Once Upon A Time, When Christmas Was Banned…
by C. Danko
Outlawing the celebration of Christmas sounds a little extreme, but it happened.
In fact, the culture and way of thinking that led to the ban was an important, as well as controversial, part of life in 17th and 18th century Massachusetts. The ban existed as law for only 22 years, but disapproval of Christmas celebration took many more years to change. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.
The Puritans who emigrated to Massachusetts to build a new life had several reason for disliking Christmas. First of all, it reminded them of the Church of England and the old-world customs, which they were trying to escape. Secondly, they didn’t consider the holiday a truly religious day. December 25th wasn’t selected as the birth date of Christ until several centuries after his death. Thirdly, the holiday celebration usually included drinking, feasting, and playing games – all things which the Puritans frowned upon. One such tradition, “wassailing” occasionally turned violent. The older custom entailed people of a lower economic class visiting wealthier community members and begging, or demanding, food and drink in return for toasts to their hosts’ health. If a host refused, there was the threat of retribution. Although rare, there were cases of wassailing in early New England. Finally, the British had been applying pressure on the Puritans for a while to conform to English customs. The ban was probably as much political as it was religious for many.
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
Records indicate the first Christmas in the new world passed uneventfully. Some of the new settlers celebrated Christmas, while others did not. But the events of the second Christmas celebrated by Puritans in Massachusetts were documented by the group’s governor, William Bradford. Sickness had wiped out many of their group, and for the first time they were facing hostility by one of the Native American tribes in the area. Bradford recorded that on the morning of the 25th, he had called everyone out to work, but some men from the newly arrived ship “Fortune” told him it was against their conscience to work on Christmas. He responded he would spare them “until they were better informed.” But when he returned at noon, he found them playing games in the street. His response, as noted in his writings was: “If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses, but there should be no gameing or revelling in the streets.”
That second Christmas was the first time the celebration was forbidden in Massachusetts, but the ban didn’t make it into the law books until several years later. As the settlement grew, and more English emigrated to the area, tensions grew between the Puritans and British. The more pressure the English king exerted on the colonists, the more they resisted. In 1659, the ban became official. The General Court banned the celebration of Christmas and other such holidays at the same time it banned gambling and other lawless behavior, grouping all such behaviors together. The court placed a fine of five shillings on anyone caught feasting or celebrating the holiday in another manner.
“The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth …”
- Reverend Increase Mather, 1687
The ban was revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night. But even after the ban was lifted, the majority of colonists still abstained from celebrations. Samuel Sewell, whose diary of life in Massachusetts Bay Colony was later published, made a habit of watching the holiday – specifically how it was observed – each year. “Carts came to town and Shops open as is usual. Some, somehow, observe the day; but are vexed, I believe, that the Body of the People profane it, – and, blessed be God! no Authority yet to compel them to keep it,” Sewell wrote in 1685.