Maggie Freaks Out, Part 2
So, Maggie lives in a United States that is creating its own civic holidays, and which has austere religious liturgies and traditions. Little does she know that is about to change. It will take over 100 years, but she no doubt would be shocked by the culture of today’s USA and religious practices.
According to Leigh Eric Schmidt, the austerity and paucity of American holy days and holidays changed in the mid-1800s, in large part because of Charles Dickens’ classic story, A Christmas Carol. Dickens toured the USA after the Civil War, where he would read his socially-conscious and sentimental story about a heartless employer facing the impact of his actions. It evidently touched a nerve. People began to understand that holidays (and holy days) just might have value. Workers would come back to their jobs refreshed and ready to start producing again.
But seen through commercial eyes, holidays and holy days also had potential. They could mean greater sales of items specific to the day, and this would mean greater income for business.
But all this happens just after the time in which my character Maggie is living, which is the Civil War era. Charles Dickens had yet to make his great tour of the United States. Maggie and her society would still be holding on to older American traditions regarding the celebration of holy days.
Maggie’s religious ancestry (and my own) goes back to John Wesley, who sought to create a revival in the Church of England. Anglicans who belonged Methodist societies were in the British Colonies by the mid-1700s. Long story short, the American Revolution forced John Wesley to break with tradition and ordain bishops to send to the newborn nation, even though he was hesitant to break with the Church of England (not to mention the king).
Despite our churches’ common DNA, Maggie’s experience is very different from mine. I haven’t written about how Easter or Holy Week was approached in the Maggie series. However, in Saint Maggie, I wrote in some detail about Christmas in Maggie’s boarding house and community. Her little Methodist church did not have a Christmas Eve midnight worship service. Rather, they gathered for worship on Christmas morning. Worship was followed by some modest gift-giving at home and a dinner. Then Maggie and family would go out to do something for someone else. In Saint Maggie, they visit the town’s orphanage, where they bring gifts of food and spend time with the children. In the short story, “The Dundee Cake,” Maggie tries to make the best of Christmas but is distraught that she does not have the money even to knit stockings or mittens for her daughters. Despite this, she and her girls call on the Johnson family and give them a modest gift of baked goods. Later, Maggie convinces her boarders to donate what they can, which means they will forgo the luxuries of Christmas dinner to help the Johnsons. In 1863, the tables are reversed in “The Christmas Eve Visitor,” when a stranger visits the once-again impoverished family during a snowstorm. This time they are on the receiving end, but the gifts are of a spiritual nature, which gives them hope.
These traditions probably seem strange to us – especially the simplicity and austerity. However, the idea that one should be generous at Christmastime – regardless of religious belief or unbelief – has survived. Still, I think Maggie would find our current era bewildering, especially the second she set foot in a church.
This is primarily because somewhere around the 1960 and 1970s there was a liturgical renewal among Protestant churches. During this time some of the traditions of the Roman Catholic Church were recovered and integrated into Protestant liturgies. For instance, the Presbyterian church which I attended as a child only had communion (or the Lord’s Supper) quarterly. Maggie would have been completely at home with that. She also would have resonated with its penitential vibe. Not so with our contemporary observances of the Lord’s Supper. Today, our liturgy has a more celebratory feel, and Protestant churches observe it more frequently: monthly, twice a month, or even (gasp!) weekly. The church I serve is in the twice-a-month group.
Many Protestant churches today also follow the liturgical calendar and use the Revised Common Lectionary (or other proscribed readings) for the church year. Lent, the season before Easter, has taken on greater significance as a time of fasting and prayer. United Methodist churches start Lent with an Ash Wednesday service and end it with a Maundy Thursday, Good Friday, or even Holy Saturday observance. Easter is not only a religious observance but at home many Protestants partake in more “secular” activities like buying new clothing, purchasing gifts of chocolate, coloring eggs, and enjoying children’s anticipation of the Easter bunny.
All of this would have been foreign to Maggie, except perhaps a large family meal. Our religious observances would smack of “romanism” or “popishness,” pejoratives for Roman Catholic traditions. Given Grandpa O’Reilly’s presence in her household, I doubt Maggie would have used such terms, although she would find the observances to be strange and uncomfortable. She might be horrified by the pagan elements like the Easter bunny and egg hunts. Our focus on consumption during both Christmas and Easter might alarm her, as well. As a pious Methodist, who has lived with poverty a good part of her life, Maggie would be disturbed by our practice of purchasing goodies for ourselves, rather than giving to those in need.
I think it will be interesting to see how she reacts to having more money, now that Eli is Editor-in-Chief of the Register and the family is upwardly mobile. Will she resist encroachments of the Gilded Age? We’ll see.
 Leigh Eric Schmidt. Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of Americans Holidays. (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995)
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