CONNECTIONS: Puritans banned Christmas, Stockbridge restored it

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By Tuesday, Dec 12 Life In the Berkshires  1 Comment
The 1753 House in Williamstown, a replica of an early 18th-century dwelling. Photo courtesy Williamstown Historical Society

About Connections: Love it or hate it, history is a map. Those who hate history think it irrelevant; many who love history think it escapism. In truth, history is the clearest road map to how we got here: America in the 21st century.

It’s Christmas, so deck the halls and hit the malls. We assume, on December 25th, there will be Christmas celebrations, but that was not always true.

The Puritans in the Plymouth colony did not celebrate Christmas, and Gov. William Bradford punished offenders.

On May 11, 1659, Bradford’s sentiments were passed into law by the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony: “It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whoever shall be found observing, by abstinence of labor, feasting, or in any other way, any such day such as Christmas… shall pay for every such offense five shillings as a fine.”

The General Court’s intent in outlawing Christmas was to prevent “disorders arising in several places within the jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivities, as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the dishonor of God and the offense of others.”

The new colonists were differentiating themselves from England. They were making a stand against excess and guarding against much more. Specifically they opposed wassailing, a British custom like caroling. In England, poorer members of the community went to the homes of their “betters” and sang in exchange for food and drink. Reinvented in the new world, carolers did not stand outside, but instead entered the kitchen. In Massachusetts, wassailing began to resemble breaking and entering. Wassailers entered the home of one elderly couple known for their good wines and brandies. The couple offered beer, but the carolers demanded “the best.” When the couple declined to offer pear brandy, violence resulted. In the end, the wassailers burned down the house. The law against Christmas was, at its core, a law against drunkenness, destruction, fights and gaming.

So in 1621, in addition to the law against celebrating, Gov. Bradford declared December 25th a work day. Some refused to work as a matter of conscience, and so were not fined. Yet, at noon, Bradford saw the same people playing games. The governor was disgusted and fined them.

In 1681 the law against Christmas was repealed. For 60 years citizens of Massachusetts had not celebrated Christmas, so the action did not result in immediate change. Even in the early 18th century, almanacs did not indicate Christmas as a holiday. They did not print “December 25” in red ink – that is, Christmas was not a “red-letter day.” In 1761, 100 years after Bradford fined men for playing games on Christmas – and the year Great Barrington and Pittsfield were incorporated – there was a newspaper editorial supporting the celebration of Christmas but warning that it be celebrated as a “most solemn festival [without] disorder or immorality.”

A local minister agreed and insisted they make “the keeping [of Christmas] a matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.”

The road from outlawing the celebration of Christmas to Christmas as we know it was a long one: 207 years from 1659 to 1856. In 1856 Christmas was declared a legal holiday in Massachusetts, but not without an admonition. The Boston Post editorial read: “If any event ever happened in the world that deserves to be commemorated…it is Christmas…it behooves us then to reduce our behavior to a conformity to religion…As Christians we have the highest cause to rejoice, let not our joy hurry us into inconsistency of character…this is incumbent upon us so we do not prejudice others against celebrating Christmas.”

‘Santa’s Portrait’ by Thomas Nast, published in Harper’s Weekly in 1881

Christmas as we know it – with trees and wreaths, bells and caroling, gifts, good food and cups overflowing – was a 19th-century invention. The authors, literally, of the modern celebration were a Stockbridge spinster and a German immigrant: Catharine Sedgwick and Charles Follen.

In novels and stories, Catharine drew the indelible picture of rosy-cheeked children, their eyes alight with happiness, on Christmas morning. Catharine borrowed from her experiences in New York City and from her Stockbridge celebrations of New Year’s Day to create her fictional Christmas (In New England it was New Year’s that was celebrated with open house parties, food, presents and children’s games). Together, Follen and Sedgwick transformed the image of Christmas from one of adult carousing into one of innocent joy.

Follen wrote a story of Christmas, describing it as a holiday for children. His story featured something unknown in America at the time, something that has become the central image of our modern holiday: the Christmas tree. Then, during his 25-year stint at Harper’s Weekly from 1862 to 1887, Thomas Nast gave us our image of Santa Claus, cementing Christmas as a children’s holiday.

“Christmas meant snow…a Saturday excursion to the woods where we gathered pine to make wreaths…our mittens frozen stiff…the library lamps lighted early casting golden oblongs…the watering trough stiff with icicles… the church smelling of peppermint candy, pine, frankincense and myrrh…the sound of caroling and then the squeak of the sleigh runners and clearness of the bells as we went home.” Those were Rachel Field’s memories of a childhood Christmas in Stockbridge at the turn of the last century.

Half a century later, Norman Rockwell captured the classic images, physical and emotional, that are a New England Christmas. During those 150 years, all the elements of celebration were gathered from around the world, around the country and from other New England holidays, and collected into our modern celebration of Christmas: songs from England; the tree from Germany; the jolly gift-giver from Scandinavia, Ireland and Germany; and recipes from the world over.

So whatever you celebrate and however you do it, all the best to all of you this holiday season.

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One Comment   Add Comment

  1. Robert Feuer says:

    Thank you, Carole, for this review of Christmas in the history of Massachusetts, and for our home town’s role in this holiday’s history.

    Thank you for your time, research, and writing. Most of all, wishing you a very merry Christmas, and happiness throughout the New Year.

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