Christmas at Beacon Hill

jacobs_bhill_5.jpg__1260545550_9897A 1929 newspaper article from Boston tells the story of a boy named Alfred Shurtleff, who in 1893 began a tradition in his Boston neighborhood that reads a lot like the spirited Christmas enthusiasts of our day who festively decorate their homes with lights each season.

What did Alfred do?

On a snowy Christmas Eve Alfred lit a single candle and put it in the bedroom window of his home in the Beacon Hill area of Boston. Nobody seemed to mind, though Alfred was sure that a neighbor or at least an adult somewhere would ask him what he was doing and why.

But nobody said a thing. But the actions of the boy, unspoken though they were, inspired his neighbors. And the next Christmas, several homes on Cedar Street on Beacon Hill featured the single candle burning in the window.

The Beacon Hill area of Boston – both then and now – is a quaint 19th century neighborhood featuring red brick sidewalks, cobblestone streets, wrought iron fences and gas-lighted lamp posts. Some would say it resembles a Thomas Kinkade painting, so you can imagine the effect that Alfred’s lighted window had on his neighbors, who began putting the candle in the window every year. The practice gained in popularity – and then began to wane a little bit when in 1907 the family of neighbor Ralph Adams Cram put a couple more candles in the windows of his home and set out spontaneously to Christmas carol in the neighborhood.

Their impromptu act of Christmas spirit was so much fun the following December 23rd, they sent out invitations to neighbors, in old English script, inviting them to join in on the festivity.

Word of the event spread, and the Christmas of 1908 in Beacon Hill was brilliant lit with both candles and Christmas spirit as neighbor greeted neighbor in song and festive greetings on Christmas Eve. Next year the event was even bigger, drawing carolers from other neighborhoods who came with Japanese lanterns in the evening and before the dawn of Christmas morning.

From the light of Alfred’s single candle some 15 years before an entire community began a tradition of celebrating Christmas.

Alfred had a younger brother whose name was Arthur who later made his own mark on the celebration of Christmas in Beacon Hill. In 1905 Arthur married Margaret, who around the time Alfred was lighting his candle traveled with her father, Arthur Nichols – a local Boston physician and bell ringer at the Old North Church in Boston – to Europe, to learn the fading art of bell ringing. Margaret became the first American woman to ring a complete peal on tower bells in England. Upon leaving Europe, her teachers and hosts there presented her with a set of eight Whitechapel handbells, and Margaret expanded her skills in bell ringing to include handbells.

Given her roots in Beacon Hill, and her relation to brother in law Alfred, it was only natural in time that Margaret would bring her handbells to the Christmas Eve festivities in her old neighborhood. Over time she spread the love of the art of ringing through her annual Christmas Eve performances in Beacon Hill, a tradition that continued until her health began to fail in the early 1970s. These traditions were taken up by her grandson and other concerned neighbors and today thousands still enjoy the bells, the lights and the festive caroling in Beacon Hill.

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