When Christmas Was Banned in Boston

Pilgrims Going to Church painting by George Henry Boughton 1867

“Pilgrims Going to Church,” painting by George Henry Boughton, circa 1867

When the puritans came over on the Mayflower in 1620, they brought with them their strict ways, their religious views and their distaste for Christmas. Although Christmas was widely celebrated in Europe as a Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ, puritans saw it as a false holiday with stronger ties to paganism than Christianity. As pious and reserved Christians, puritans also took a dislike to the drinking and dancing associated with the holiday.

After the puritans left the Old World, they decided to leave these holiday traditions behind. Instead of feasting and giving gifts, puritans commemorated Christmas by praying, reflecting on sin and working instead of resting.

The puritans even forced non-puritan colonists, such as the Presbyterians, to work on Christmas day. In his journal, “Of Plymouth Plantation,” William Bradford recorded a disagreement that ensued between him and some newly arrived non-puritan colonists on Christmas day in 1621:

“One the day called Christmasday, the Gov r caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but the most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on that day. So the Gov r tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. … [Later] he found them in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the barr and some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others worke. If they made the keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.”

william_bradford_illustration

William Bradford

On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature even went so far as to officially ban Christmas and gave anyone found celebrating it a fine of five shillings. The legislature stated the ban was needed “For preventing disorders arising in severall places within this jurisdiceon, by reason of some still observing such ffestivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonnor of God & offence of others, it is therefore ordered … that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labour, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.”

The ban remained in place for 22 years until it was repealed in 1681 after a new surge of European immigrants brought a demand for the holiday. Even though the ban was lifted, Christmas was not warmly embraced by the puritans and it remained a dull and muted holiday over two centuries later.

In the early 1800s, a religious revival spurred a renewed interest in Christmas. The holiday became popular again in the South, but it was slow to catch on in New England. In 1830, Louisiana was the first state to make Christmas a holiday. Other states followed suit and Christmas soon became popular again, especially during the Civil War. In 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote “We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.” Later that year, the Massachusetts legislature finally made Christmas an official holiday in the state. Finally, in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas a national holiday.

Sources:

The Day; Christmas Was Once Banned in Boston; December 1971: http://news.google.com/newspapers?nid=1915&dat=19711215&id=h_AgAAAAIBAJ&sjid=1XMFAAAAIBAJ&pg=2146,3635821

American Heritage; When Christmas Was Banned in Boston; Dana Marriott: http://www.americanheritage.com/content/when-christmas-was-banned-boston

Massachusetts Travel Journal: When Christmas Was Banned in Boston: http://masstraveljournal.com/features/boston-cambridge/when-christmas-was-banned-boston


Comments

When Christmas Was Banned in Boston — 3 Comments

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