In 17th century New England it was not atheists or secular humanists who declared a “war on Christmas,” but Christians themselves. As I noted in my 2013 post, “A Long Time Coming,” [https://amybeldingbrown.wordpress.com/2013/12/28/a-long-time-coming/], the Puritans reacted to the elements of excess and paganism in Christmas celebrations by shutting it down.
Samuel Sewall was a Puritan judge and businessman who lived in Boston. He kept a diary from the age of 22 until his death. Knowing that the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681, I spent some time looking at his entries for December 25th. Though his first mention of Christmas comes four years after the ban was lifted, it’s clear that the practice of “Christmas-keeping” continued to be a concern for pious Puritans. Sewall takes pains to note that shops were open and commerce was vigorous.
Here are his entries (including his 17th century spellings) between 1685 and 1706. (Some years are missing because he made no entry for December 25th.)
1685 Dec. 25. Friday. Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual. Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it. A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.
Dec. 28. Cous Fissenden here, Saith he came for Skins last Friday and [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.
Dec. 31. Mr. Allen preaches from 2 Tim. 2. 19. Sasith should pray for the Natives that they may name Christ. Spoke against Observing the 25 Instant, called it Antichristian Heresie: Spokke against the Name. Canker began in the Tongue.
1686 Satterday, ,Dec 25. Shops open today and generally and persons about their occasions. Some, but few, Carts at Town with wood, though the day exceeding fair and pleasant.
1687 Sabbath, Dec. 25. Have the Lord’s Supper at the South Church, break up about noon, at which time I heard that Mr. Mater was, on Saturday between 1. and 2. PM, Arrested by Larkin, to answer for trespass on Mr. Randolp, 500 £. damage. Major Richards and Capt. Turell bound. Just as Morn-Exercise ends Mr. Cotton Mather’s child dies; yet he preaches at Charlestown in the afternoon.
1691 December 25, 1691. Mr. Moodey takes his journey towards Portsmouth this day. Cold and Snowy. Shops open and business carried on as at other times.
1694 Tuesday, Dec. 25. Shops are open, men at work; Carts of Pork, Hay, Coal, Wood come to Town as on other days. Mr. Mccarty’s shop is open.
1696 Dec 25, 1696. We bury our little daughter. In the chamber, Joseph in course reads Ecclesiastes 3, a time to be born and a time to die – Elisabeth, Rev. 22, Hannah the 38th Psalm. I speak to each, as God helped, to our mutual comfort I hope. I order’d Sam. to read the 102 Psalm. Elisha Cooke, Edw. Hutchinson, John Baily, and Josia Willard bear my little daughter to the Tomb.
1697 Decembr 25. 97. Snowy day: Shops are open and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood and Fagots as formerly, save what abatement may be allowed on account of the wether. This morning we read in course the 14, 15, and 16th Psalms. From the 4th v. of the 16th Ps. I took occasion to dehort mine from Christmas-keeping and charged them to forbear.
1703 Dec. 26, Sabbath; very sore vehement Storm of Snow; exceeding high Tide, which did much hurt in Cellars and lower Rooms, and carried many Stacks of Hay quite away. It seems Roxbury Meeting was held at Mr. Walter’s Dwelling-house. The Christmas keepers had a very pleasant day, Gov and Mr. Dudley at Church, and Mr. Dudley made a pretty large Entertainment after.
1704 Dec 25. Monday, a Storm of Snow, yet many Sleds come to Town, with Wood, Hoops, Coal &c as is usual.
1705 Tuesday, Dec. 25. Very cold Day but Serene Morning, Sleds, Slays, and Horses pass as usually, and shops open.
1706 Mid-week, Dec. 25. Shops open, carts come to Town with Wood, Fagots, Hay, and Horses with Provisions, as usually. I bought me a great Tooth’d Comb at Dwight’s; 6s.