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Christmas Revels: A Bowditch Family Christmas Play

Rakashi Chand
Library Assistant

Playbill for Christmas performances, 1883

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"The performance will begin by having the twins mixed in a basket, and we are authorized on behalf of the fond parents to offer a case of champagne to whoever can identify them on the first trial." This playbill for performances of "Uncle Remus" and "Howell's Sleeping Car" on 25 December 1883 is a peek into the magnificent amateur plays the Bowditch family performed every Christmas. The family began a tradition in 1836 to gather the entire family together on Christmas day and to fill the day with songs, poems, gifts, and an original play, a tradition that became more elaborate and professional with each passing year.

The Bowditch Family Christmas Celebrations

The elaborate Christmas plays staged by the Bowditch family, who referred to themselves as "the Management" in their playbills, were done with utmost attention to detail. Each Christmas, the Bowditch family began their celebrations by sending out printed invitations. Then the script was written, the characters assigned, costumes and scenery created, and playbills printed. The Bowditch family Christmas traditions became more elaborate and important with each passing year, marking the day with merriment, spirit, enthusiasm, and great creativity. The family tradition began with the introduction of a Christmas tree from a European relation, but swiftly evolved into an intricately planned celebration.

A 1926 letter from a family member (in the Wigglesworth Family Papers at the Historical Society) attests to the importance of the family Christmas traditions:

In the woods we all of us have seen and enjoyed a very old pine tree around whose base seedlings have grown up. It seems to us that this is just what is happening about our very old Bowditch Christmas tree. Many seedlings have grown and are growing up about it.

...It's a long cry, too, to the incoming of the Christmas tree brought to us by the coming of Aunt Olivia from England when Uncle Henry brought her home as his bride. We have been told that ours was the first Christmas tree hereabouts....

...I've learned to know our Uncles and Aunts through their playing with us and joining in the frolics. It was all very simply carried out. An unbroken record of ninety annual meetings for one family circle we think cannot be duplicated and its influence has been and still is of real importance to us all....

...We older ones see how full the day is with your immediate family celebrations plus the Bowditch Tree, so we want to be the ones to offer a plan for the future. Why not recognize in all our individual family Christmas trees that each is a seedling from the old tree and around these trees carry on the customs and influences that have meant so much to us, all these years that we have joined together in our Bowditch celebrations?

The Bowditch Family Christmas Collection

This playbill is part of the Bowditch Family Christmas Collection, donated to the Society in 1996, which includes playbills, programs, songs, poems, ribbons, and manuscripts from 1843 through 1936. There also is a typescript reminiscence of Christmas in 1857, a pamphlet on the fiftieth anniversary of the Bowditch Family Christmas tree in 1886, and a 1936 script from the centennial anniversary of the first celebration in 1836. This collection of memorabilia captures a century of Christmas celebrations by members of the Bowditch, Dixwell, and Wigglesworth families and their many close friends and relations. Among family members featured in their theatrical debuts are Charles P. Bowditch, Richard Bowditch Wigglesworth, Henry I. Bowditch, and J. Ingersoll Bowditch.

The Historical Society also holds Bowditch Christmas materials in the Wigglesworth Family Papers including poems, a schedule for Christmas day, 1936, scripts for Christmas plays, and letters between family members trying to determine the best future for the Bowditch family Christmas tradition, once the family became too large to celebrate together.

Amateur Theater

The eleven playbills in the Bowditch Family Christmas Collection form part of the Society's collection of over 200 amateur theatrical playbills. The majority of the playbills date from the nineteenth century when amateur theater became a popular pastime for affluent Bostonians. Private theatricals were also used for charitable or fundraising purposes. In addition, the Society holds hundreds of playbills and programs from professional theater companies operating in Boston and elsewhere that are being added to the MHS online catalog, ABIGAIL. Playbills for both amateur and professional performances offer a glimpse into the fascinating theatrical scene in nineteenth-century Boston where theater bloomed late, as public theatrical performances were banned until after the American Revolution.

This playbill is more ornate than most, as the Bowditch family whimsically printed their program inside a real program from the Boston Bijou Theatre, the largest theater in the city in 1883. The cast of the 1883 Christmas production features members of the Wheeler, Bowditch, Dixwell, Howe, and Miller families. The notes at the end of the playbill indicate the spirit of the occasion: "William requests that the good-looking members of the audience wear mistletoe." One can only imagine the fun that was had on that Christmas evening in 1883 as the curtains were drawn and the Bowditches, with all their friends and family, laughed the night away.

Sources for Further Reading

View the catalog record for the Bowditch Family Christmas Collection.

View the finding aid for the Wigglesworth Family Papers, including genealogical materials relating to the Bowditch family (box 14).

Doherty, Katherine M. "Playbills in the Massachusetts Historical Society of Amateur Theatricals, 1775-1921: A Preliminary Checklist," in Proceedings of the Massachusetts Historical Society, Volume 91, 1979 (Boston; MHS 1980) p. 101-211.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996.