Buildings. Then there were selections by the quartet and cornet solos by Mile Burke at Library hall, also a solo by Edward B. Torrey.”

The 1916 holidays came with uneasiness which was to be justified when the Germans opened full-scale war on shipping across the North Atlantic the following month, prompting the United States to land troops in Europe by April. As cheerful as the residents tried to be during the holidays in 1916, it would be two more years before they would again truly experience “Peace on earth and good will to men.”

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