A few years ago, I got a telephone call early one morning from a neighbor looking for guidance. She had volunteered to be a guide at one of the houses on the Historic Salem Christmas house tour, and being a conscientious type had decided to research how Christmas was celebrated in colonial Massachusetts.
“This is getting frustrating,” the woman told me. “I’ve gone through the indexes of a pile of local history books and found no references at all to Christmas. Am I missing something?”
She was missing something, a single fact that may have been best summed up in “Everyday Life in the Massachusetts Bay Colony” by North Shore antiquarian George Francis Dow: “New England Puritans hated Christmas, a day for Popish revelry.”
This hard-line view, shared by their neighbors to the south, the Plymouth Pilgrims, was rooted in the fact that there was no evidence in the Bible that Christ was born on Dec. 25, and both groups believed that only teachings found in the Good Book were valid.
But the Puritans’ antipathy to the December holiday was also partly rooted in its relationship to paganism. The third week of the month was set aside in pagan cultures for the celebration of Saturnalia, a Roman festival tied into the end of the growing season and harvest. The celebration was generally marked by drunkenness, gluttony, gambling, hooliganism and general debauchery, all the sorts of excesses that the Puritans abhorred and which had been willingly adopted by many of their fellow Christians in England during the Christmas season.
The Massachusetts power structure went out of the way to make sure that this popish-pagan December bacchanal didn’t take root in the New World. In 1659, the General Court made celebrating Christmas in any way — including taking a day off from work — a criminal offense punishable by a fine of five shillings. But this law would remain on the books for just two decades. In 1681, under pressure from the English government, which was growing increasingly impatient with Massachusetts’ independent attitudes and actions, the law was struck down.
The revocation of the Massachusetts Charter three years later signaled the beginning of the end of the colonial theocracy — and further limited anti-Christmas actions by the colonial government.
At that point the frustrated anti-Christmas forces, led by the likes of the powerful Boston minister Cotton Mather, were reduced to pleading with the populace to celebrate the late December event in an orderly, spiritual manner, not in drunken revelry. The emergence of the less-repressive Anglican Church in Massachusetts, including Marblehead and Salem, and the general relaxing of hard-line Puritan theocracy in the early decades of the 18th century broke down even more resistance to the holiday.
So did the emergence of Unitarianism in the latter part of the century. From a diary entry in 1785, we know that Rev. William Bentley, minister at Salem’s Second or East Church and an early American Unitarian (though nominally head of a Congregational Church), included in his Dec. 25 liturgy that year a number of hymns that made reference to the Nativity, shepherds, Bethlehem, etc. This was a break from the conservative Puritan or Congregational Church practice of ignoring the day altogether.
But even as late as 1802, the Massachusetts Legislature met on Dec. 25 if it fell on a weekday, and there was still significant official resistance to a Christmas holiday, largely because it was most popular among the lower classes, who tended to celebrate the holiday in a fashion more in keeping with Saturnalia than as a solemn religious event.
But the region would see a tremendous influx of new religions and new ethnic groups — especially Irish — in the first half of the 19th century, and their arrival on the local scene would further dilute the original Puritan antipathy to what would soon become the nation’s most popular holiday. But relatively conservative Massachusetts hung tough; even as late as 1850, long after some other states had declared the day an official holiday, our schools and businesses were open on Christmas Day.
By 1859, exactly two centuries after Massachusetts outlawed celebration of the December holiday, the generally conservative national Sunday School Union began publishing Christmas hymns and liturgies. This action was yet another sign that the creation of a national Christmas holiday was inevitable. That honor was left to President U.S. Grant, who in 1870 signed legislation that would provide future generations of Americans with a day off to celebrate as they see fit.
Merry Christmas to all.
Salem historian Jim McAllister is a regular contributor to these pages.