Monday, December 24, 2012

The Puritans' War on Christmas

It is easy to suppose that the celebration of Christmas has always been a part of American life. Yet, this is not the case. Puritans regarded Christmas and its customary practices of exchanging gifts and warm greetings as downright Satanic. In 1651, the legislature of the Boston colony ruled, 

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 (source)

Puritans’ anti-Christmas sentiment extended to all religious holidays. The Puritans believed that “They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.”  Still, they tended to single out Christmas for contempt, referring to it as “Foolstide.” Sixteenth century churchman Hugh Latimer declared, “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides (source).”

Puritans spent December 25th the way they spent any other day (excepting the Sabbath), by engaging in hard labor. If a person was not a Puritan, he or she was still expected to refrain from any activity that would suggest festiveness. Non-Puritans caught playing “stoole-ball” — an early precursor of baseball —were punished by Gov. William Bradford, who declared, “My conscience cannot let you play while everybody else is out working (source).” Christmas belonged to the Catholics, and Puritans would have none of it.

By the 1680’s, the Puritan influence in England had subsided and some colonists were bold enough to openly observe Christmas. Still, when Sir Edmund Andros, Royal Governor of Massachusetts, sponsored a Christmas Day service at the Boston Town House, he knew he was taking a terrible chance. Fearing a violent backlash the governor requested the protection of redcoats as he prayed and sang Christmas hymns (source). Despite his caution, Andros would eventually be captured by an angry mob and imprisoned. The Crown had to negotiate for his release. 

In the first decade of the 1800’s, the public celebration of Christmas was still a novelty: 

A few years earlier, several Boston Congregational churches had started to hold Christmas services and decorate their interiors with evergreen boughs. In Hartford, the first non-Episcopal Christmas service took place in 1823 with a sermon in the Congregational Brick Meetinghouse, the place of worship of most of the city's prominent families. The Connecticut Courant, the newspaper that served as the voice of Connecticut's elite, urged that business be suspended during the day (source).
Unitarians were among the early adopters of a Christmas celebration. Even though Unitarians regard Jesus Christ as a prophet rather than a divinity, they embraced the holiday in part – it is believed – to differentiate themselves from the joyless Puritans.As the 19th century wore on, Puritans suffered from dwindling congregations, and Catholic immigrants from Ireland poured into the country bringing with them their Popish inclination to enjoy Christmas.

As late as the 1860’s, rural counties still shunned Christmas while city dwellers had fully embraced the holiday. Authors such as Theodore Parker satirized the rural folks’ perseverance in Puritan values, and their revulsion and holy terror upon observing the urban practice of decorating homes and exchanging gifts. Country folk are, and ever have been, conservative with respect to social innovations.

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