Christmas banned in Boston!

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BOSTON – Hours of sunlight decrease and temperatures drop as Americans once again reopen the now-yearly debate over what to call this time of year – the Christmas season? The holiday season? December?

Yet few Americans know that this debate, in various forms, arises almost as regularly as the season and dates back to the 17th century and the Pilgrims. Christmas was for a generation in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, and for centuries people in Massachusetts went to school and work as usual on most Christmas days.

Many of the English settlers who left the British Isles, some because of religious persecution, to found the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay Colonies brought with them a skeptical attitude toward Christmas. These sober-minded Christians questioned the date decreed as the day to celebrate the birth of their Savior.

For one thing, ancient Roman worshippers of the Persian son-god Mithras celebrated his birth on Dec. 25. For another, the day of Christ’s birth was not recognized as Dec. 25 until centuries after his death, when the date was set by papal decree. Because they did not believe that Dec. 25 was an especially Christian day, Puritan leaders opposed celebrating Christmas on that date.

Concern over historical accuracy wasn’t the only reason Puritans said bah-humbug to Christmas. In the 17th century, the Christmas holiday was associated with the customs of the Church of England, the bastion of the religious and political order whose persecution of nonbelievers led many Puritans to flee the Old World and settle what would become New England.

Christmas celebrations in England, which were banned outright for decades in the 17th century, often featured drinking, feasting, and playing games.  These activities were exactly the sort of frivolity Puritan leaders opposed. The ascetic sect generally frowned on excess and revelry, preferring more temperate behaviors.

The first Christmas at Plimouth Plantation passed uneventfully, with work on building shelters proceeding like any other day in the weeks after the pilgrims first arrived. But in 1621, Plymouth Governor William Bradford documented an unusual occurrence on the Puritans’ second Christmas in the New World. Writing in his journal, he noted that he had called the men out to work, as he did on every other day, but some recently arrived colonists objected to working Christmas, saying it was a matter of conscience. Bradford said he spared them, “till they were better informed.”

Returning at midday, however, the governor found the men openly playing “barr,” and “stoole-ball, and shuch like sports.” In a righteous rage, Bradford took their “implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke.” If it was a matter of devotion, Bradford reprimanded, the truant colonists had better keep to their houses and that there “should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets.”

The journal entry ends on a satisfied note: “Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly.”

In May 1659, celebrating Christmas was officially banned in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, which was founded in 1630 in what would become Boston. Celebrants risked paying a fine.

A record of the General Court, the colony’s governing body, reads, “. . .it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

Five shillings is roughly equivalent to $50 in today’s currency.

The Christmas ban ended in 1681, but the holiday spirit in Boston and the rest of New England remained Scrooge-like for more than a century.

Around the time of the Revolutionary War, Christmas celebrations were associated with the British monarchy and shunned in Boston. As late as 1850, New England schools and shops were open on Christmas Day, reflecting lingering puritan influences. Only when Christmas was officially declared a federal holiday in 1870 did New Englanders finally relent en masse to the revelry of the season.

This is the time of year to remember what unites us to our past and to honor timeless traditions. As we begin the latest round in the debate over what to call our celebrations this month, Americans are renewing a centuries-old tradition that spans continents. And what better way to celebrate the season?


How many presents are you buying your kids this year?





Nothing but a lump of coal

We don’t give gifts

I don’t have kids