Nobody really knows for sure, but the very first New England Christmas party could have happened in Maine.

It might have taken place 418 years ago, on St. Croix Island, in the river of the same name, just a few miles east of Machias.

Students at Portland’s North School pose on stage in their Christmas play garb around 1920.

That’s where French explorer Sieur de Mons and cartographer Samuel Champlain landed with nearly 80 would-be settlers earlier that same year. Of course, it probably wasn’t much of a “joyeux noel” for them since there were no women, no children and half of them died of scurvy before springtime.

Photographic cameras hadn’t been invented yet, so we can only speculate on what it looked like.

But, lucky for us, both and the Penobscot Marine Museum have extensive photographic archives to show us what Maine Christmases past looked like.

Clockwise, from left: People gather around a community Christmas tree at Lincolnville Beach in 1953 for an Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company photograph; The Presque Isle fire station is lit and decorated for the holidays in a photograph from the 1950s; Children and adults stand atop snowbanks outside a church in Biddeford circa 1952 for a holiday photograph taken by the Eastern Illustrating & Publishing Company. Credit: Courtesy of and Penobscot Marine Museum

Strings of lights blaze into the night on the Presque Isle firehouse, students dance in their finest crushed velvet outfits and community members gather around a tree at Lincolnville Beach in some of the photos.

Musicians and revelers gather around a Christmas tree for a group photo at a camera club party, somewhere on the coast, in 1952. Artist and photographer Carroll Thayer Berry made the photograph. Credit: Courtesy of the Penobscot Marine Museum

In another picture, a photographer tries to organize a group shot at a party as musicians and revelers assemble by an indoor evergreen.

A more somber photo shows dozens of children in a Lewiston orphanage on Christmas Day.

Children pose for a photograph on Christmas at St Joseph’s Orphanage in Lewiston in 1946. Many hold what look like new gifts but one prior child resident reported receiving only an orange for Christmas, then drying the rind and chewing it for months to come.

In a reserved but elegant picture, a woman holds a cat on her lap by a small, Charlie Brown-ish Christmas tree more than 100 years ago.

After that winter in 1604, de Mons and Champlain packed up their survivors and moved the settlement to a better spot on the Bay of Fundy. Within 20 years, more Christians began to settle in New England and Christmas observances became a regular thing, though not for the Puritans, who frowned on most kinds of fun.

Students, all dressed up, dance near a Christmas tree at Farmington State Teachers College in 1965. Credit: Collections of Mantor Library at University of Maine Farmington, courtesy of

It wasn’t really until the mid-19th century that most protestant Mainers started celebrating Christmas in a big way.

That’s also about the time photography was invented — and Christmas photos weren’t far behind.

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Troy R. Bennett

Troy R. Bennett is a Buxton native and longtime Portland resident whose photojournalism has appeared in media outlets all over the world.