When Boston Banned Christmas

December 15, 2021
Acorn Street, Boston
Acorn Street in Boston, Massachusetts. / Original photo by hannah_garcia, licensed under CC by 2.0. Design treatment by Kristie Welsh.

‘Tis this season of peace and goodwill, of traditions, both familial, and religious, and to some, it’s the time of year to freak out about the so called “War on Christmas.”

A rallying cry for certain sectors of the media, Christmas, apparently, has been under siege for decades, with liberals and the non-religious doing everything they can to take Christ out of Christmas.

But is Christmas really under threat? Even taking into consideration the constitutional separation of church and state, you can’t go anywhere in America during December and not be reminded that it’s Christmas. Decorations and ornaments, garland and lights, Christmas trees, even the media that surrounds us across any and all platforms, reminds us that Christmas is everywhere. So, if there’s a war on Christmas, then surely it’s being lost by whomever is waging it.

Now, if you want to wage a real war on Christmas, as far as I can tell, the best way to do it is to just make it illegal, which is exactly what happened from 1659 to 1681 here in Boston, Massachusetts, when anyone caught celebrating the holiday would be subject to a fine of 5 shillings.

Listen to episode:

And do you know who was responsible for canceling Christmas? Was it some anti-religious group or a bunch of pagans? Was it liberal policymakers or a rogue state official? No! The group responsible for make the celebration of Christmas illegal in Massachusetts were the most pious religious people at the time: the Puritans.

I’m Jonathan Beasley, and this is the Harvard Religion Beat, a podcast examining religion's underestimated and often misunderstood role in society.

Today, I’m speaking with David F. Holland, who is the John A. Bartlett Professor of New England Church History here at Harvard Divinity School. I wanted to get Professor Holland’s insight into two specific questions: Why did the Puritans ban the celebration of Christmas, and did that ban set the stage both for future similar laws, and even a particular New England way of life?

Harvard Divinity School: So, Professor Holland, before we talk about Christmas, could you just talk me through what religious life would have been like in the mid-seventeenth century for the Puritans?

David Holland: They were overwhelmingly the predominant religious expression of Anglo-American New England. Obviously, New England is occupied by people well before English settlers arrive. And we always need to be mindful of the demographic complexity of New England.

There are kind of moments of dissent. Certainly, as an English colony, there always would have been a sort of Church of England element. But these things were always very much marginal. And the civil structure as well as the religious landscape would have been dominated by people committed to the Puritan cause. And the colonies, themselves, were designed to be—that is, the New England colonies. There were Puritans in other British North American colonies, but not to the degree or with the sort of sense of purpose that we see in New England.

And there was a sense that the colonies, themselves, were designed to exemplify or manifest the truthfulness of the reformed Protestant message, that a community really committed to these religious principles would be prospered, would be successful, and would demonstrate to, perhaps, the world but certainly to England that these religious principles were conducive to civic stability and success.

HDS: So where did this anti-Christmas sentiment or movement, really come from? And, was everybody a grinch, or were there colonists or Puritans who really wanted to celebrate Christmas?

DH: The concern about Christmas is really a product of the Protestant Reformation. And Puritans have sometimes been referred to as a hotter sort of Protestant. So they're of a piece with reformed Protestants as they appear across the European continent and in Britain. But they are on a particular end of that spectrum in terms of the intensity of their commitment to certain Protestant principles.

And some of those principles involve the active purification of the church from what they see as the vestiges of Catholicism, which they see as, in turn, vestiges of paganism. And so Christmas has this sort of double disadvantage, through Puritan eyes, being both a Catholic tradition—that the very word mass is in it, the mass being something that Puritans as a non-scriptural liturgy and form of worship. And not just was it a Catholic tradition, but it's a Catholic tradition that they saw as drawing its roots from pagan origins.

HDS: In fact, when Puritans would sometimes talk about Christmas, they'd refer to it as yule, which was the Germanic tradition that predated Christianity. They were well aware of that. And so when they invoked those sort of pagan terms to describe the holiday, they were underscoring the connection of this Catholic tradition with non-Christian vestiges of a kind of European paganism.

DH: And so this was the source of their concern. Puritans abided by what's sometimes been called the regulative principle of Biblicism, which is that not only do you need to do what the Bible enjoins you to do, but you should avoid establishing, as practices of spiritual significance, things that the Bible does not expressly endorse. And so the absence of Christmas in scripture was the primary source of the kind of Puritan concern about it and condemnation of it, that it is this non-scriptural practice that comes from places that they saw as antithetical to true and pure Christian devotion.

HDS: Professor Holland, it sounds like one of the big reasons for the Puritan anti-Christmas movement was theological in nature. The story of the birth of Jesus was important enough that it’s found in multiple books of the Bible, and yes, Christ’s exact birthdate isn’t mentioned, nor is there a commandment to celebrate the day, but what’s the harm in honoring the day if one so chooses?

DH: It's interesting that the ideal of purely biblical worship is often sort of compromised by just the practicalities of establishing modern worship practices on the basis of an ancient text. And so, certainly, I don't want to convey the idea that there were no adjustments to the scriptural model. Harry Stout, a scholar at Yale, points out that there were all kinds of adjustments, in practice, to the scriptural model of worship.

But where the sort of pursuit of scriptural purity in expressions of Christianity coincided with what, for them, were egregiously and conspicuously Catholic and pagan traditions, that's where this kind of reform zeal kicked in with its greatest effect. And Christmas is one of those places. Christmas is one of those places where the intersection of a kind of inherited medieval tradition and the absence of scriptural warrant just seemed really clear in Puritan thinking. And, therefore, it became a pretty significant target for Puritan reform.

HDS: The other big piece of this, too, is that Christmas had a tradition in Elizabethan England as being a time of social disorder, a kind of communal unrest. It was often compared to, say, Carnival, and it was a time when social relationships were inverted. Men would dress as women, women would dress as men. And working-class people would go from house to house of the wealthy, singing songs (or wassailing), and asking/demanding presents of some kind, often money or food and drink. And homeowners refused at their own peril. Violence or property damage was often a risk.

Christmas was a kind of release valve on the pressures of the social hierarchy, that from time to time on these designated days, you could break out of your appointed role, and this had a kind of cathartic effect, a kind of socially beneficial reinforcement of the status quo by violating it for a temporary prescribed period.

But that disorder, the drunkenness, the irreverence, often, the sort of sexual licentiousness that they associated with these moments, was something that Puritans found unacceptable in the orderly, righteous communities that they hoped to build. So Christmas was a target of Puritan ire on all of those fronts—pagan, Catholic, non-scriptural, and socially problematic.

DH: One of the things that Puritan critics often pointed out is that it was a time of indolence, that is, a kind of time of laziness. If you read, say, in the journals of famous Boston judge Samuel Sewall, who is one of the great opponents of Christmas, he writes in his journal about running around on Christmas day, getting people to stop observing it in one way or another. His great satisfaction was that the carts were still bringing wood into the city, that people still had their shops open, that they weren't having an excuse for a day off, but that the industry of the colony continued unabated.

And so, again, it's that sort of Puritan practicality and industriousness that was also part of the energy against the holiday. So, we can think about Christmas sort of sitting at the intersection of all kinds of reasons that Puritans were opposed to its observance.

HDS: Judge Samuel Sewall may have been one of the great opponents of Christmas, but he had nothing on William Bradford, the governor of Plymouth Colony. I mean, this guy was the Lebron James of hating Christmas.

One of my favorite stories occurs on Christmas day in 1621 when Governor Bradford asked the colonists to spend the day working on a shelter. Well, things didn’t quite go to Bradford’s plan.

Here’s how he describes the scene in his own journal:

“On the day called Christmas-day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used) but the most of this new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them, till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon, from their work, he found them in the street at play openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them, that was against his conscience, that they should play, and others work; if they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses, but there should be no gaming, or revelling in the streets.”

There’s so much to unpack there, not least that Bradford keeps referring to himself in the third person, and not by his name, William, or even Bill, but by his title, Governor. “Governor called them out to work.” And when they said, hey, we’d kind of like to the celebrate the birth of Christ today rather than lift tree trunks, Bradford was like, OK, but only until you’re “better informed.”

And I have this image in my head that when he came back and discovered them playing sports and drinking he just completely lost it, and slapped a mug of ale out of some guy’s hands as he was getting ready to take a sip. Then he picked up all the stool-ball equipment and stomped away, but not without getting in a sick burn first, saying it was against his conscience that they should be having fun and getting drunk while the other worked.

There’s just something about that scene that is so quintessential New England that I’m surprised there’s no record of him saying “Go Sox” as he trundled away, chest puffed out, head held high, knowing that he ruined everyone’s afternoon.

But, alas, all good things must come to an end, at least from a Puritan perspective. So, Professor Holland, when did Puritan anti-Christmas sentiment start to wane? When did the Christmas ban end?

DH: So there is a period in the 1680s, during a period known as the Dominion of New England, when the metropol, when the monarchy in London took direct control of New England and New York and created this thing called the Dominion of New England, when they actually required the general court in Massachusetts to suspend a few laws, one of them being an anti-Quaker statute and another being the fine that would be levied for the observance of Christmas.

Now, I don't know if Samuel Sewall is the most reliable witness on this because he had a kind of vested interest in the outcome. But he said, even when it was decriminalized, that most people did not recognize it, that life went on as usual, and that this was a sign that the resistance to Christmas was not some kind of top-down imposition, but that it was a commitment widely shared throughout the region.

And indeed, though the sort of culture of Christmas changes as the 17th century gives way to the 18th century and you begin to see, for instance, in the first couple of decades of the new century, the general court raising questions about whether it should be held on Christmas, whether they should hold some kind of celebratory dinner for the representatives after the session-- so you start to see these questions start to seep in. But even there, it's a very slow very gradual kind of concession to more traditional forms of Christmas observance.

HDS: Was that driven more by sort of general public opinion, or was that driven by changes in the church?

DH: I think, probably, changes are largely pushing from the bottom up at the point of transition, maybe not entirely. That may not be an entirely fair thing to say. But I think maybe the better thing to say is that practice was getting out ahead of theory, which is kind of the theoretical reasons for resisting Christmas were still very much in place, but people were beginning to compromise those in practice.

And I think that one of the kind of entry points there is in the eighteenth century, you begin to see this argument that Christmas could be an act of Christian piety, that instead of a celebration, instead of a kind of abandonment to revelry, that it could be observed in ways that were in keeping with the values of Puritan New England. And as we get very far into the eighteenth century, we stop using the term Puritan to describe this culture.

But that it could be observed with Psalm reading. It could be observed in solemnity. It could be observed in reverence. And so a kind of new way of observing Christmas and a kind of cultural acceptance of the idea that it could be recognized without the sort of irreverence and the blasphemy that they associated with its more traditional forms could allow you to at least mark the calendar, at least mark the day. And that becomes the thin edge of the wedge that kind of opens the door to begin a change toward the observance of Christmas.

HDS: New England forms of Christmas observance never really went back to that Elizabethan mode of revelry. In the seventeenth century there’s an opening where it's a seen as an opportunity for reverent piety, but that version never got super popular, as you might imagine. It didn't quite have the same attractiveness as other forms of observance. But it did open the door for more and more recognition. For example, you begin to see the word Christmas appear on calendars and in almanacs and things that would not have happened in the early generations of the founding of the New England colonies. And there was another thing that gave rise to the recognition and celebration of Christmas: Children.

DH: What really kind of gives Christmas it's propriety or its legitimacy in the culture of New England is the rise of a kind of cult of domesticity in the early nineteenth century and what some scholars have referred to as the birth of childhood, the recognition of childhood as a distinctive stage of human development that deserves a certain kind of indulgence and a certain kind of happiness. That would have been foreign to earlier conceptions of human development.

It's the era when we begin to see—in the early nineteenth century, a toy industry, for instance, emerge. It's when we begin to see childhood literature emerge as a thriving and distinctive literary genre. And so this elevation of the nuclear family and the home as a place of happiness and childhood as a time of play and a time of a particular sort of kind of romanticized experience, that this really fuels a turn toward Christmas as not only an acceptable possibility, but as a positive good, as a kind of recognition of the goodness of home and hearth, and in keeping with this sort of Victorian turn to this cold of domesticity.

And that's when Christmas kind of takes on the courier of knives kind of motif in New England culture.

HDS: Moving forward generations, is there any connection between the anti-Christmas law in New England to the relatively recent Blue Laws, or Sunday Laws, as some called them, which included the banning of alcohol sales on Sundays?

DH: Well, the blue laws, it's not a causal relationship between the critique of Christmas and the emergence of Sabbatarian laws. But they are two fruits from the same tree. They do come from the same kind of culture. And you know, Puritans were opposed to what colloquially is sometimes known as a continental Sabbath, a continental Sunday, in which Sunday behavior was kind of in keeping with a more modern conception of the weekend.

It was a time to let loose. It was a time to relax. It was a time to get together to sport. And the Puritan conception of Sunday was not that. It was in keeping with what they saw as a more scriptural observance of the Lord's day. And so the same reasons why they critiqued the revelry of Christmas were the same reasons why they were quite careful to control other forms of behavior on other holy days.

It's not just Christmas that was opposed. They opposed Easter and other things that might the modern day listeners might find surprising. So this is part of a large cultural campaign to get away from what they saw as non-scriptural, pagan, Catholic traditions and to get back to something that they see as more scripturally sound. And that means the elimination of Easter and Christmas. And it means the careful observance of Sunday.

They are expressions of the same impulse. One doesn't necessarily lead to the other, but they come from the same place.

HDS: Even though anti-Christmas sentiment and culture was still very much prevalent in New England until the mid-nineteenth century, Christmas became a national holiday in 1870.

In his book The Battle for Christmas, historian Stephen Nissenbaum documents the changing attitude in New England and across the country. He writes:

“What happened was that in New England, as elsewhere, religion failed to transform Christmas from a season of misrule into an occasion of quieter pleasure. That transformation would, however, shortly take place—but not at the hands of Christianity. The “house of ale” would not be vanquished by the house of God, but by a new faith that was just beginning to sweep over American society. It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but by a newer and more worldly deity—Santa Claus.”

Thanks so much for tuning in to this episode of the Harvard Religion Beat. Be sure to spread holiday cheer this season and share this episode with any and all who you think might enjoy it.

Special thanks to Professor David Holland for joining me today. And thanks to the fabulous Caroline Cataldo for editing this episode.

And if you’re looking for more podcasts to fill in some time between family visits and holiday feasts, then check out Colloquy from the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences. The Colloquy podcast is a conversation with scholars and thinkers from Harvard's PhD community on some of the most pressing challenges of our time—from global health to climate change, growth and development, the future of AI, and many others.

Until next time…

Music credits: "Hallelujah Chorus," George Frideric Handel, Collecting Publisher: Extreme Production Music USA, ASCAP: 345600874; "After the Border," InSpectr (Free Music Archive)