, Salem, MA


December 18, 2012

McAllister: Christmas' rocky Massachusetts past


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.

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