Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony


As I’ve been working on Down Salem Way, a diary-style narrative written from James’ point of view when he and Elizabeth lived in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, I started wondering what Christmas would have been like for the Wentworths in Salem in the late 17th century. I hadn’t researched Christmas during that time since it wasn’t necessary for Her Dear & Loving Husband and the diary for Down Salem Way begins in January and ends in October. My curiosity got the best of me, as it often does, and I was surprised by what I found.

There are those who like to say there’s a war on Christmas, but everywhere I look these days there are rainbow-bright Christmas lights and Christmas trees, and there’s Christmas music on the radio and Christmas movies on TV, which makes it a pretty feeble war on Christmas indeed. As it turns out, there once was a war on Christmas, and it came from the Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The Puritans didn’t take much to Christmas; in fact, they disliked it so much they banned it.

The Puritans had many good qualities…no, they did. They were hard workers, and they put a premium on education, though they may have been a bit harsh with those who didn’t conform to their austere ways. Nonconformists could be banished from the colony in freezing winter weather when there was little chance of survival without stored food or shelter. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the 17th century lived their lives according to a strict interpretation of the Bible—their own strict interpretation of the Bible, but still, it was an interpretation of the Bible. If it didn’t say so in the Bible, then it wasn’t so to the Puritans. The Bible has nothing to say about the celebration of Jesus’ birth, so to the Puritans, Christmas wasn’t a true celebration of Jesus. It was a fake holiday invented by those seeking an excuse to party. After all, Christmas celebrations are about making merry—eating, drinking, caroling, and carousing in more or less (often less) polite ways. And the Puritans didn’t see the point of making merry, especially in impolite ways.

It was the pagan beginnings of Christmas that the Puritans disliked so much. Puritan minister Increase Mather noted that Christmas was celebrated on December 25 not because “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].” For the Puritans, Christmas was a pagan practice adapted by the Catholics without any Biblical basis for it. To the Puritans, anything pagan was the work of the devil, and the devil had no place in pious Massachusetts (a belief which they would go to great lengths to prove in 1692).

In 1647, the Puritan government in England cancelled Christmas, and making merry was forbidden, shops stayed open, churches were closed, and ministers were arrested for preaching on Christmas day. Puritans who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought their strict values with them, and between the years 1659 to 1681 anyone caught celebrating Christmas was fined five shillings, which in today’s money would be around 1000 US dollars according to measuringworth.com.

For my fictional characters James and Elizabeth Wentworth there still would not likely be much of a Christmas celebration since hostility toward Christmas remained in Massachusetts after 1681. When Sir Edmund Andros attended Christmas services in Boston in 1686, he prayed and sang hymns surrounded by soldiers meant to protect him from violent protesters. It wasn’t until the middle of the 19th century that Christmas was formally recognized in Massachusetts.

You only have to look outside your window to see that there isn’t much of a war on Christmas these days, but in the Massachusetts Bay Colony the war against Christmas was so complete that the holiday was forbidden. The next time someone tells you there’s a war on Christmas, you can point to any sparkly display, and then you can tell them that there once was a real war on Christmas, and then you would have had to put your carols, your ornaments, and your ugly sweaters away unless you were willing to pay a fine for them.

Merry Christmas!

References

Forbes, B. D. (2008). Christmas: A candid history. Los Angeles, CA: University of California Press.

Klein, C. (2015) When Massachusetts banned Christmas. History. Retrieved from http://www.history.com/news/when-massachusetts-banned-christmas

Kohler, R. (2007). Ruling the lords of misrule: Puritan reactions to the Christmas festivities of early modern England.

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