Monday, December 19, 2016

A Puritan “Christmas”

What we would describe as the familiar and quintessential “New England Christmas” celebrated today in the 21st century with decorated evergreen trees, light displays, caroling, gift-giving, and gatherings of family and friends bears no resemblance to the first Christmases spent in the “New World” of Massachusetts by the Puritans.

The Puritans held a special contempt for Christmas and the choice of December 25 being “co-opted” by early Christians as the birth date of Jesus Christ due to its supposed “pagan” origins marking that particular date as the winter solstice on the Roman Calendar during the popular feast of Saturnalia held in honor of the Roman god Saturn. In the ironically titled Puritans at Play, the author relates how the Puritans called December 25 “Foolstide” and that the particular date “aroused their special ire for a variety of reasons.” The main reason being that they believed that no holy days were sanctioned by the Scriptures and also because it was a popular holiday in England which allowed for the sanctioning of “excessive behavior” that was abhorrent and an abomination to them.

In the State Library’s most treasured possession, William Bradford’s Of Plimoth Plantation (a.k.a. the Bradford Manuscript) he chronicles the first two Christmases in the Plymouth Settlement. In 1620, The Mayflower dropped anchor in Plymouth Harbor on December 16 and on the first Christmas Day, Bradford relates that they “begane to erecte ye first house for comone use.” It was definitely not a day of celebration but of hard, grueling work in the harsh New England winter weather.  Bradford relates a story of “mirth, rather than weight” of newly arrived non-Puritan immigrants to the Plymouth colony attempting to observe the Christmas Day “holiday” the following year on December 25, 1621. When he finds them “playing” he goes to them and takes away “their implements and [tells] them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work.” From that year on, Bradford reported that “nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly” on future Christmas Days, or “December 25” as the Puritans would just call it.

This “informal” condemnation of the observance of Christmas Day would evolve into an actual legal ban on Christmas in 1647 with a fine of five shillings for “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” (Colonial Laws of Massachusetts). Five shillings was a pretty hefty fine in the day--a chicken, by contrast, cost but one shilling. Even though the law was repealed 22 years later in 1681, Christmas would not become a Massachusetts state holiday until much later in 1856 (Chap. 113, Acts of 1856) and a federal holiday on June 26, 1870 when the disapproving Puritan view of the past started to lose its hold on the celebration of Christmas Day as the festive and cheerful holiday that it would later become.

Judy Carlstrom
Technical Services