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Christmas at war

I said a while back that I find the history of Christmas fascinating. One part of Christmas history I find interesting is the Puritans’ banning of it in New England in the 17th century. So I’m going to write a little on that piece of American history (the source for this is Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas, an excellent book).

Christmas was illegal from 1659 to 1681 in Massachusetts. It was generally frowned on for a lot longer period, up through the early 18th century. I’ve been aware of that for a while; it’s occasionally mentioned in “war on Christmas” culture war dust ups. But why did they ban it? I mean, the common complaints against Christmas today are excessive commercialism and a loss of religious meaning. I don’t associate the 17th and 18th centuries with those problems, do you? The Puritans actually made an argument against Christmas that some secularists make today: no date is mentioned for Jesus’ birth in the Bible and it certainly wasn’t in the winter, as no one would be living out with their flocks in such weather. They noted that the date was chosen to allow pagan converts to Christianity to keep their solstice celebrations, which occurred around that time.

That wasn’t why they were so fervent in their opposition to the holiday, though. It’s actually because Christmas at that time more resembled Mardi Gras than the Christmas we know today. Excessive drinking, eating, general rowdiness, sex…forget the Puritans, it’s enough to spark outrage in religious conservatives of our day. Cotton Mather described it thusly:

The Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty…by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling…

In addition, singing Christmas carols wasn’t the innocent activity it is today as, according to an Anglican minister, they were “generally done, in the midst of Rioting and Chambering, and Wantonness.” In case you’re like me and didn’t know, chambering was a euphemism for sex. Amusingly, births during this period spiked in September and October.

It wasn’t complete chaos, though. There was some method to the madness. It was a reversal of the social order. Kids would mock their elders, the lower class would act as if they were the elites, people would cross-dress, etc. A common practice was for the poor to break into the houses of the rich and demand they be waited on and fed, otherwise they would pay a price. Sounds kinda like Halloween but a bit more aggressive. One incident has a gang of refused youths pelting their target’s house with rocks for a good hour and a half. They then broke a fence, a door, and made off with some apples. For some of the upper class it seems to have been a time to make up with those who serve you by treating them as the masters for a while.

So that’s why the Puritans didn’t like the holiday. They never really stamped it out, as you’ve probably guessed. By the early 18th century the holiday was transforming into a more moderate holiday, with people like Benjamin Franklin encouraging the change. The Puritans of the day shifted from opposing Christmas outright to advocating moderation in its celebration. It became a season of feasting and moderate celebration. Notably, attempts to close businesses and open churches on the day failed, with no one attending the services and shops only pretending to be closed. There was a little gift giving, but it was mostly food, nothing commercial. It also wasn’t a private holiday; it was still a fairly public celebration.

By 1800 most of the excesses of the holiday had vanished. Christmas still didn’t look like it does today; it would take another half a century to accomplish that. At least in America, the 18th century saw Christmas turn from its roots as a pagan carnival into a more dignified public holiday.

Categories: Culture, Religion
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