"Shall we have Christmas?" was the way one Pennsylvanian asked the question in 1810. Throughout their colonial history and well into nationhood, not only the matter of "shall" but of "how shall" Christmas be celebrated challenged Americans. Their search for answers to these two difficult and sometimes divisive issues can be found in a chronicle of evolving customs, cultural discord, and striking invention. It begins with the first European emigres, who brought to America an ambiguous legacy concerning the holiday that was almost as old as the Christian Church itself.
Christians had wrestled for centuries with questions of if, when, and how to celebrate Jesus' birth. As a commemoration of the miracle that established the Godly paternity of Jesus, Christmas was a celebration of the event upon which the existence of Christianity depended. At the same time, the festival functioned from its inception as an end-of-year substitute for pagan rites and quickly absorbed many profane elements, ones that remain among its most attractive features. As the observance of Christmas spread, the details of its celebration became as varied as the cultures that kept it and as changeable as the history of those cultures. But the radically paradoxical mix of both the sacred and the profane remained.
The earliest Christians gave little attention to Jesus' birth. They expected the Second Coming any day, and in any case viewed birthday celebrations as heathen. As the possibility of his imminent return faded, the faithful
took a more historical perspective and began to search for evidence of the day or even season of Jesus' birth. They found no clues in the Gospels. Nor could they locate any other reliable sources to pinpoint his nativity. Undeterred, some placed his birth on May 20 and others on April 19 or 20. Clement, Bishop of Alexandria (died c. 215), nominated November 18. Hippolytus (died c. 236) calculated that Christ must have been born on Wednesday, the same day God created the sun. The De Pascba Computus, written anonymously in North Africa about 243, posited that the first day of creation coincided with the first day of spring, on March 25, and contended that Jesus' birthday fell four days later, on March 28.
Sometime in the fourth century of the Common Era, the Roman Church began to celebrate a Feast of the Nativity and to do so on December 25. A variety of issues influenced the decision. Internally, heresies plagued Church authority. Arianism, one of the most threatening, regarded Jesus as a solely human agent of God. The Church insisted on his divinity. By assigning him one human quality -- a birthday -- it appropriated some of Arianism's appeal, but sustained Jesus' place in the Holy Trinity.
The Church had also grown concerned about the increasing popularity of pagan religions and mystery cults in Rome. Each year beginning on December 17, the first day of Saturnalia, and continuing through Kalends, the first day of January, most Romans feasted, gamed, reveled, paraded, and joined in other festivities as they paid homage to their deities. The Church's alarm deepened when Emperor Aurelian, noticing that the pagan rituals had begun to converge around Mithras, the solar god, decreed in 274 C.E. that December 25, the winter solstice on the Julian Calendar, be kept as a public festival in honor of the Invincible Sun. Rome's Christians challenged paganism directly by specifying December 25, rather than some other date, as the day for their Nativity Feast.
Exactly when the Church of Rome began to keep Christmas, however, is not known. The first extant reference to the Feast of the Nativity may be as old as 336, in the earliest list of martyrs of the Roman Church. Perhaps Christmas was celebrated even earlier. Some scholars believe that Emperor Constantine (ruled 312-337 C.E.), who had converted to Christianity and built the Vatican atop the hill where the Mithras cult worshipped the sun, may have instituted the festival.
In any case, by the middle of the fourth century, the Church had boldly declared its Nativity holy day to be observed on the same day as the winter solstice. The concurrence of the two celebrations gave the Church an opportunity to turn elements of the Saturnalia itself to Christian ends. For
example, it used the creation of the sun, the center of the Saturnalia, to reinforce and symbolize frequent scriptural and doctrinal imagery of God as the sun, and of Jesus' role as Son of God. The creation of Christmas was thus a measure of Christianity's growing power, challenging the crowds enjoying Saturnalian revelry to join the once secretive Christians in a celebration not of the birth of the sun, but rather the birth of Jesus, the Son of God.
The overlapping of Saturnalia and the Feast of the Nativity set the terms of all future debate over the Christmas festival. Its Christian aspects, at least in their most intense form, emphasized heavenly afterlife. The heathen elements absorbed into the festival affirmed life and exalted its annual renewal. The Church made no clear separations between the two perspectives. Instead, it layered profane activities with sacred ends to answer the needs, spiritual and physical, of the total person. This combination of sacred and profane made some religious leaders uncomfortable. For example, Gregory of Nazianzen (died 389) urged that "the celebration of the [Christmas] festival [be conducted] after an heavenly and not after an earthly manner" and cautioned against "feasting to excess, dancing and crowning the doors." Indeed, the paradox of purpose forged an enduring Christmas reality. As one historian succinctly characterized it: "The pagan Romans became Christians -- but the Saturnalia remained."
The custom of honoring Jesus' birth on December 25 quickly spread to the Eastern Church. By 380, Christians in Constantinople honored it as "Theophany or the Birthday." These Christians had once observed Epiphany, January 6, as a joint Feast of the Nativity and Baptism. This was the same date that popular legends held pagan gods made themselves known to humans. "Deep in the tradition of the Church's spirituality," writes John Gunstone, "was the idea that Christ's appearance in flesh was the consummation of all epiphanies." During the Christological controversies of the fourth and fifth centuries, the celebration of Epiphany spread westward, but the Roman Church, with its celebration of the Nativity set in late December and its emphasis on Jesus' incarnation and divinity, recast it to commemorate the adoration of the Magi. In Constantinople, Epiphany continued to consecrate Jesus' baptism, but the Eastern Church began to mark December 25 as the day of his birth. The dual celebration, that of birth and baptism, that had defined the old holy day ceased to exist.
Over the next thousand years, the observance of Christmas followed the expanding community of Christianity. By 432, Egyptians kept it. By the end of the sixth century, Christianity had taken the holiday far northward
and into England. During the next two hundred years in Scandinavia it became fused with the pagan Norse feast season known as Yule, the time of year also known as the Teutonic "Midwinter." Sometime around the Norman incursion in 1050, the Old English word Christes maesse (festival of Christ) entered the English language, and as early as the twelfth century "Xmas" had come into use. From the thirteenth century on, nearly all Europe kept Jesus' birth.
The tension between the folk and ecclesiastical qualities of the holy day did not ease with the advance of Christmas-keeping. Documents of the Middle Ages, Tristram Coffin has noted, were "fat with decrees against the abuses of Christmas merriment," an indication "that people at large [were] doing just what they ha[d] always done and paying little attention to the debates of the moralists." Some clergy stressed that fallen humankind needed a season of abandon and excess, as long as it was carried on under the umbrella of Christian supervision. Others argued that all vestiges of paganism must be removed from the holiday. Less fervent Christians complained about the unreasonableness of Church law and its attempts to change custom. Yet the Church sustained the hope that sacred would eventually overtake profane as pagans gave up their revels and turned to Christianity.
These conflicts continued during the Protestant Reformation, but with little promise of resolution. In England, the Anglican Church repeatedly, but with little success, tried to gain control over the day. Its custom had been to begin Christmas on December 16 (known as "O Sapientia") and celebrate for nine days. But during King Alfred's reign (871-899 C.E.), a law passed extending the celebration to twelve days, ending on Epiphany.
Celebrants devoted much of the season to pagan pleasures that were discouraged during the remainder of the year. The annual indulgence in eating, dancing, singing, sporting, card playing, and gambling escalated to magnificent proportions. By the seventeenth century, under the reigns of the Tudors and Stuarts, the Christmas season featured elaborate masques, mummeries, and pageants. In 1607, King James I insisted that a play be acted on Christmas night and that the court indulge in games. One account of an evening's "moderate dinner" noted a first course of sixteen dishes. In 1626, the Duke of Buckingham found that the captains, masters, boatswains, gunners, and carpenters of three ships had abandoned their service in favor of Christmas revels, leaving their vessels prey to any enemy. In
1633, the four Inns of Court presented a masque, The Triumph of Peace," at a cost of £20,000.
It fell to Puritan reformers to put a stop to the unholy merriment and to bend arguments over the proper keeping of Christmas into an older and more basic one -- whether there should even be an observance of the day. Defying the decision of the Anglican Convocation of 1562 to maintain the church calendar, the Puritans struck Christmas, along with all saints' days, from their own list of holy days. The Bible, they held, expressly commanded keeping only the Sabbath. That would be their practice as well.
In taking the offensive against Christmas-keeping, Puritans distributed colorful diatribes against the excesses of the holiday. Philip Stubbes's Anatomy of Abuses (1583) condemned revelous celebrants as "hel hounds" in a "Deville's daunce" of merriment. William Prynne's Histriomastix (1633) inveighed against plays, masques, balls, and the decking of houses with greens. "Into what a stupendous height of more than pagan impiety. . . have we not now degenerated!" he lamented. Christmas, he thought, ought to be "rather a day of mourning than rejoicing," not a time spent in "amorous mixt, voluptuous, unchristian, that I say not pagan, dancing, to God's, to Christ's dishonour, religion's scandal, chastities' shipwracke and sinne's advantage."
Even as Puritan condemnation of Christmas intensified, the economic and social upheaval of the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century had begun to alter English life. The standing social order, along with the paternalism of its manor system, was crumbling. Christmas, in its role as a part of the old structure, could not escape unscathed. In some years, the lavish celebrations lapsed. In many cases, the emphases of the holiday changed. It transformed, in the words of J. M. Golby and A. W. Purdue, into "a symbol for hospitality towards the poor, an understanding between the different levels of society, and happier and more prosperous times in now neglected villages." King Charles I (1625-1649) went so far as to direct his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter in order to keep up their old style of Christmas generosity.
The rise of Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Commonwealth dealt another staggering blow to England's Christmas celebrations. Parliament outlawed seasonal plays in 1642. It ordered that the monthly fast, which coincidentally fell on Christmas in 1644, be kept. Parliament purposely met on every Christmas from 1644 to 1652. In 1647, it declared Christmas a day of penance, not feasting, and in 1652 "strongly prohibited" its observance.
Ministers who preached on the Nativity risked imprisonment. Churchwardens faced fines for decorating their churches. By law, shops stayed open on Christmas as if it were any regular business day.
Yet resistance was not uncommon. One year, protesting Londoners decorated churches and shops with swags of bay, rosemary, box, holly, privit, and ivy, only to watch the Lord Mayor and City Marshal ride about setting fire to their handiwork. The populace "so roughly used" the merchants who ventured to open shop in 1646 that the shopkeepers petitioned Parliament for protection. In Canterbury, when the Lord Mayor ordered that the markets be kept open that Christmas, a "serious disturbance ensued . . . wherein many were severly hurt."
It was within this particularly turbulent era that English Christmas customs entered early Virginia and New England. Most settlers and adventurers arriving in the New World welcomed Christmas as a day of respite from the routines of work and hardship. Some observed it, at least in part, as a holy day. Others attempted to feast. On Christmas, 1608, Captain John Smith and his men, having endured for "six or seven dayes the extreame winde, rayne, frost and snow" as they traveled among the Indians of Virginia colony, "were never more merry, nor fed on more plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England." Maryland-bound passengers aboard the Ark in 1633 "so immoderately" drank wine on Christmas that "the next day 30 sickened of feve[r]s and whereof about a dozen died afterward."
Only Dissenters tried to ignore the holiday. The Mayflower Pilgrims, who arrived at Plymouth in December 1620, spent Christmas building "the first house for commone use to receive them and their goods." Within a year, however, the Pilgrims themselves had to face dissent. On the morning of December 25, 1621, less reform-minded newcomers to the colony "excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on that day." Governor William Bradford allowed the "lusty yonge" Englishmen to rest, saying he "would spare them till they were better informed." But at noon he found them playing games in the street. Angered, Bradford told the frolickers that it ran against bis conscience that they should play while others worked. If they desired to keep Christmas as a matter of devotion they should stay in their houses, he said, "but ther should be no gameing or revelling in the streets." Nor did the Puritans of Massachusetts Bay Colony observe Christmas. Governor John Winthrop
entered nothing in his diary on his first Christmas in America in 1630, and in succeeding years he attempted to suppress the holiday.
In the early non-English settlements, sparse evidence points to a more traditional attitude toward the holiday. In 1604, for instance, French settlers of St. Croix Island, off the coast of Maine, held religious services and spent the remainder of Christmas Day playing games. In 1686 LaSalle's French colony on Garcita Creek celebrated what was probably the first Christmas in Texas. "[W]e first kept the Christmas Holy-Days. The Midnight Mass was sung, and on Twelve-Day, we cry'd The king drinks . . . tho' we had only Water...."
As the first settlements grew into more established communities, patterns of Christmas celebration peculiar to the colonies began to appear. Geographic separation from European homelands, the proximity of disparate religious and ethnic groups to each other, and the hardship of new beginnings disrupted old habits and holidays. In Dutch New Amsterdam, early in the seventeenth century, eighteen languages could be heard among the 500 or so inhabitants. Numerous Christmases abounded, persisting as an expression of individual heritages. In large towns, where various groups lived close together, the common ground for celebration could often be found in public and secular rather than in potentially divisive religious areas. Thus, Christmas, although widely celebrated, retained little importance in society as a whole precisely because of religious and cultural diversity.
Particularly in the middle colonies, a wide range of ethnicities and religions prevented a shared ecclesiastic and religious holiday. Pennsylvania Quakers scorned Christmas as adamantly as Puritans did. Huguenots, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and Anglicans, who also lived in the colony, all kept Christmas in their own way. Shortly after Americans had won their independence, Elizabeth Drinker, a Quaker herself, divided Philadelphians into three categories. There were Quakers, who "make no more account of it [Christmas] than another day," those who were religious, and the rest who "spend it in riot and dissipation."
"Frolicking," the name many gave to this sort of boisterous Christmas and New Year's fun, could be found throughout the colonies. In the New England countryside, revelous intruders entered houses with a speech and swords at Christmas time. Far into the eighteenth century, masked merrymakers roved Pennsylvania's Delaware Valley "making sport for everyone." Southerners shot guns, a custom similar to one practiced in northern England.
The antecedents to this seasonal phenomenon have been traced to Roman times, when early Christians, seeking to ridicule pagan superstition and the Roman custom of masquerading, masked themselves on New Year's Day. Many, however, flagged in their intent and joined in the heathens' frolics. Church officials attempted to persuade members to desist, but failed. In time, even clergy could be found in full disguise, taking part in miracle and mystery plays performed during the Christmas season.
The convention of disguising, or mumming, and performing plays and skits dispersed throughout nearly all European countries. In England, beginning under the reign of Edward III (1327-1377), it became a form of royal entertainment. It peaked in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, when elaborate dress and formal presentations, such as Ben Johnson's Masque of Christmas and that in Shakespeare's Henry VIII, were the order of the season. Enthusiasm for court masques diminished thereafter, dampened by the Puritan Directory. But the tradition of masquerading and mumming continued to thrive in more rustic forms. In parts of England, householders, family, guests, and servants donned masks and painted their faces or darkened them with soot to become "guisers," "geese-dancers," or "morris dancers." Often they dressed as animals. Sometimes men and women exchanged clothes with each other. Disguised, they played crude tricks on one another, or went from house to house and entered without permission. There they might dance, sing, feast, and act "a rude drama," mocking propriety and challenging the social order.
American colonists engaged in similar antics, though usually without the performance of even a rudimentary play. They concentrated instead on disguises, noisy good humor, and chaotic peregrinations through neighborhoods. Across the land, revelers, almost always males, gathered to shoot off firecrackers and guns, paraded with musical instruments, call from house to house in garish disguise, and beg for food and drink on December 25 and, in some places, on New Year's.
Such frolics, drawn from the custom of English Anglicans, as well as those of Swedish, German, and other settlers, were especially prominent in New York and Pennsylvania. Samuel Breck remembered maskers from his Pennsylvania childhood in the late eighteenth century. "They were a set of the lowest blackguards," he wrote, "who, disguised in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces, went from house to house in large companies, . . . obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen, [and] would demean themselves with great insolence." As the elder Breck and his friends
played cards, Samuel had watched the mummers "take possession of a table, seat themselves on rich furniture and proceed to handle the cards, to the great annoyance of the company." He could only get rid of them by "giv[ing] them money, and listening) patiently to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them . . ."
Usually an informal code regulated the mummers' reception. According to one set of rules, "the proper custom" had been to ask the uninvited guests "into the house and regale them with mulled cider, or small beer, and home-made cakes," or "give the leading mummers a few pence as a dole, which . . . they would 'pool,' and buy cakes and beer." One never "address[ed] or otherwise recognize[d] the mummer by any other name than the name of the character he was assuming.
In New York, the calling ritual varied slightly. Men had gone from house to house, firing their guns, on New Year's Day since "time immemorial." At each place, after being invited in for food and drink, the men of the household joined them. "[T]hus they went on increasing their numbers until the whole neighborhood had been saluted and visited. . . . " The remainder of the day the shooters engaged in contests of marksmanship and other sports. At least one, the "very barbarous amusement" of "Shooting Turkeys," required a keen eye and sharp betting skills.
The southern colonies, largely rural and unhampered by Quaker and Puritan dissenters and whose white population was comparatively less diverse, cultivated Christmases of a very different sort. Decentralized living, a dearth of women, and a high death rate kept the holiday at bay during the first decades of settlement. As social and political conditions stabilized, southerners began to look to England for models of dress, manner, and social behavior. Their Christmas, like that of the English manor, evolved as an interval of leisure rather than a set of rituals assigned to one particular day. During the season, Virginians, Carolinians, and Marylanders especially enjoyed dancing, but also engaged in card playing, cock fighting, nine-pins, and horse racing. Anglicanism, the established religion in most of the planting colonies, did not pressure its members into sacred observance.
While southerners may have aspired to recreate a sense of the English Christmas, its authentic reproduction eluded them. No pre-Revolutionary account mentions boars' heads or wassail bowls, mummers or waits. In England those traditions had been on the wane when John Smith first ventured through Virginia, and by the 1650s had been mortally threatened
by Cromwell's Parliament. A French traveler, who along with his entourage of nearly twenty stopped unannounced at the Virginia home of Colonel William Fitzhugh in 1680, left one of the few accounts from the seventeenth century. "[T]here was good wine and all kinds of beverages, so there was a great deal of carousing," the visitor wrote. For entertainment, Fitzhugh provided "three fiddlers, a jester, a tight-rope walker, and an acrobat who tumbled around." When the travelers left the next day, Fitzhugh sent wine and punch to the river's edge for them and then lent them his boat.
By the middle of the eighteenth century, tales of Virginia Christmases had spread back to England and began to create an aura of romance around the South. "All over the Colony, a universal Hospitality reigns," London Magazine reported in 1746; "full Tables and open Doors, the kind salute, the generous Detention, speak somewhat like the old Roast-beef Ages of our Fore-fathers. ... Strangers are fought after with Greediness, as they pass the Country, to be invited."
Evidence of eighteenth-century Christmas celebrations is nearly as scarce as for the seventeenth. Best known is the Christmas chronicled by Philip Vickers Fithian, a Presbyterian tutor from New Jersey. Fithian spent a single Christmas season, in 1773, at Nomini Hall, a plantation owned by Robert Carter, one of the wealthiest Tidewater planters. The first sign of the season he recorded occurred on Monday, December 18; students barred one of Fithian's colleagues from teaching school until "twelfth-day" (January 6), a custom known throughout the British Commonwealth. However, Fithian continued to teach, noting proudly that his "scholars are a more quiet nature, and have consented to have four or five Days now, and to have their full Holiday in May next. . . . "
Excitement built as the holiday approached. "Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship . . . ," Fithian wrote on the 18th. His entry for Christmas Day began, "Guns fired all round the House," after which the various "Servants" who regularly attended him greeted him with "Joyful Christmas." He rewarded them with the expected small change and a donation to a "Christmas Box." As for Christmas dinner, Fithian noted that it "was no otherwise than common yet as elegant" as any he had ever attended. Not until the following Sunday, December 26, did he and the Carters go to church. The minister "preach'd from Isaiah 9.6 For unto us a child is Born &c. his sermon was fifteen Minutes long! very fashion-
able—," but few attended. Fithian reopened his school the following Wednesday, December 29. The holidays at Nomini Hall had ended.
Not all southerners partook of the sumptuous Christmases reported in London or witnessed by Fithian. Neither ritually exacting nor regularly held, the holiday on each plantation seemed to have its own style of celebration. In 1709, William Byrd began Christmas by attending church, where he "received the sacrament with great devoutness." Afterward, he dined on roast beef with friends and "in the evening we were merry with nonsense and so were my servants. . . . " The following year he spent Christmas quite differently, reading a sermon and dining alone. Thomas Jefferson rarely mentioned Christmas. George Washington frequently spent his holiday hunting and settling such year-end financial matters as renewing the terms of indenture for his servants, and attending church.
Perhaps, as Julian Boyd has suggested, the Enlightenment, which uprooted superstitions and redefined social classes, prevented a precise duplication of an English Christmas. Indeed, there may even have been some attempt to rationalize the Christmas festival. In December 1739, the Virginia Gazette briefly recounted a history of the holiday, noting that some Christians "celebrate this Season in a Mixture of Piety and Licentiousness," others "in a pious Way only," others "behave themselves profusely and extravagantly alone." The last category was comprised of the many who "pass over the Holy Time, without paying any Regard to it at all." The writer concluded that "On the whole, they who will be over-religious at this Time, must be pardoned and pitied; they who are falsely religious, censured; they who are downright criminal, condemned; and the Little Liberties of the old Roman December, which are taken by the Multitude, ought to be overlooked and excused, for an Hundred Reasons. . . . "
This broadly permissive approach to Christmas contrasted sharply with prevailing attitudes in New England. Like their forebears in England, the Puritan leaders of New England sought to expunge the holiday altogether. Their struggle betokened a broader battle against growing numbers of non-Puritans in the region and periodic intervention in religious affairs on the part of the Crown.
The entry of non-Puritans began at the founding of Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies, and increasingly presented a problem as displaced English workers, many of them Anglican, bolstered the labor-short economies. At first, Puritans relied on what one historian called the "infor-
mal pressure of like minded co-religionists" to quell the observance of Jesus' birth. But this strategy proved inadequate. In 1659, in an atmosphere of tension over Anglicanism, other heresies, new trade, and general disarray, the Massachusetts Bay General Court banned the keeping of Christmas by "forebearing of labour, feasting, or any other way." The law aimed to prevent the recurrence of further, unspecified "disorders" which had apparently arisen in "seurerall places ... by reason of some still observing such Festiualls," and provided that "whosoeuer shall be found observing any such day as Xmas or the like . . . " would be fined.
Pressure from England contributed to the troubled atmosphere. All of the once forbidden holiday rites had begun to be practiced once again during the Restoration in Britain, in forms more extreme than before. As early as 1665, Charles II demanded that Massachusetts rescind its anti-Christmas law to reflect these changes. Finally in 1681, Massachusetts issued a repeal, citing as a reason that a ban on Christmas would be a derogation of the King's honor. Still, in 1686, Puritan militants barred newly appointed English Governor Andros from holding his Christmas services in their meeting house and forced him to move to the Boston Town Hall.
The renewed English fervor for the raucous excesses of Christmas began to wane almost as rapidly as it had revived, while New England's Puritan leadership gave little indication that it had gained much tolerance for the holiday. "[M]en dishonour Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides," wrote Increase Mather in his diary. He reiterated the case against Christmas in A Testimony Against Several Profane and Superstitious Customs Now Practiced by Some in New England, a tract published in England in 1687. "In the Apostolical times," Mather wrote, "the Feast of the Nativity was not observed. ... It can never be proved that Christ was born on December 25. ... The New Testament allows of no stated Holy-Day but the Lords-day. ... It was in compliance with the Pagan saturnalia that Christmas Holy-dayes were first invented. The manner of Christmas-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonourable to the Name of Christ."
Increase's son Cotton escalated the rhetoric against the holiday by making more explicit the fearful connection between Christmas and sin. He even linked it to Salem's witchcraft. "On the twenty-fifth of December it was," he wrote, "that Mercy [Short] said, They were going to have a Dance; and immediately those that were attending her, most plainly Heard and Felt a Dance, as of Barefooted People, upon the Floor. . . . " Mather
later denounced the holiday in more general terms. "I hear a Number of people of both Sexes, belonging, many of them to my Flock, who have had on Christmas-night, this last Week, a Frolick, a revelling Feast, and Ball, which discovers their Corruption, and has a Tendency to corrupt them yett more, and provoke the Holy One to give them up into eternal Hardness of Heart."
Despite his strong tone, Cotton Mather did not forthrightly condemn Christmas itself. Like Bradford, who in 1621 had stopped the newcomers' street revelry, he expressed more concern for the liberties taken during the celebration of Christmas than for the fact of celebration. Calling the merrymaking an "affront unto the grace of God," he tacitly turned the question of "should" to one of "how" to hallow Jesus' birth. "Can you in your consciences think that our holy saviour is honored by mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude revelling, by a mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the light of Mahametan Romandon?" he asked. "Shall it be said that at the birth of our Saviour ... we take the time to please the hellish legions and to do actions that have much more of hell than of heaven in them?"
In all, Christmas became a point at which Puritan piety and autonomy grated against English custom, British authority, and Anglican influence. Bostonians, for example, openly repudiated Anglicanism by refusing to close their businesses on Christmas. "Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual," Judge Samuel Sewall noted on December 24, 1685 (and nearly every year after). That same year Sewall smugly noted that he thought the British colonial officials were "vexed . . . that the Body of the People profane it [Christmas]," and thanked God that there was "no Authority yet to compell them [i.e. Puritans] to keep it." The Crown-appointed governor twice took Sewall aside in 1722 to discuss recessing the General Court on Christmas. Sewall opposed adjournment, but suggested (after a discussion with Cotton Mather) that the matter be voted on by the Council and Representatives. The governor took the opposite side, arguing that "All kept Christmas" except the Puritans. Provoked, Sewall responded: "the Dissenters came a great way for their/Liberties and now the [Anglican] Church had theirs, yet they could not be contented, except they might Tread all others down." Ultimately, the governor ignored Sewall's entreaty and closed the court on Saturday until the following Wednesday, December 26.
Others besides the British government challenged the Puritans on Christmas. Holiday rituals in observing churches attracted a fair number of
putative Calvinists at Christmastide. Ebenezer Miller, graduate of Harvard but recently ordained an Anglican, Sewall noted in 1727, "keeps the day in his New church at Braintrey: people flock thither." On another occasion he spoke to a Mr. Newman "about his partaking with the French church on the 25th of December, on account of its being Christmas, as they abusively call it." Congregational ministers countered by ordering fasts on Christmas Day and tried in other ways to show their disregard for the festival. One spent the Sunday preceding Christmas outlining his proof that the celebration of Jesus' birth was "Popery and prelatic tyranny, a destroyer of consciences."
In the end, whether slowly in New England or more rapidly in the middle colonies and the South, the forces of pluralism and the need for social harmony shaped and encouraged Christmas celebration. Yet its status as a holiday remained haphazard and varied widely. Like the colonies in general on the eve of the Revolution, regions and communities were as notable for their different approaches to the holiday as for their commonalities. It would take the project of nation-building in the wake of the Revolution to begin to define an American conception of Christmas.
Thursday, 17 December 2009
From Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996):