Needham History Center & Museum Needham History Center & Museum, Needham Massachusetts 02492

Ye Christmas? Bah, Humbugge!

     

    Ye Christmas? Bah, Humbugge!

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    Bah, Humbug! In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas. Not ‘discouraged’ or ‘frowned upon,’ but banned, as in subject to criminal prosecution and a fine of five shillings (now, about $8000).

    In the Massachusetts colony, the established church of the 1600s was Puritan.  The Puritans were seeking to reform and ‘Purify’ the church by purging it of the idolatry, the princely hierarchy, and the ceremonial excesses that they saw in both the Roman Catholic and Anglican churches. Most of the New England colonies outlawed non-Christian congregations – Rhode Island was an exception, and was therefore the home of the first Jewish congregation.  Several colonies also banned Quakers, most banned Catholics (who settled in Mary-land).  Our ideals of inclusion, and diversity, and the separation of church and state were completely meaningless to 17th-century people. They lived by the authority of the Bible, and their social, civic, and religious lives were intertwined.  Town Meeting took place in the Meeting House, both because it was the largest space, and because in order to participate in civic life, a man (yes) also had to be an accepted member of the congregation.

    So why did the Puritans ban Christmas? Christmas in Anglican/Catholic England was a rollicking time. The harvest was in, the beer had been brewed, and the meat had been salted. It came right at the start of winter – a long, dark, cold season. So, it was a time to celebrate before the gloom set in. All that feasting on boar’s heads, dancing, wassailing, decking the halls, and resting-us-merry that the carols celebrate – that was Christmas before the 1600s.

     

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    “At Christmas play and make good cheer, for Christmas comes but once a year.”  (Thomas Tusser, 1557)

     

    In the 1640s, however, England underwent a revolution that drove King Charles I from his throne (and ultimately to the headsman’s block) and established a Puritan Commonwealth.  Among the rulings of the new Parliament was the decree in 1644 that December 25th would thereafter be a day of “fasting and humiliation” and that anyone caught celebrating or setting aside their labor would be charged with an offense and fined.  The Puritan General Court of Massachusetts soon followed suit, outlawing the celebration of Christmas in 1659.

    Puritans had two main objections – first, that a 12-day-long party was not a suitable expression of religious devotion, given that the event was intended to commemorate the birth of the Savior. People spent more time indulging in license and sin than they did in devotion and prayer – “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides,” lamented one preacher.  And second, there was no authority in the Bible for a December Nativity. The date had been co-opted by early Christians from pagan celebrations – the winter feasts of the Roman Saturnalia and Norse Yuletide – that marked the winter solstice.

    The English monarchy was restored in 1660, but Puritans maintained their power in Massachusetts.  The ban remained law until 1681, and continued in practice for many more years.  Throughout the 1700s, December 25th was a regular day of work and school. It was not until 1856 that Christmas became a recognized legal holiday in Massachusetts.

    So how did we get Christmas back? In part, because American society became more diverse in religion as Protestant denominations flourished.  The church was “dis-established” in Massachusetts in 1834 and public life became a secular matter.  The 1840s also saw a huge influx of Catholic immigrants, mostly Irish, for whom the festive celebration of Christmas was customary.  And in part we owe it to Charles Dickens – “the Man Who Invented Christmas” – whose tale of the redemption of Ebenezer Scrooge was published in 1843, just as the public celebration of Christmas was being revived.  To a nation struggling with expansion, industrialization, and the loss of established ties, A Christmas Carol provided sentiment, nostalgia, and an enduring image of Christmas “as it used to be.”

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