Christmas in Puritan New England
The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were adamant about the decadent celebration of Christmas. Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower, wrote in the ship’s log: "At anchor in Plymouth harbor; Christmas Day, but not observed by these colonists, they being opposed to all saints’ days….A large party went ashore this morning to fell timber and begin building. They began to erect the first house about twenty feet square for their common use, to receive them and their goods….No man rested all that day."
A Relation or Journal of the Proceedings of the Plantation settled at Plymouth in New England, also called Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. (London, 1622), which recods events at Plymouth from the Mayflower's arrival in November 1620 through the 1st Thanksgiving in October 1621, reports that a little Christmas cheer was drunk in December of 1620, "Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry, so no man rested all that day. But towards night some, as they were at work, heard a noise of some Indians, which caused us all to go to our muskets, but we heard no further. So we came aboard again, and left some twenty to keep the court of guard. That night we had a sore storm of wind and rain." and "Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell drink water aboard, but at night the master caused us to have some beer, and so on board we had divers times now and then some beer, but on shore none at all."
The Pilgrims' 2nd governor, William Bradford 1590-1657, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity.
Governor William Bradford (1590-1657)
On Christmas Day, 1620, Governor Bradford encountered a group of people who were taking the day off from work & wrote in his journal: "And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of waight. One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; somepitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly."
When Oliver Cromwell & his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence &, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas. In 1647, the British Parliament abolished the celebration of Christmas, 40 years after the establishment of the settlement in Jamestown. The "No Christmas" policy was reiterated by Parliament in 1652, with the following resolution: "That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon the day in respect thereof."
In 1647, the Puritan reformers in England outlawed Christmas. And in 1659, the Puritans in New England followed suit. People who celebrated Christmas would be subject to a fine of five shillings. The celebration of Christmas was outlawed in most of New England. Calvinist Puritans and Protestants abhorred the entire celebration and likened it to pagan rituals and Popish observances.
In 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans declared the observation of Christmas to be a criminal offense by passed the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law: "Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country." The law was only in effect for 22 years, but Christmas was not made a legal holiday in Massachusetts until the mid-19C.
The General Court of Massachusetts enacted the law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations.
The Assembly of Connecticut, in the same period, prohibited the reading of the Book of Common Prayer, the keeping of Christmas and saints days, the making of mince pies, the playing of cards, or performing on any musical instruments. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early New England from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.
By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the British throne in 1661; and, with him, came the return of traditional, celebrations of the Christmas holiday in England. Despite the colonial Massachusetts General Court being told by mother England to repeal the “penalty for keeping Christmas” as early as May of 1665, for its “being directly against the lawe of England,” the colony did not stricken the law until 1681, with renewed pressure from Britain's newly restored monarch Charles II.
However, Puritan New England society continued to judge celebrating Christmas harshly in the 17C. The New England Historical Society reports that, "There remained in their midst, however, people who did celebrate Christmas with gusto. Especially in the fishing communities, Christmas was embraced. The holiday was mostly celebrated by the less-literate members of the community, and much of what actually happened was never recorded. What was recorded was seen through the eyes of the religious/civic leadership, and they painted an ugly picture of Christmas indeed."
In 1662, William Hoare of Beverly, Massachusetts, was brought to court for hosting a drunken gathering on Christmas day. Hoare was a troublemaker whose family was frequently at odds with Puritan society — eventually their attitudes would cost his wife her life, as she was hanged as a witch in the Salem witch frenzy 30 years later.
More Christmas mayhem occurred on Christmas Day in 1679 in Salem, Massachusetts. Joseph Foster, Benjamin Fuller, Samuel Brayebrooke & Joseph Flint decided they wanted some booze for the holiday. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum recounts this as an example of a wassailing gone very bad. On Christmas night of 1679, four young men of the village of Salem entered the house of septuagenarian John Rowden, who was known to make pear wine, called "perry," from trees in his orchard. The men made themselves at home in front of the fire & began to sing. After a couple of songs they tried to cajole Rowden & his wife into bringing them some of the new wine. Rowden refused & asked the intruders to leave, to which they responded that "it was Christmas Day at night & they came to be merry & to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, & perry they would have before they went."
When the visitors promised to return later & pay for the drink, Mrs. Rowden said, "We keep no ordinary to call for pots." By "ordinary" she meant tavern, & by "pots" she meant alcohol. The four men left, but three returned a quarter-hour later & tried to pass a piece of lead as payment in coin. The Rowdens & their adopted son, Daniel Poole, got the men out the front door, but they wouldn't leave & called sarcastic taunts from the street. John Rowden later testified to the violence that broke out next.
They threw stones, bones, & other things at Poole in the doorway & against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places & continued to throw stones for an hour & a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole & a half of fence, being stone wall, & a cellar, without the house, distant about 4 or 5 rods, was broken open through the door, & 5 or 6 pecks of apples were stolen.
The New England Historical Society tells us that, , "Drinking was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Christmas debauchery. Wassailing, mumming, gambling and feasting were all popular Christmas pastimes. And it was a constant struggle for the Puritans to keep Christmas under control because Christmas was embraced by some of the hoi polloi, who thought it was quite a good time."
The Rev. Increase Mather painted by Dutch-born John van der Spriett in 1688, while Mather was visiting London.
In 1687 the Puritan minister Increase Mather (1639-1723) railed against Christmas. He declared that those who celebrated it “are consumed in compotations, in interludes, in playing at cards, in revellings, in excess of wine, in mad mirth.” In his A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England, he wrote "In the pure Apostolical times there was no Christ-mass day observed in the Church of God. We ought to keep the primitive Pattern. That Book of Scripture which is called The Acts of Apostles saith nothing of their keeping Christ’s Nativity as an Holy-day...Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? ...It can never be proved that Christ’s nativity was on 25 of December...who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it not as thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones."
Peter Pelham (English-born Boston artist, 1695-1751) Cotton Mather
The Puritan ideas about the celebration of Christmas continued in the 18C. Increase Mather's son Boston divine Cotton Mather (1663-1728) wrote in n1712, that the "Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty ...by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling. . . ." Christmas caroling was condemned, as well, since it occurred in parallel with these other acts. In Massachusetts, seafaring communities like Nantucket and the town of Marblehead continued particularly notorious celebrations, despite officials' best efforts to quash Christmas observance throughout the colony.
Cotton Mather's House on Hanover Street in Boston
The Pennsylvania Gazette reported a story on February 10, 1730, originally published in Boston on January 1. "We are informed from Portsmouth, That most of the Gentlemen of that Town being of the Church of England Denomination, the Catholick Goodness of the Reverend Mr. Fitch conform'd to give them a Christmas Sermon Dec. 25, which was the second Time, and which some think a very fair Step towards introducing the Celebration of all the other Festivals of that Church."
Portsmouth was still debating the celebration of Chistmas 40 years later. The Portsmouth New Hampshire Gazette reported in 1770, "Last Tuesday was observed as a festival, being Christmas, in celebration of our Savior's birth. The different modes of observing this festivity, strongly marks the degeneracy of Christians. Prayers, hymns, anthems, thanksgiving and praise marked the primitive days of Christianity; debauchery, wantonness, levity and inhumanity distinguish the modern...Why the evening preceding and the whole night is spent by many in rioting & drunkenness, tumult and noise."
In 1794 in Deerfield, Massachusetts, shopkeeper John Birge noted in his account book the arrival of "Nightwalkers—or rather blockheads" at his establishment about 2 o'clock in the morning on December 22, 1794. Birge refused to open up. The "wassailers" seem to have gained entry by breaking a windowpane & perhaps carried away food & clothing. Birge said, "I cannot see why it was much better than Burglary."
The Puritan influence persisted in Massachusetts throughout the 18C & 19C. Boston public schools were still open on Christmas Day in the 1870s and missing work on the 25th of December was grounds for dismissal.