LEXINGTON — Men, women, and children, some in Colonial-era garb and others in modern dress, gathered around a blazing bonfire Sunday to burn tea leaves and proclaim anyone who used the product a traitor. A strange sight in 2018, but in Lexington it’s all about history.
Town residents and passersby were celebrating the Lexington Tea Burning, which took place three days before the Boston Tea Party in 1773, when the town’s citizens gathered to burn all of their tea and decry anyone who used it “as an enemy of this town and this country.”
Dec. 16 marks the 245th anniversary of the Boston Tea Party, which will be celebrated with an immersive reenactment that includes a protest led by Colonial women at the Old South Meeting House and the throwing of real tea leaves into Boston Harbor.
The tea burning gathering, hosted by the Lexington Historical Society and a local reenactment group called The Lexington Minute Men, began in 2012, when local author, documentary filmmaker, and historical society member Rick Beyer proposed the event after recreating the moment for a film. This year is his last before he and his family move to Chicago.
“Whatever your political affiliation is, the idea of this is that citizens are taking part,” Beyer said. “Citizens are not leaving it to somebody else to make the decisions or do things, but that the citizens of one town of about 700 people in 1773, said, ‘well we’re going to make our stand and say what we think should be done.’ And that, at the core, is what all of this is about.”
Lexington Historical Society board member Craig Sandler said the event was meaningful because reenactors mingled with the crowd. “Everyone is engaging in the same act, the same ritual, and that pulls everyone together in a way that other reenacts don’t,” he said. And the crowd was invited to participate in the early afternoon ritual burning.
As reenactment actors walked around with sacks of tea leaves, children and their parents grabbed handfuls to chuck into the fire. Cries of “Huzzah!” and the scent of tea filled the air following the burning, the first flames of the American Revolution officially lit.
“Lexington was first, not just in the battle,” Sandler said, “but also in taking direct action against oppression.”
“And we’re not saying they were copying us in Boston, that they were taking their cues from us,” Beyer added. “But let’s just say that the news of the tea burning in Lexington appeared in the Boston newspapers on the morning of December 16th.”
Michael Duncan Smith, a member of The Lexington Minute Men, said he joined the group because of the very first tea burning in 2012. Now he’s Sergeant Michael Duncan Smith, and he provides all of the reenactment actors with 18th century food during encampments.
On Sunday, he demonstrated 18th century cooking methods — highlighting staples like beer, rice, dried peas, and hardtack, which is a simple but very hard biscuit.
“I think a lot of people lose sight of our past,” he said. “We’re all amateur historians, and we try to bring the past alive for people, especially kids who might not know the history, and adults who might not know the history.”
Standing to the side of the bonfire with her family, Heather Nielsen said events like the one on Sunday provide “a really nice experience for [children] to get some context of the history of the place they’re growing up, and it’s nice to bring the community together.”
“It’s just really nice to raise them in a community like Lexington,” she said, her three children playing in front of her. “I think that the history here is one of the things that brings that community together.”
Joe Sirkovich, a Lexington resident since 1995, stopped by the tea burning Sunday after reenactment actors crossing the street caught his eye, he said.
Though it was his first tea burning, Sirkovich said events like these are a part of what define Lexington.
“The whole history of the town, relative to the Revolution, is so important,” he said. “It’s so important to the whole history of not only Massachusetts, but the whole country.”