Wednesday, May 4, 2016

The Colonial Christmases of Early Americans

       Christmas celebrations in New England were illegal during part of the 17th century, and were culturally taboo or rare in Puritan colonies from foundation until the 1850s. The Puritan community found no Scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry. The earliest years of the Plymouth Colony were troubled with non-Puritans attempting to make merry, and Governor William Bradford was forced to reprimand offenders. English laws suppressing the holiday were enacted in the Interregnum, but repealed late in the 17th century. However, the Puritan view of Christmas and its celebration had gained cultural ascendancy in New England, and Christmas celebrations continued to be discouraged despite being legal. When Christmas became a Federal holiday in 1870, the Puritan view was relaxed and late 19-century Americans fashioned the day into the Christmas of commercialism, spirituality, and nostalgia that most Americans recognize today. Read more...

Traditional, Colonial-style Christmas
 decorations at Williamsburg.
       "The first century of colonial life saw few set times and days for pleasure. The holy days of the English Church were as a stench to the Puritan nostrils, and their public celebration was at once rigidly forbidden by the laws of New England. New holidays were not quickly evolved, and the sober gatherings for matters of Church and State for a time took their place. The hatred of "wanton Bacchanallian Christmasses" spent throughout England, as Cotton said, "in revelling, dicing, carding, masking, mumming, consumed in compotations, in interludes, in excess of wine, in mad mirth," was the natural reaction of intelligent and thoughtful minds against the excesses of a festival which had ceased to be a Christian holiday, but was dominated by a lord of misrule who did not hesitate to invade the churches in time of service, in his noisy revels and sports. English Churchmen long ago revolted also against such Christmas observance. Of the first Pilgrim Christmas we know but little, save that it was spent, as was many a later one, in work. . . .
       By 1659 the Puritans had grown to hate Christmas more and more; it was, to use Shakespeare's words, "the bug that feared them all." The very name smacked to them of incense, stole, and monkish jargon; any person who observed it as a holiday by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way was to pay five shillings fine, so desirous were they to "beate down every sprout of Episcopacie."
       Judge Sewall watched jealously the feeling of the people with regard to Christmas, and noted with pleasure on each succeeding year the continuance of common traffic throughout the day. Such entries as this show his attitude: "Dec. 25, 1685. Carts come to town and shops open as usual. Some somehow observe the day, but are vexed I believe that the Body of people profane it, and blessed be God no authority yet to compel them to keep it." When the Church of England established Christmas services in Boston a few years later, we find the Judge waging hopeless war against Governor Belcher over it, and hear him praising his son for not going with other boy friends to hear the novel and attractive services. He says: "I exhort mine from Christmas keeping and charge them to forbear."
       Christmas could not be regarded till this century as a New England holiday, though in certain localities, such as old Narragansett, an opulent community which was settled by Episcopalians‚ two weeks of Christmas visiting and feasting were entered into with zest by both planters and slaves for many years previous to the revolution." Alice Morse Earle

       Many American Colonists did actually celebrate Christmas but this depended entirely upon their history, beliefs and location. There were many Christians who were not Puritans and there were also Puritans who were not so particularly restrictive about holidays. As with much history, the records often reflect only a few opinions; so it is wise to remember that one must study a larger spectrum of civilization in order to glean a more accurate record of events and culture.

 Part 1, of American Colonial Christmas.

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