The pious Puritans who sailed from England in 1620 to found the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought with them something that might seem surprising for a group of devout Christians—contempt for Christmas. In a reversal of modern practices, the Puritans kept their shops and schools open and churches closed on Christmas, a holiday that some disparaged as “Foolstide.”
After the Puritans in England overthrew King Charles I in 1649, among their first items of business after chopping off the monarch’s head was to ban Christmas. Parliament decreed that December 25 should instead be a day of “fasting and humiliation” for Englishmen to account for their sins. The Puritans of New England eventually followed the lead of those in old England, and in 1659 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made it a criminal offense to publicly celebrate the holiday and declared that “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” was subject to a 5-shilling fine.
Why did the Puritans loathe Christmas? Stephen Nissenbaum, the author of The Battle for Christmas, says it was partly because of theology and partly because of the rowdy celebrations that marked the holiday in the 1600s.
In their strict interpretation of the Bible, the Puritans noted that there was no scriptural basis for commemorating Christmas. “The Puritans tried to run a society in which legislation would not violate anything that the Bible said, and nowhere in the Bible is there a mention of celebrating the Nativity,” Nissenbaum says. The Puritans noted that the scriptures did not mention a season, let alone a single day, that marked the birth of Jesus.
Even worse for the Puritans were the pagan roots of Christmas. Not until the fourth century A.D. did the church in Rome ordain the celebration of the Nativity on December 25, and that was done by co-opting existing pagan celebrations such as Saturnalia, an ancient Roman holiday of lights marked with drinking and feasting that coincided with the winter solstice. The noted Puritan minister Increase Mather wrote that Christmas occurred on December 25 not because “Christ was born in that month, but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian [ones].” According to Nissenbaum, “Puritans believed Christmas was basically just a pagan custom that the Catholics took over without any biblical basis for it. The holiday had everything to do with the time of year, the solstice and Saturnalia and nothing to do with Christianity.”
The pagan-like way in which Christmas was celebrated troubled the Puritans even more than the underlying theology. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides,” wrote 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer. Christmas in the 1600s was hardly a silent night, let alone a holy one. More befitting a rowdy spring break than a sacred occasion, Christmas revelers used the holiday as an excuse to feast, drink, gamble on dice and card games and engage in licentious behavior.
In a Yuletide twist on trick-or-treating, men dressed as women, and vice versa, and went door-to-door demanding food or money in return for carols or Christmas wishes. “Bands of mostly young people and apprentices would go house to house and demand that the doors of prosperous people be open to them,” Nissenbaum says. “They felt they had a right to enter the houses of the wealthy and demand their high-quality food and drink—not meager handouts, but the stuff prosperous people would serve to their own families.” Those who failed to comply could be greeted with vandalism or violence.
Even after the public commemoration of Christmas was once again legal in England following the restoration of the monarchy in 1660, the Yuletide ban remained firmly on the books in Massachusetts for an entire generation. Although outlawed in public, the celebration of Christmas endured in private homes, particularly in the fishing towns further afield from the center of Puritan power in Boston that Nissenbaum writes were “notorious for irreligion, heavy drinking and loose sexual activity.”
In his research, Nissenbaum found no records of any prosecutions under the 1659 law. “This was not the secret police going after everybody,” he says. “It’s clear from the wording of the ban that the Puritans weren’t really concerned with celebrating the holiday in a quiet way privately. It was for preventing disorders.”
The prohibition of public Christmas celebrations was unique to Massachusetts, and under the reign of King Charles II, political pressure from the motherland steadily increased for the colony’s Puritan leaders to relax their intolerant laws or risk losing their royal charter. In 1681, the Massachusetts Bay Colony reluctantly repealed its most odious laws, including the ban on Christmas.
Hostility toward the public celebration of Christmas, however, remained in Massachusetts for years to come. When newly appointed royal governor Sir Edmund Andros attended Christmas Day religious services at Boston’s Town House in 1686, he prayed and sang hymns while flanked by Redcoats guarding against possible violent protests. Until well into the 1800s, businesses and schools in Massachusetts remained open on December 25 while many churches stayed closed. Not until 1856 did Christmas—along with Washington’s Birthday and the Fourth of July—finally become a public holiday in Massachusetts.