When Christmas Was Banned In Boston

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Many a book, a magazine, a play, a movie, has been banned in Boston. But Christmas?

Yes, Virginia, Christmas was banned in Boston. On May 11, 1659, the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony enacted the following: “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 forbearing 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.”

This decree was passed more than a generation after the landing of the Pilgrims, but it was merely a legal expression of the attitude they brought with them on the Mayflower. William Bradford’s History of Plymouth Plantation records that in 1621, shortly after the arrival of a new contingent of colonists, “One the day called Chrismasday, 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.”

The cheerless law of 1659 remained on the books for twenty-two years. When it was repealed in 1681, it was less a victory for the spirit of Christmas than for the king of England: Charles II and his royal commissioners were determined to make the colony’s laws conform with England’s.

Though no longer illegal, Christmas was still far from popular with the Puritans. Their dim view of what they regarded as pagan revelry or, alternatively, papist idolatry, was so pervasive that over a hundred years later Christmas in New England was a dull affair compared to the festive holiday of New York and points south. Edward Everett Hale, author of the famous novel The Man Without a Country, remarked in 1889: “When I was a school-boy I always went to school on Christmas Day, and I think all the other boys in town did. As we went home, and passed King’s Chapel on Adam and Eve’s Day, which is the 24th, we would see the men carrying hemlock for the decorations. But that was the only public indication that any holiday was approaching.”

King’s Chapel was Boston’s first Episcopal church, where Christmas services were held annually from the time of its construction near the end of the seventeenth century. The services undoubtedly were very dignified, yet the Christmas greens, the music, and the lighted candles had a holiday appeal, and some of Boston’s young Puritans were led astray. With a mixture of consternation and pride, Judge Samuel Sewall noted in his diary on Christmas day, 1697, “Joseph [his son] tells me that though most of the Boys went to the Church, yet he went not.”

By 1711, things were getting quite out of hand, at least by the standards of such Puritan divines as Cotton Mather. “I hear of a Number of young People of both Sexes,” he wrote that year, “belonging, many of them, to my Flock, who have had on the Christmasnight, this last Week, a Frolick, a revelling Feast, and Ball, which discovers their Corruption, and has a Tendency to corrupt them yett more.”

Corruption or no, the celebration of Christmas made steady headway in New England. In the nineteenth century, repeated publication of such instant favorites as Washington Irving’s account of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, and Clement Moore’s “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” added fuel to the yule log, and in 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could write: “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.” That same year, the Massachusetts legislature finally gave in and made Christmas a legal holiday.

Today, of course, Christmas in Boston is like Christmas in any other American city. There are Christmas services in the churches, lighted Christmas trees in nearly every home, groups of carollers going about neighborhood streets singing lustily, if a little off key—and jostling crowds of desperate Christmas shoppers elbowing each other into a mood to make some wonder if the Puritans may not have had something, after all.