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.