A Long Time Coming

The Rev. Increase Mather, oil portrait by John...

The Rev. Increase Mather, oil portrait by John van der Spriett, 1688. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.”

Queen's Christmas tree at Windsor Castle 1848,...

Queen’s Christmas tree at Windsor Castle 1848, adapted for Godey’s Lady’s Book, December 1850 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

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.


Cold Worship

cold2We’ve just emerged from a cold spell here in New England, with the temperatures bouncing between 20 below and 20 above.  I’ve been more grateful than usual for central heating and wood fires, but it got me thinking about the Puritans and how they managed in the winters. While their homes were equipped with fireplaces that, though they were poorly designed for heating rooms, still put out enough heat to warm a person who was standing near them, their meeting houses were not.  Worship was conducted in the cold.

In the late 1600’s, Judge Samuel Sewall of Boston recorded the effects of the weather in his journal: “Extraordinary Cold Storm of Wind and Snow.  Blows much as coming home at Noon, and so holds on.  Bread was frozen at the Lord’s Table.  Though ‘t was so cold John Tuckerman was baptized.  At six o’clock my ink freezes, so that I can hardly write by a good fire in my Wives chamber.  Yet was very Comfortable at Meeting.”

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730)

Samuel Sewall (1652-1730) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

It makes one wonder what he meant by “comfortable.”  Perhaps he was referring to the warmth of the fellowship.  Or the warmth generated by many bodies in an enclosed space.  Probably it was no colder than anywhere else.  After all, he was used to sitting in rooms so cold that, even when next to the fire, his ink froze.

There were two services each Sunday, and the entire congregation was expected to be present. It must have been nearly unbearable to sit through a one-or-two hour sermon in sub-zero weather.

There are records of ministers annoyed by the people who stamped their feet and swung their arms to keep warm during the service.  Those who could afford them sometimes brought small metal foot stoves filled with hot coals to keep their feet warm.  But such items were prohibited in some churches, for fear they might start a fire. There is a report that sometimes bags made of animal skins were nailed to the edge of the benches for worshippers to warm their feet.  In some places, people brought their dogs to lie on their feet, which created problems of another kind.

I began to think about what the churches they left in England must have been like.  And it struck me that they didn’t have sources of heat, either.  Most were built of stone and might have been even colder inside than out.  The most they did was keep out the wind.  So people simply wore their outdoor clothing when they worshipped in the winter.

The more I’ve researched the Puritans the more I’ve been struck by how little their lives differed from those of the friends and relatives they’d left behind in England.  The only difference was that in New England the winters were generally colder.

In other words, people simply expected to be cold in winter – wherever they were.  It was an unremarkable part of life.  And, no doubt, it made the arrival of spring all the more appreciated.

The Good-Humored Puritan

ImageLike all Europeans, the New England Puritans relied on the medical theory of bodily humors to explain all physical and mental conditions.  The theory goes all the way back to the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates; to the Puritans it was a reliable and time-honored methodology.  Though the theory is no longer accepted, many of its terms are still in common usage today.

The theory of humors asserts that the body contains four basic substances that control a person’s personality and health.  These fluids are blood, phlegm, choler or yellow bile, and melancholy or black bile.  In order to be healthy, an individual’s humors had to be properly balanced.  They determined his or her physical qualities and temperament.  The theory also included variations based on heat, cold, moisture, and dryness.

The basic temperaments, personalities and their corresponding fluid are as follows:

sanguine – blood – extroverted, sociable, creative, talkative

choleric – yellow bile – active, energetic, ambitious, passionate, leaders

melancholic – black bile – thoughtful, creative, perfectionist, self-reliant, independent

phlegmatic – phlegm – contented, kind, affectionate, consistent, relaxed, observant, curious

Unbalanced humors were treated by bleeding, cupping, or purging to relieve the patient of the harmful excess of a humor.  Puritans believed that all foods had an affinity with a particular humor, and could help to balance the body.  They grew herbs used to counter disease symptoms, often based on the heat and moisture of the patient’s skin.  Chamomile and arsenic were used to reduce heat by drawing off excess bile.

We still speak of personalities as “phlegmatic” or “sanguine,” and the heat and moisture qualities are reflected in our descriptions of spicy food as “hot” or certain wines as “dry.”

So a “good-humored” Puritan was happy not because of some good fortune that had happened to him, but because his body and temperament were well balanced.  Although modern medicine is no longer based on humors, there may be something valuable to learn here, especially when we’re tempted to blame our bad moods on other people, or seek happiness by acquiring more material goods.  Maybe we should stop and consider the possibility that there’s something in us that isn’t appropriately balanced – and then proceed to do what we can to fix it.