Christmas was a long time coming to New England. It was nearly 200 years after the English Puritans settled in Massachusetts and Connecticut before people began to celebrate Christmas here in a way that we would recognize. They rejected Christmas along with most of the colorful traditions of the Anglican and Roman Catholic churches. Odd as it seems to us today, the Puritans believed that Christmas was a “pagan” holiday. They saw no evidence for it in the bible, (which does not name Christ’s birthday) and – worse – they saw it as an adaptation of the Roman festival of Saturnalia.
In England it was celebrated with drinking, gambling, feasting, mumming and wassailing. Wassailing, as practiced in the 17th century, was the custom of bursting into wealthy people’s homes, singing songs or putting on a little skit, and then demanding money, food and liquor. The line “Now bring us a figgy pudding . . . we won’t go until we get some” from the old carol “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” was intended seriously. If the wealthy homeowner didn’t oblige, the consequences were at best hard feelings, which often evolved into fist fights and rock-throwing. Mumming was another tradition, in which men and women disguised themselves in costumes which sometimes included cross-dressing. The Puritans objected because people could slip into neighbors’ houses for sexual assignations without being detected. They regarded mumming as a roving orgy.
Increase Mather, one of the most influential early Puritan ministers in Boston, condemned people for celebrating Christmas by being “consumed in compotations, in interludes, in playing at cards, in revellings, in excess of wine, in mad mirth.”
Massachusetts Bay Colony actually banned the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681. Offenders who didn’t go about their normal daily business on that day were fined five shillings. Though the official ban lasted only 22 years, the aversion to Christmas became deeply embedded in the New England soul and for generations the holiday was regarded as just another winter day. Businesses and schools were open on Christmas Day well into the 1800s.
As late as 1874, the famous Congregational minister Henry Ward Beecher wrote of his childhood in western Connecticut: “To me Christmas is a foreign day, and it will continue to be so until I die. When I was a boy, brought up in the old Litchfield Hills, nobody talked to me about Christmas.”
Changes came slowly. Episcopalians and Roman Catholics celebrated Christmas in beautiful, moving ceremonies. In 1823 Clement Clark Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was published. European immigrants came, bringing their colorful traditions with them. In the 1840’s Christmas trees were first displayed. And in 1843, Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” focused readers’ attentions on moral values.
After the Civil War, New England embraced Christmas along with the rest of the country. Quiet, family-oriented celebrations replaced debauchery and drunkenness. Now, of course, the observance of Christmas has become a keystone in our national economy. Many retail businesses are dependent on it to remain solvent. Christmas has grown so commercialized that we seem to be on the verge of returning to a time when businesses are open on Christmas Day.
In response, many people find themselves longing for a less hectic, less materialistic celebration. They find ways to focus on what’s important, and turn their backs on the indulgence of over-the-top buying and endless partying. They gather in small groups of family and friends and enjoy the warmth of fellowship over simple home-cooked food.
Perhaps the ghosts of our Puritan ancestors are smiling.