When Christmas Was Banned in Boston
Outlawing the celebration of Christmas sounds a little extreme, but it happened. The ban existed as law for only 22 years, but disapproval of Christmas celebration took many more years to change. In fact, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that celebrating Christmas became fashionable in the Boston region.
The Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts to build a new life had several reason for disliking Christmas. First of all, it reminded them of the Church of England and the old-world customs, which they were trying to escape. Second, they didn’t consider the holiday a truly religious day. December 25th wasn’t selected as the birth date of Christ until several centuries after his death. Third, the holiday celebration usually included drinking, feasting, and playing games - all things which the Puritans frowned upon. One such tradition, “wassailing” occasionally turned violent. The older custom entailed people of a lower economic class visiting wealthier community members and begging, or demanding, food and drink in return for toasts to their hosts’ health. If a host refused, there was the threat of retribution. Although rare, there were cases of wassailing in early New England. Fourth, the British had been applying pressure on the Puritans for a while to conform to English customs. The ban was probably as much a political choice as it was a religious one for many.
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659
“Carts came to town and Shops open as is usual. Some, somehow, observe the day; but are vexed, I believe, that the Body of the People profane it, - and, blessed be God! no Authority yet to compell them to keep it.”
— Samuel Sewell, 1685