Christmas in Colonial New England—or not
Re-running our Christmas Classic this year. Enjoy the holiday break!
In December we think of Christmas and the ever-evolving forms of celebration of that holiday in America. And being the HP, we think of the very long period over which Christmas was not celebrated in New England.
The Separatist Pilgrims and the Puritans, the two English groups who settled what is now New England, did not celebrate Christmas because they did not celebrate any holidays, because they believed that every day was given by God, and so every day was holy. It was humans who picked and chose certain days to be better than the rest, thus impugning God’s holy creation by identifying some days as unimportant and boring. Holidays were the creation of humans, not God, and an insult to God in more ways than one: not only was the creation of holidays a disparagement of other days, but the usual form of celebrating holidays in England involved raucous immorality. There were few silent nights during religious holidays in Europe. They were times of drunkenness, gaming, gambling, dancing, and licentiousness, and as a major Christian holiday, Christmas involved high levels of all these things—let’s just say there were a lot of babies born the next September. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas,” wrote the reformist Bishop of Worcester Hugh Latimer in the mid-1500s, “than in all the 12 months besides.”
While they lived in England, the Pilgrims and the Puritans withdrew from Christmas celebrations, conspicuous by their absence from the debauched partying in the streets. When they removed to America, both groups took great pleasure in putting an end to the observance of holidays, Christmas in particular. Both groups observed many special days, either of thanksgiving or fasting. When something particularly good happened, a thanksgiving was held. This involved a church service and then gatherings at home or in groups (see Truth v. Myth: The First Thanksgiving for more). When danger threatened, or something bad happened, a fast was held. This involved a day of church services preceded by fasting, which meant not eating and even refraining from sex the night before. (Puritans knew that nothing humbled people like hunger and celibacy.) No other special days were observed.
So December 25 was just like any other day for the Pilgrims and Puritans. If it was a Sunday, you’d go to church and perhaps hear a sermon that referenced Jesus’ birth. If it was a Tuesday, you got up and went to work as usual. In Plimoth, where the Separatist Pilgrims were outnumbered by unreformed Anglicans, Governor Bradford had a hard time stopping the Anglicans from celebrating Christmas. The Anglicans would not learn from the example of the Separatists, who were hard at work on Christmas day 1621. Here is Bradford’s good-humored account of a run-in he had with unreformed celebrants that day (he refers to himself in the third person here as “the Governor”):
“And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. One the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, as was used. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of [Christmas a] matter of devotion, let them keep [to] their houses, but there should be no gaming or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.” [Of Plymouth Plantation, 107]
When the Puritan Massachusetts Bay Colony absorbed the Pilgrim Plimoth Colony into itself, and Massachusetts came under direct royal control in 1681 (losing its political independence), the Anglican governor assigned to the colony brought back Christmas celebrations. In 1686, when King James II created the Dominion of New England, composed of Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Connecticut, Rhode Island, New York, and East and West Jersey, and designed specifically to destroy Puritan political independence and religious identity, the royal governor James chose, Edmund Andros, was bitterly resented by all his new subjects. When Andros went to church to celebrate Christmas in Boston in 1686 he needed an armed escort to protect him.
Now Christmas was associated with royal dictatorship and all the grief of the Dominion, and the people of New England and especially Massachusetts continued to boycott the holiday well into the 18th century. When the Revolutionary War began, Christmas boycotts rose in popularity as the day was again tied to royal control and tyranny. After the war, Congress met on Christmas Day, businesses were open, and while private celebrations were not uncommon, there was no official recognition of Christmas in New England. In fact, no state recognized Christmas as an official holiday until Alabama took the plunge in 1836. President Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870, and that was about the time that New England at last gave up the remnants of its ancient resistance. (Readers of Little Women, which Louisa May Alcott began to write in Concord, MA in 1868, will remember that while the Marches celebrate Christmas with gusto as well as reverence, Amy March is able to go to a store first thing Christmas morning to exchange a gift, revealing that Christmas was still a day of business in Massachusetts at that late date.)
It’s ironic, given this history, that the winter scenes created by Massachusetts-based lithographers Currier and Ives became the template for “a traditional New England Christmas” in the 1870s, complete with one-horse open sleighs and jingle bells. Sleigh rides, roasting chestnuts, spiced apple cider—all these Christmas traditions originated in New England, but they were not specific to Christmas when New Englanders enjoyed them in the 18th century. They were just part of winter. Even the “traditional” white Christmas relies on a cold northern winter, a defining characteristic of the region that no one in colonial times associated with the holiday.
Today, there are still branches of Protestantism that look down on “the observance of days”, and urge that all days be seen as equally holy and important. But Christmas is here to stay… for the foreseeable future, anyway.