New England’s War on Christmas


IN NEW ENGLAND, for the first two centuries of white settlement most people did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings). Only in the middle of the nineteenth century did Christmas gain legal recognition as an official public holiday in New England. Writing near the end of that century, one New Englander, born in 1822, recalled going to school as a boy on Christmas Day, adding that even as late as 1850, in Worcester, Massachusetts, “The courts were in session on that day, the markets were open, and I doubt if there had ever been a religious service on Christmas Day, unless it were Sunday, in that town.” As late as 1952, one writer recalled being told by his grandparents that New England mill workers risked losing their jobs if they arrived late at work on December 25, and that sometimes “factory owners would change the starting hours on Christmas Day to five o’clock or some equally early hour in order that workers who wanted to attend a church service would have to forego, or be dismissed for being late for work.”1

As we shall see, much of this is misleading or exaggerated. It is true that the New England states did not grant legal recognition to Christmas until the middle of the nineteenth century, but neither did most of the other states. There were Christmas Day religious services in Worcester before 1850. And nineteenth-century factory owners had their own reasons for treating Christmas as a regular working day, reasons that had more to do with industrial capitalism than with Puritan theology. Still, the fact remains that those factory owners were indeed operating within a long New England tradition of opposition to Christmas. As early as 1621, just one year after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, their governor, William Bradford, found some of the colony’s new residents trying to take the day off. Bradford ordered them right back to work. And in 1659 the Massachusetts General Court did in fact declare the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense.

Why? What accounts for this strange hostility? The Puritans themselves had a plain reason for what they tried to do, and it happens to be a perfectly good one: There is no biblical or historical reason to place the birth of Jesus on December 25. True, the Gospel of Luke tells the familiar story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth—how the shepherds were living with their flocks in the fields of Judea, and how, one night, an angel appeared to them and said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” But nowhere in this account is there any indication of the exact date, or even the general season, on which “this day” fell. Puritans were fond of saying that if God had intended for the anniversary of the Nativity to be observed, He would surely have given some indication as to when that anniversary occurred. (They also argued that the weather in Judea during late December was simply too cold for shepherds to be living outdoors with their flocks.)

It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. The Puritans were correct when they pointed out—and they pointed it out often—that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer. The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston, for example, accurately observed in 1687 that the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so “thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian [ones].”2

Most cultures (outside the tropics) have long marked with rituals involving light and greenery those dark weeks of December when the daylight wanes, all culminating in the winter solstice—the return of sun and light and life itself. Thus Chanukah, the “feast of lights.” And thus the Yule log, the candles, the holly, the mistletoe, even the Christmas tree—pagan traditions all, with no direct connection to the birth of Jesus.3

But the Puritans had another reason for suppressing Christmas. The holiday they suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of a traditional Christmas. As we shall see, it involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today—rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.

It may seem odd that Christmas was ever celebrated in such a fashion. But there was a good reason. In northern agricultural societies, December was the major “punctuation mark” in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals—meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled. St. Nicholas, for example, is associated with the Christmas season chiefly because his “name-day,” December 6, coincided in many European countries with the end of the harvest and slaughter season.4

In our own day the Christmas season begins as early as the day after Thanksgiving for many people, and continues to January 1. But our culture is by no means the first in which “Christmas” has meant an entire season rather than a single day. In early modern Europe, the Christmas season might begin as early as late November and continue well past New Year’s Day. (We still sing about “the twelve days of Christmas,” and the British still celebrate “Twelfth Night.”) In England the season might open as early as mid-December and last until the first Monday after January 6 (dubbed “Plow Monday,” the return to work), or later.5 But it isn’t very useful, finally, to try to pin down the exact boundaries of a “real” Christmas in times past, or the precise rituals of some “traditional” holiday season. Those boundaries and rituals changed over time and varied from one place to another. What is more useful, in any setting, is to look for the dynamics of an ongoing contest, a push and a pull—sometimes a real battle—between those who wished to expand the season and those who wished to contract and restrict it. (Nowadays the contest may pit merchants—with children as their allies—against those grown-ups who resent seeing Christmas displays that seem to go up earlier and earlier with each passing year.)

In early modern Europe, roughly the years between 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season was a time to let off steam—and to gorge. It is difficult today to understand what this seasonal feasting was like. For most of the readers of this book, good food is available in sufficient quantity year-round. But early modern Europe was above all a world of scarcity. Few people ate much good food at all, and for everyone the availability of fresh food was seasonally determined. Late summer and early fall would have been the time of fresh vegetables, but December was the season—the only season—for fresh meat. Animals could not be slaughtered until the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat would not go bad; and any meat saved for the rest of the year would have to be preserved (and rendered less palatable) by salting. December was also the month when the year’s supply of beer or wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, too, this period marked the start of a season of leisure. Little wonder, then, that this was a time of celebratory excess.

Excess took many forms. Reveling could easily become rowdiness; lubricated by alcohol, making merry could edge into making trouble. Christmas was a season of “misrule,” a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity. It was part of what one historian has called “the world of carnival.” (The term carnival is rooted in the Latin words carne and vale—“farewell to flesh.” And “flesh” refers here not only to meat but also to sex—carnal as well as carnivorous.) Christmas “misrule” meant that not only hunger but also anger and lust could be expressed in public. (It was no accident, wrote Increase Mather, that “December was called Mensis Genialis, the Voluptuous Month.”6) Often people blackened their faces or disguised themselves as animals or cross-dressed, thus operating under a protective cloak of anonymity. The late-nineteenth-century historian John Ashton reports one episode from Lincolnshire in 1637, in which the man selected by a crowd of revelers as “Lord of Misrule” was publicly given a “wife,” in a ceremony led by a man dressed as a minister (he read the entire marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer). Thereupon, as Ashton noted in Victorian language, “the affair was carried to its utmost extent.”7

Episodes like these offered another reason, and a deeper one, for the Puritans’ objection to Christmas. Here is how the Reverend Increase Mather of Boston put it in 1687:

The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth….

And Increase Mather’s son Cotton put it this way in 1712: “[T]he Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty … by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling …”8

Even an Anglican minister, a man who approved of “keeping” Christmas (as it was then put), acknowledged the truth of the Puritans’ charges. Writing in 1725, the Reverend Henry Bourne of Newcastle, England, called the way most people commonly behaved during the Christmas season “a Scandal to Religion, and an encouraging of Wickedness.” Bourne admitted that for Englishmen of the lower orders the Christmas season was merely “a pretense for Drunkenness, and Rioting, and Wantonness.” And he believed the season went on far too long. Most Englishmen, Bourne claimed, chose to celebrate it well past the official period of twelve days, right up to Candlemas Day on February 2. For that entire forty-day period, it was common “for Men to rise early in the Morning, that they may follow strong Drink, and continue untill Night, till Wine inflame them.”

Bourne singled out two particularly dangerous seasonal practices, mumming and (strange to modern readers) the singing of Christmas carols. Mumming usually involved “a changing of Clothes between Men and Women; who when dressed in each other’s habits, go from one Neighbor’s house to another … and make merry with them in disguise.” Bourne proposed that “this Custom, which is still so Common among us at this Season of the Year, [be] laid aside; as it is the Occasion of much Uncleanness and Debauchery.” As for singing Christmas carols, that practice was a “disgrace,” since it was “generally done, in the midst of Rioting and Chambering, and Wantonness.”9 (“Chambering” was a common euphemism for fornication.) It was another Anglican cleric, the sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer, who put the matter most succinctly: “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”

The Puritans knew what subsequent generations would forget: that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church paid a high price. Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period of leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Saviors birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been. From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize. Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble.

THE PURITANS understood another thing, too: Much of the seasonal excess that took place at Christmas was not merely chaotic “disorder” but behavior that took a profoundly ritualized form. Most fundamentally, Christmas was an occasion when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically turned upside down, in a gesture that inverted designated roles of gender, age, and class. During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women, and women might dress (and act) like men. Young people might imitate and mock their elders (for example, a boy might be chosen “bishop” and take on for a brief time some of the authority of a real bishop). A peasant or an apprentice might become “Lord of Misrule” and mimic the authority of a real “gentleman.”10 Increase Mather explained with an anthropologist’s clarity what he believed to be the origins of the practice: “In the Saturnalian Days, Masters did wait upon their Servants…. The Gentiles called Saturns time the Golden Age, because in it there was no servitude, in Commemoration whereof on his Festival, Servants must be Masters.” This practice, like so many others, was simply picked up and transposed to Christmas, where those who were low in station became “Masters of Misrule.”11 To this day, in the British army, on December 25 officers are obliged to wait upon enlisted men at meals.*

The most common ritual of social inversion during the Christmas season involved something that is associated with Christmas in our own day—we would call it charity. Prosperous and powerful people were expected to offer the fruits of their harvest bounty to their poorer neighbors and dependents. A Frenchman traveling in late-seventeenth-century England noted that “they are not so much presents from friend to friend, or from equal to equal …, as from superior to inferior.”12 That may sound familiar enough. But the modern notion of charity does not really convey a picture of how this transaction worked. For it was usually the poor themselves who initiated the exchange, and it was enacted face-to-face, in rituals that would strike many of us today as an intolerable invasion of privacy.

At other times of the year it was the poor who owed goods, labor, and deference to the rich. But on this occasion the tables were turned—literally. The poor—most often bands of boys and young men—claimed the right to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls, and receive gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money as well. And the rich had to let them in—essentially, to hold “open house.” Christmas was a time when peasants, servants, and apprentices exercised the right to demand that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them as if they were wealthy and powerful. The Lord of the Manor let the peasants in and feasted them. In return, the peasants offered something of true value in a paternalistic society—their goodwill. Just when and how this actually happened each year—whether it was a gracious offering or the forced concession to a hostile confrontation—probably depended on the particular individuals involved as well as the local customs that had been established in years past (and which were constantly being “re-negotiated” through just such ritualized practices as these).

This exchange of gifts for goodwill often included the performance of songs, often drinking songs, that articulated the structure of the exchange. These songs (and the ritual as a whole) bore a variety of names. One name that is still known in our culture is that of wassailing, and I shall take the liberty of using this word to refer to a whole set of similar rituals that may have had other names. Wassailers—roving bands of youthful males—toasted the patron’s well-being while drinking the beer he had been kind enough to supply them. Robert Herrick included this wassail in his 1648 poem “Ceremonies for Christmasse”:

Come bring, with a noise,

My merrie, merrie boys,

The Christmas log to the firing;

While my good dame she

Bids ye all be free [i.e., with the alcohol]

And drink to your heart’s desiring….13

The wassail usually possessed an aggressive edge—often an explicit threat—concerning the unpleasant consequences to follow if the beggars’ demands were not met. One surviving wassail song contains this blunt demand and threat:

We’ve come here to claim our right….

And if you don’t open up your door,

We will lay you flat upon the floor.

But there was also the promise of goodwill if the wassailers were treated well—toasts to the patrons health and prosperity. (It is the promise of goodwill, alone from this ritualized exchange, that has been retained in the modern revival of old Christmas songs.) The following wassail was sung on the Isle of Man by bands of young men who marched from house to house begging for food:

Again we assemble, a merry New Year

To wish to each one of the family here….

May they of potatoes and herrings have plenty,

With butter and cheese, and each other dainty….

One song that has recently been revived, the “Gloucestershire Wassail,” shows the drinkers going from one well-to-do house to another (“Wassail! Wassail! all over the town”). At each stop they wish their patron a successful harvest, the fruits of which are to be shared with them (“God send our master a cup of good beer…. God send our mistress a good Christmas pie …”). Each verse amounts to a toast that ends in a fresh round of drinks (“With my wassailing bowl I drink to thee”)—to the master and mistress, to their horse, to their cow, to anything at all that can be toasted.14

It was not enough for the landlord to let the peasants in and feed them. On this one occasion he had to share with them his choicest food and drink, his private stock. Robert Herrick included a couplet to this effect in the poem quoted above: “Drink now the strong beere, / Cut the white loaf here.” (The emphasis is on the “strong beere,” the “white loaf.”) When the wassailers on the Isle of Man had sung their verses, they were, in the words of the folklorist who recorded their ritual, “invited into the house to partake of the best the family can afford.” The final verse of the “Gloucestershire Wassail” opens with just such a demand for choice beer (“Come, butler, draw us a bowl of the best / Then we hope your soul in heaven shall rest”), but the threat follows quickly: “But if you draw us a bowl of the small [i.e., weak beer], / Then down will come butler, bowl, and all.”15

In an agricultural economy, the kind of “misrule” I have been describing did not really challenge the authority of the gentry. The historian E. P. Thompson has noted that landed gentlemen could always try to use a generous handout at Christmas as a way of making up for a year’s accumulation of small injustices, regaining in the process their tenants’ goodwill. In fact, episodes of misrule were widely tolerated by the elite. Some historians argue that role inversions actually functioned as a kind of safety valve that contained class resentments within clearly defined limits, and that by inverting the established hierarchy (rather than simply ignoring it), those role inversions actually served as a reaffirmation of the existing social order.16 It was all a little like Halloween todays—when, for a single evening, children assume the right to enter the houses of neighbors and even strangers, to demand of their elders a gift (or “treat”) and to threaten them, should they fail to provide one, with a punishment (or “trick”).

This kind of trick-or-treat ritual is largely nonexistent today at Christmas, but vestiges of it do remain. Take, for instance, a December 1991 article in Money magazine, which warns its readers to “Tip Defensively” at Christmas: “‘At holiday time you must show people who work for you that you appreciate good service,’…. Translation: if you don’t, you’ll suffer the consequences all next year (Day-Glo hair tinting or sprinkler-soaked newspapers)…. Keep in mind a kind of reverse Marxism: to each according to yourneed. That is, tip most generously those who can do you the most damage.”17


In early modern Europe, all this postharvest behavior operated within (though at the boundaries of) the normal social order. It was part of a cultural world that went back thousands of years and involved the yearly agricultural cycle, which defined and integrated work and play, with times of intense labor followed by periods of equally intense celebration. This seasonal cycle, perhaps more than anything else, was what determined the texture of people’s lives. It was even appropriated by the Church (as the Christmas season itself had been) and given a religious gloss, whereby times of celebration were associated with any number of official saints’ days that were generally observed with more revelry than piety.

Here was exactly what the Puritans tried to suppress when they came to power in England, and New England, in the middle of the seventeenth century. It was this entire cultural world, with its periodic seasons of labor and festivity—and not just Christmas itself—that Puritans felt to be corrupt, “pagan,” evil. It was this world that they systematically attempted to abolish and “purify.” They wished to replace it with a simpler, more orderly culture in which people were more disciplined and self-regulated, in which ornate churches and cathedrals were replaced by plain “meetinghouses,” in which lavish periodic celebrations—the seasonal cycle itself—were replaced by an orderly and regular succession of days, punctuated only by a weekly day of rest and self-examination, the Sabbath.

Christmas was an important (and symbolically charged) expression of this cultural world, and the Puritans attacked it with particular intensity. In England, the Puritan Parliament made a point of holding regular sessions each December 25 from 1644 through 1656, and it did what it could to suppress the traditional observance of the date. (In 1644 Parliament actually decreed that December 25 was to be observed as a day of fasting and repentance—for the sinful way the occasion had been made into a time of “giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.”)18 One unhappy Englishman referred to those delights as nothing more than “liberty and harmless sports … [by] which the toiling plowswain and labourer were wont to be recreated, and their spirits and hopes revived for a whole twelve month.” But the Puritans had made these innocent customs “extinct and put out of use … as if they never had been…. Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster [i.e., Parliament].”19

“The Tryal of Father Christmas.” The title page of a 1686 British book mocking the Puritans who had suppressed Christmas—and who had been out of power in England for some twenty-five years when this book was published. The Puritan jurors in this trial bore such names as “Mr. Cold-kitchen,” “Mr. Give-little,” and “Mr. Hate-good.” (Courtesy, Mark Bond-Webster)

In England the success of the Puritans was limited and temporary. Legislation banning the celebration of Christmas was contested in many places even during the 1640s and 1650s, when Puritans controlled the government (there were riots in several towns), and the policy was quickly reversed in 1660 upon the restoration of the English monarchy.20

But in New England the Puritans did largely succeed in eliminating Christmas, along with many of the other practices of English popular culture. David D. Hall has succinctly described the “transformed culture” of what he aptly terms a “new Protestant vernacular”:

Psalm-singing replaced ballads. Ritual was reorganized around the celebration of the Sabbath and of fast days. No town in New England had a Maypole; no group celebrated Christmas or St. Valentine’s Day, or staged a pre-Lenten carnival!21

TAKE THE EXAMPLE of almanacs. Almanacs had become popular in England by the seventeenth century, and they remained popular in New England as well. English almanacs generally listed Christmas, along with the bevy of saints’ days that showed the commitment of the Church of England to the old, seasonally based calendar. (These saints’ days were known as “red-letter days,” because in English almanacs and church calendars they were printed in red ink.) But in seventeenth-century New England, almanacs were “purified” of all these old associations. (Indeed, for a time even the common names for the days of the week were purged from the almanacs on account of their pagan origins—after all, Thursday meant “Thor’s day,” and Saturday was “Saturn’s day.”) The Puritans knew that the power to name time was also the power to control it.

So it should come as no surprise that seventeenth-century Massachusetts almanacs did not refer to December 25 as Christmas Day. Instead, the date December 25 would be left without comment, or it would contain a notice that one of the county courts was due to sit that day—an implicit reminder that in New England, December 25 was just another workday.

?HE SUCCESS of the New England Puritans was impressive and long-lasting. Christmas was kept on the margins of early New England society. Still, it was never suppressed completely. Take, for example, two instances that are sometimes cited to show that the Puritan authorities succeeded in abolishing Christmas. We have already encountered the first of these in the entry for Christmas Day, 1621, in the journal of Governor William Bradford of Plymouth Colony. Bradford encountered a group of people who were taking the day off from work, and he promptly sent them back to work. Here, in the first full year of the Pilgrims’ life in the New World, were a group of Christmas-keepers. Nor did this group observe Christmas in a devout fashion or even by simply staying in their houses—Bradford indicated that he would have allowed them that. What bothered the governor was that these Christmas-keepers were, in his own words, out “gaming [and] reveling in the streets.”22

The second instance is the 1659 law passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the law that levied a five-shilling fine on anyone who was “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.”

Such laws are not made, of course, unless there are people who are engaging in the forbidden activity. And the Massachusetts Bay law of 1659, like Governor Bradford’s earlier report, suggests that there were indeed people in Massachusetts who were observing Christmas in the late 1650s. The law was clear on this point: It was designed “for preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such Festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries.” The wording of the law also implied that the authorities were chiefly concerned (as Governor Bradford had been) not with private devotion but with what the law termed “disorders.” That point was reinforced by a provision in the law that threatened to impose a second five-shilling fine for gambling “with cards or dice,” a practice, the court noted, that was “frequent in many places … at such times [as Christmas].”

This is not to argue that Christmas was widely “kept” in seventeenth-century Massachusetts. (For example, I have found no records of prosecutions under the 1659 law, which remained in force until 1681, when it was repealed under pressure from London.) What it does argue is that a festival with such old and deep roots in English culture could not simply be erased by fiat, and that it always hovered just beneath the surface of New England culture, emerging occasionally into plain sight.23 When that happened, it was in ways that confirmed the Puritan nightmares of excess, disorder, and misrule.

Who were the people who practiced Christmas misrule in seventeenth-century New England? Not surprisingly, the evidence suggests that they were mostly on the margins of official New England culture (or altogether outside it). It is difficult to know for sure. There is no Christmas episode so notorious as the 1627–28 confrontation in which the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony forcibly destroyed the maypole that had been defiantly set up on nearby Mount Wollaston by Thomas Morton and his merry men. (May Day, like Christmas, marked a seasonal celebration that resonated deeply in English popular culture.) But that is only because Thomas Morton was practically the sole New England representative of popular culture who was literate, and even literary; he actually published a satirical account of the maypole episode. The rest of New England’s early Christmas-keepers were at most barely literate, and they left no records.

It was fishermen and mariners who had the reputation of being the most incorrigible sinners in New England, the region’s least “reformed” inhabitants. Maritime communities such as Nantucket, the Isles of Shoals, and (especially) the town of Marblehead, were notorious for irreligion, heavy drinking, and loose sexual activity; they were also repositories of enduring English folk practices—places that ignored or resisted orthodox New England culture. It is no coincidence that Marblehead was also a site of ongoing Christmas-keeping.24

In 1662, for example, a fisherman named William Hoar, a 33-year-old resident of Beverly, Massachusetts, “was presented for suffering tippling [i.e., drinking] in his house by those who came to keep Christmas there.”25 That is all we know about this event, but the Hoar family itself is another story. Hoar’s wife and children became notorious for their brazen defiance of Puritan authority. They carried on a long-term vendetta against the local minister, the Reverend John Hale, even to the point of regularly invading his house while he was away, in order to consume his food and loot his goods. Hoar’s wife, Dorcas, was a fortune-teller (she specialized in palmistry), and she cultivated the rumor that she was also a practicing witch. Indeed, Dorcas Hoar’s reputation finally brought her down. In the dark year of 1692, she was convicted of witchcraft and sentenced to hang on Gallows Hill, a victim of the Salem witchcraft outbreak.26

The Miser and the Sots: A Salem Village Wassail

The single incident of Christmas-keeping in seventeenth-century Massachusetts that can be described in any detail took place in 1679, and it is wonderfully revealing of the persistence of English seasonal folkways on the margins of Puritan New England.

At about 9 p.m. on Christmas night, 1679, four young men from Salem Village invaded the house of 72-year-old John Rowden, who lived with his wife, Mary, and their apprentice—and adopted son—Daniel Poole. (John Rowden was a farmer who owned an orchard that apparently included pear trees, from the fruit of which he and his wife had prepared a stock of pear wine, commonly known as perry.) In the testimony he gave three months later, old John Rowden provided a detailed account of what happened that night. First, the four men entered his house and sat down by the fire, and two of them “began to sing.” When they had completed two songs, one of the men asked John Rowden, “‘How do you like this, father? Is this not worth a cup of perry?’” Rowden answered them, “‘I do not like it so well, pray be gone.’” But the men would not leave, telling Rowden “it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went.”

Rowden again refused to offer them perry, and “told them they should have none there.” The four visitors still would not take no for an answer. This time they tried to cajole Rowden into offering them the perry by promising payment at a later time: “‘Call for your pot [of perry] and mine and I will pay you again,’” said one. This time it was Rowden’s wife who replied, saying, “‘We keep no ordinary [i.e., tavern] to call for pots.’” (A pot commonly referred to alcohol, as in the still-current usage potted)

So the four men left. Or so it seemed—for fifteen minutes later three of them returned, saying they had managed to borrow some money and could pay for the perry on the spot. Apparently the Rowdens would actually have sold them the drink at this point, but the couple demanded to see the money in advance. One of the men shoved a “coin” in Goodwife Rowden’s face; it proved to be “nothing but a piece of lead.”

At this point the Rowdens, assisted by their young apprentice, managed to cajole (or push) the visitors out the door and into the December night. But once again the respite was brief. The visitors stopped about forty feet from the house and began to harass the Rowdens. They bellowed out sarcastic cries of “hello.” One of them, Samuel Braybrooke by name, began to taunt the Rowdens’ apprentice, demanding that he give them directions to the town of Marblehead (where alcohol could surely be had, especially on Christmas night). The apprentice, Daniel Poole, replied that “‘he had better be at home with his wife.’” Braybrooke continued to taunt young Poole, asking him “if he wanted to fight, if so to come out.” Braybrooke’s companion Joseph Flint renewed the dare, this time suggesting that they make a bet out of it: “Flint said if he [Poole] wanted to box, he would box with him for a pot of perry.” Finally, when it became clear that despite all this bravado the apprentice could not be pressured into leaving his doorway, the dares and taunts turned into actual violence—violence that was directed not directly at Poole or the Rowdens but at their house. Here is John Rowdens account of what happened:

[T]hey threw stones, bones, and other things at Poole in the doorway and against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places and continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole and a half of fence, being stone wall, and a cellar, without [outside] the house, distant about four or five rods, was broken open through the door, and five or six pecks of apples were stolen.27

Quite a scene. But one that is wholly recognizable from the English and European sources; for this was a wassail gone bad. The four young men came to the old man’s house and sang for their gift of perry. When refused, they pretended that they were willing to pay for the perry (even though making the exchange a financial transaction represented a violation of the wassail ritual, in which the drink would have been a gift offered in return for the songs). But the visitors could (or would) not pay; the “coin” they brought turned out to be a fake, and their offer of payment seems to have been intended merely as a sarcastic comment on the Rowdens’ refusal to play their expected role in the gift exchange. Finally, the wassail turned into what the French call a “charivari” (loud noise, mocking taunts, and stone-throwing), which lasted for more than an hour. There was no gift and therefore no goodwill—no “treat,” but only a “trick” in turn.

Typically, all four of the wassailers were young men (one was seventeen, another about twenty-one; only one of the four was married). Typically, too, all of them stood near the low end of the economic hierarchy, and none would ever achieve any great degree of prosperity.28 Finally, thirteen years later, three of the four men were peripherally involved in the events surrounding the Salem witch trials of 1692. Two of them (Braybrooke and Flint) were among the signers of a 1695 petition urging the dismissal of the Reverend Samuel Parris, the Salem Village minister who played a central role as a supporter of the trials and an accuser of the witches. And a third, Benjamin Fuller, was one of thirty-six Salem Village residents who refused to pay their taxes in support of Samuel Parris’s ministerial salary when Parris first arrived (amid controversy) in Salem Village in 1689.29

The “Salem wassail” (as I have come to call it) surely represented no threat to the social or cultural fabric of Massachusetts, just as more frequent but similar incidents in Europe of misrule and charivari were hardly revolutionary acts. This was a trivial event, and the only harm it did was to the family of one elderly man (possibly a stingy and ill-tempered individual). Still, the episode suggests something of the animosities engendered by the cultural fault lines that continued to divide “official” Massachusetts culture from the lingering traditions it tried so hard (and on the whole with such great success) to eradicate.

A Window on Popular Culture:

The Dominion of New England

Once, for a few strange years, the curtain of Puritan suppression was lifted, and not by choice. By 1680 it was becoming clear that the Restoration government in London would not continue to tolerate the Puritan political culture that had been established in New England. Knowing that its official charter of incorporation might be abrogated, in 1681 the Massachusetts General Court reluctantly revoked several of the colony’s laws that were most obnoxious to the English authorities. (One of the laws thus revoked was the act banning the celebration of Christmas.) But this was not enough to save the charter. It was abrogated in 1684, and during the three years from 1687 through 1689, Massachusetts was governed directly from London, as part of a short-lived entity known as the “Dominion of New England.”

What happened during these three years was deeply humiliating to the Puritans. The hated governor of the Dominion, Sir Edmund Andros, ruled most of New England (along with New York). From his headquarters in Boston, Governor Andros attempted to impose English law and custom in the very seat of Puritan power. On Christmas Day, 1686, for example, two religious services were performed at the Boston Townhouse, and Andros attended both of them, with “a Red-Coat [soldier] going on his right hand and Capt. George on the left.”

But Governor Andros did not simply impose Anglican practices on a populace that was universally resistant to them. One effect of his rule was to permit the public expression of a set of seasonal practices that were associated with the popular culture of seventeenth-century England. Those expressions of the popular culture could not have surfaced openly without the legal protection offered by the Andros regime. Under its protective mantle, during this brief period, it was possible for the first time in Massachusetts to act out heterodox rituals in public. A few Bostonians celebrated Shrove Tuesday (Mardi Gras) by dancing in the streets, and a maypole was erected in Charlestown.

Christmas-keeping apparently began even in advance of the Andros regime. On December 25, 1685, the magistrate Samuel Sewall noted that “Some somehow observe the day,” but he added, as if to reassure himself, that “the Body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it.” (Sewall also offered himself the reassurance that there was “less Christmas-keeping [this year] than last year, fewer Shops Shut up,” but that reassurance implicitly ceded the point that in 1684 an even greater number of persons had “observed” Christmas.) A year later, on December 25, 1686, Sewall once again noted, “Shops open today generally and persons about their occasions.” (Again, the key word here may have been “generally,” because Sewall went on to acknowledge, “Some, but few, Carts [were] at Town with wood….”30)

Christmas-keeping even entered into print culture during the Andros regime. The most dramatic example was an almanac, written by a resident of Saybrook, Connecticut, named John Tully and published in Boston during each of the three years of Dominion government, 1687–89. We have already seen that the Puritans purged New England’s almanacs of all reference to Christmas and the various saints’ days of the English church calendar. But Tully boldly labeled December 25 in capital letters, as “CHRISTMAS-DAY,” and he also added every one of the red-letter days recognized by the Church of England. December 21 thereby became “S. THOMAS,” December 26 was “S. STEVEN,” and December 27 was “INNOCENTS.” (In all likelihood, Tully used capital letters simply because his Boston printer did not have any red ink.) The following year, Tully’s almanac was published with the official imprimatur of Andros’s deputy, Edwin Randolph, on the title page.31

That same year, Tully made an even more dramatic gesture to signify his incorporation of English popular culture. At the end of his 1688 almanac Tully added a series of monthly “prognostications,” all of them satirical and most of them bawdy or scatological. For example, he concluded his prognostication for the month of March by announcing that if it failed to come true, the reader should “light tobacco, or make bum-fodder with our Observations” (in other words, use the pages of his almanac to wipe their asses). For February, Tully wrote:

The Nights are still cold and long, which may cause great Conjunction betwixt the Male and Female Planets of our sublunary Orb, the effects whereof may be seen about nine months after, and portend great charges of Midwife, Nurse, and Naming the Bantling.

Tully’s prognostication for December was a verse that opened by referring to the feasting that would take place during the Christmas season:

This month the Cooks do very early rise,

To roast their meat, & make their Christmas pies.

And it went on to associate this feasting with the social inversion of rich and poor.

Poor men at rich men’s tables their guts forrage

With roast beef, mince-pies, pudding & plum porridge.

In prose, Tully added: “This month, Money & Rum will be in great request; and he that hath the first shall not need fear wanting the latter.”32

THE OVERTHROW of the Dominion of New England in 1689 put a stop to this flurry of popular culture, and it ushered in two decades in which there is little in the public record about Christmas. That changed in 1711, when the Reverend Cotton Mather of Boston recorded some disturbing news in his diary for December 30: “I hear of a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my flock, who have had on the Christmas-night, this last week, a Frolick, a revelling feast, and Ball [i.e., dance]….” The very next year Mather denounced the holiday in a sermon, published immediately after its delivery under the title Grace Defended. The biblical text on which he based his sermon, drawn from the Epistle of Jude, showed what was on Mather’s mind: The text he chose was an attack on certain early Christians who had deceitfully “crept into” the early Christian church, using religion as a cover for sexual license, “giving themselves over to fornication”—“ungodly men, turning the grace of our God into lasciviousness.” (Mather substituted the word “wantonness.”)33

Christmas in a New England Almanac. The December page from John Tully’s notorious 1688 Boston almanac. Along with weather predictions, Tully brazenly (and in capital letters) named Christmas and the Anglican saints’ days. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Mather returned to the same topic in 1713, in a treatise titled Advice from the Watch-Tower. This new treatise cut a broader swath than Grace Defended. It dealt with a whole battery of practices that were threatening to subvert New England culture from within. The treatise ended by presenting “a Black List of some Evil Customes which begin to appear among us.” Along with Christmas—and gambling with cards and dice— Mather’s “black list” included partying on Sunday evenings (and even during the intermission between the two Sabbath-day sermons); running horse races on such solemn occasions as funerals, training days, and public lectures; turning weddings into drunken “revels;” and holding cornhuskings that were little more than excuses for “riot.”34

There was a pattern here: All these practices involved young people who were appropriating serious social occasions as opportunities for bouts of drinking and sex. (In his section on cornhuskings, Mather warned young people: “Let the Night of your Pleasure be turned into Fear.”) It was in just such a context—positioned between the drinking of toasts and riots at cornhuskings—that Mather placed the subject of Christmas. “Christmas-Revels begin to be taken up,” he reported, “among some vainer Young People here and there in some of our Towns.”35 It was bad enough, Mather argued, that Christmas was not divinely ordained, but what was “offensive” about it “most of all” was that it was being abused just as the weddings and the cornhuskings were abused—an occasion on which, as Mather put it, “Abominable Things” were done. Clearly, those abominations had mostly to do with sex.

Mather’s charges are confirmed by demographic data. Social historians have discovered that the rate of premarital pregnancies in New England began to climb early in the eighteenth century, and that by mid-century it had skyrocketed. (In some New England towns almost half the first children were born less than seven months after their parents’ marriage.) What makes the demographic data especially interesting is that this sexual activity had a seasonal pattern to it: There was a “bulge” in the number of births in the months of September and October—meaning that sexual activity peaked during the Christmas season.36

Misrule in New England Almanacs

Mather’s charges are also buttressed by—once again—the evidence of almanacs. Almanac makers sometimes included monthly verses along with aphorisms (in prose or verse) that were interlineated at particular dates, along with the astronomical and astrological data, and the tides and weather observations. The December page sometimes included implicit references (occasionally explicit ones) to the Christmas season, and much of this material dealt with food and drink. In his notorious 1688 almanac John Tully wrote that in December “Money and Rum will be in great request.” But even as early as 1682, a Boston almanac written by the thoroughly orthodox William Brattle contained a verse for the December page that referred to all the drinking that went on during that month (“sack” refers to sherry, and “tubs” to kegs):

This month, ’twill rain such store of sack (each night)

That any man that tubs doth empty quite,

And leave abroad [i.e. outdoors], and then the next day view,

He’ll find them full of pure good sack: It’s true.37

(In other words, if people drink up all their sherry each day and leave the cask outside overnight, the next morning it will be magically full.) Brattle’s verse may have referred to a popular belief about magical rebirth and renewal at the time of both the solstice and Christmas, but what matters more is that he seems to have assumed that December was indeed a month of heavy drinking. The same double allusion to intoxication and solstice can be found in an almanac printed in Boston in 1714, placed by the dates December 28–31: “By strong Liquor and Play / They turn night into day.” And here, from that same almanac, is the verse that heads the month of December:

Strong-Beer Stout Syder and a good fire

Are things this season doth require.

Now some with feasts do crown the day,

Whilst others loose their coyn in play….38

In 1702 the Boston almanac-maker Samuel Clough reported (disapprovingly, to be sure) that December was a time when men of the lower orders—“Coasters and Boat-men”—gathered in taverns to gossip and drink:

Some ask a Dram when first come in,

Others with Flip or Bounce begin;

Tho’ some do only call for Beer,

And that i’ th’ morn is but mean chear.

And in 1729 Nathaniel Whittemore warned simply: “Extravagancies bring Sickness.”39

New England almanacs occasionally addressed the sexual barriers that were breached by the license (and the cold temperatures) of the Christmas season. Thus in 1749 Nathanael Ames wrote (at December 15–17):

This cold uncomfortable Weather,

makes Jack and Jill lie close together.

On a similar note, George Whetens almanac for 1753 noted in a quadruple rhyme: “The weather that is cold[,] that makes the maid that is old for to scold for the want of a Bed-fellow bold.”40

But most common of all were the references to interclass eating and drinking—the familiar social inversion in which the low changed places with the high. At one extreme was John Tully’s 1688 verse that Christmas was a season when “poor men at rich men’s tables their guts forrage.” Another Boston almanac, this one by Nathaniel Whittemore for the year 1719, contains an interesting piece of advice interlineated at the dates December 18–21. It warns householders about a practice we can recognize as another familiar element of the wassail ritual (once again, “abroad” means outside): “Do not let your Children and Servants run too much abroad at Nights.”41

A Warning for Late December. Christmas is not named in this December page from Nathaniel Whittemores 1719 Boston almanac, but between the dates December 18 and 21 can be found, in italics, an admonition to householders: “Do not let your Children and Servants run too much abroad at Nights.” (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Several decades later, Nathanael Ames’s almanac for 1746 put at the dates December 20–23 a concise but rather cynical description of interclass merriment (the words recall the 1679 Salem Village wassail, when old John Rowden was visited by four young men who came “to call for pots”):

The Miser and the Sot

together they have got,

to drink a Pot.42

A “Yankee Doodle” Christmas

Finally, even closer to the center of New England popular culture, there is the eighteenth-century song that can almost be regarded as the first American national anthem. “Yankee Doodle” was not a single song but a variable cluster of verses, all composed in a meter that could be sung to a version of the still-familiar tune. What all the verses have in common is that they are about backcountry manners.43 (Most of these verses are unknown today, but all are written in the same meter, the meter of the line Yankee Doodle goes to town, riding on his pony.) Several of the verses dealt with sexual antics:

Two and two may go to Bed,

Two and two together;

And if there is not room enough,

Lie one a top o’to’ther.44

A number of “Yankee Doodle” verses refer to such seasonal events as election day or cornhusking (a “frolic” at which “[t]hey’ll be some as drunk as sots”).45 One of these seasonal verses is about Christmas. “Christmas is a coming Boys,” the verse begins:

Christmas is a coming Boys,

We’ll go to Mother Chase’s,

And there we’ll get a sugar dram [i.e., rum]

Sweetened with Mêlasses.

And the verse continues by shifting from alcohol to sex:

Heigh Ho for our Cape Cod,

Heigh ho Nantasket,

Do not let the Boston wags

Feel your Oyster Basket.46

Cotton Mather himself could not have stated the issue more tellingly.


A Temperate Christmas

Christmas was becoming respectable, too. Even orthodox Congregationalists were beginning to concede that the observance of Christmas would be rendered less obnoxious if the holiday were celebrated with piety and moderation, purged of its seasonal excesses. The first New England clergyman to make such a concession, at least implicitly, may have been Cotton Mather himself. In his 1712 anti-Christmas sermon Mather paid only token attention to the purely theological arguments against the holiday—that it was man-made and not divinely ordained.47 “I do not now dispute,” Mather said, “whether People do well to Observe such an Uninstituted Festival at all, or no.” And he continued with a statement that shows how far he had moved from a position of strident Puritanism: “Good Men may love one another, and may treat one another with a most Candid Charity, while he that Regardeth a Day, Regardeth it unto the Lord, and he that Regardeth not the Day, also shows his Regard unto the Lord, in his not Regarding of it…”48 In other words, live and let live: On the issue of observing Christmas, there was room for legitimate differences among people of goodwill.

What Mather went on to emphasize was the manner in which Christmas was commonly observed—as a time of drunken revels and lascivious behavior. (That was “a thing, that there can be no doubt about.”) Cotton Mather’s father, Increase, would have readily agreed with his son’s angry warning about the bad things that went on at Christmas. But he would never have gone along with Cotton Mather’s idea that it was possible for good Christians to differ in “candid charity” about observing the holiday at all. For Increase Mather, as for other seventeenth-century Puritans, the licentious fashion in which Christmas was commonly practiced was just an intrinsic expression of its non-Christian origin as a seasonal celebration; the holiday was “riotous” at its very core. For Cotton Mather, writing a generation later in the early eighteenth century, the essence of the holiday could be distinguished, at least in principle, from its historical origins and the ordinary manner of its celebration.

From a modern perspective, the difference between Mather pere and Mather fils may seem trivial. The young people whom Cotton Mather addressed in 1712 may not have noticed the difference themselves. But it mattered nonetheless. Cotton Mathers concession, small as it was, left little room to contest the legitimacy of any movement that managed to purify Christmas of its seasonal excesses. And such a movement was not long in coming about.

Signs of change began to emerge in about 1730. Once again, some of the best evidence comes from almanacs. In 1733 James Franklin printed the following couplet on his almanac’s December page: “Now drink good Liquor, but not so, / That thou canst neither stand nor go.” Of course, the most famous of all eighteenth-century American almanac-makers was James Franklins younger brother Benjamin. Raised in New England (and trained as a printer by James), Benjamin Franklin became the century’s preeminent exponent of moderation, sobriety, and self-control. In 1734, in the second number of his almanac, Poor Richard, Franklin applied that philosophy to the Christmas season. The December verse, written in the voice of “Poor” Richard Saunders’s wife, Bridget, chastised a husband who “for sake of Drink neglects his Trade, / And spends each Night in Taverns till ’tis late.” But on the same page, in an interlineation placed at the dates December 23–29, Franklin made it clear enough (in a rhymed but characteristically Franklinesque piece of advice) that he was no hater of Christmas: “If you wou’d have Guests merry with your Cheer, / Be so yourself, or so at least appear.” And similarly in 1739: “O blessed Season! lov’d by Saints and Sinners, / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners.”49

The emphasis on temperate mirth intensified at mid-century, when Nathanael Ames (New England’s most popular almanac-maker) began to mix calls for charity and cheer with admonitions against excess. In 1752 Ames offered his first warning: “Bad times, Dull-Drink and clouded Minds make heavy, listless, idle bodies.” And in the 1760s similar warnings came thick and fast. Ames’s verse for December 1760 was a warning against getting drunk. His 1761 almanac included a similar piece of advice: “The temperate man enjoys the most delight, / For riot dulls and palls the appetite.” And in 1763: “The temperate Man nor ever over feeds / His cramm’d Desires with more than Nature needs.” In 1764 dietary strictures actually took over Ames’s entire almanac, constituting the subject matter for the accompanying material in all twelve months of the year.50

What Benjamin Franklin and Nathanael Ames were calling for was a Christmas that combined mirth and moderation. Both of these men were shopkeepers—versatile, thrifty, and self-made.51 What they were trying to do was actually similar to what the Puritans had done a century earlier: to restructure people’s work habits by having them do away with periodic binges. But unlike the Puritans, their strategy did not entail the elimination of Christmas. Instead, they were spreading the idea—a new idea—that Christmas could be a time of cheer without also being a time of excess.

Christmas in the Household of Martha Ballard, 1785–1811

The single best personal account of what such a “moderate” Christmas season may have been like can be found in the diary of Martha Ballard, the Maine midwife whose social world has been painstakingly and brilliantly reconstructed by the historian Laurel Thatcher Ulrich. For twenty-six years, between the ages of 50 and 76, Martha Ballard recorded her daily activities as wife, mother, midwife, and resident of the Maine community of Hallowell. During the twenty-six years between 1785 and 1811, Ballard chose seven times in her diary to name December 25 as Christmas. In six other years, she had reason to omit such a reference: She was occupied in delivering someone’s baby; December 25 was just another working day for her.

But Martha Ballard’s diary also makes it clear that December 25 was just another working day in any case, even when she was not delivering babies—and even when she named the day as Christmas. In 1788, for example, Martha’s husband, Ephraim, was away from home on business; Martha herself stayed home, finishing “a pair of Stockins” for one of her daughters. In 1807 (“it is Chrismas day”), she noted laconically, “I have done a fortnit’s wash.” And on December 25, 1811, the final Christmas of her life, the 76-year-old woman reported simply: “I have done hous wk Se knit Some.”52

The younger generation in Hallowell observed Christmas more actively than Martha Ballard herself did. In 1801 Martha reported nothing special for herself on December 25, but she wrote that her two unmarried children celebrated the day in the company of two members of the opposite sex: “Ephm & Patty kept Christmas at Son Lambards, his partnr [was] Polly Farewell [and] hers [was] Cyrus.”53 (Sure enough, a couple of years later Ephraim Ballard, Jr. and Polly Farwell got married.) Some years earlier, two of the Ballards’ young live-in servants likewise took Christmas as an opportunity for courtship: On December 23, 1794, “Dolly & Sally went to a daunce [dance] at mr Capins, were atended by a mr Lambart and White.” (The previous day they had prepared for this event by purchasing at the local shop “a pair Shoes & other things.”) But Martha Ballard quickly reasserted her control over this frolicsome pair: On Christmas Day itself, she reported, “Dolly & Sally have washt, Scourd my puter & washt the Kitchen.”54

Christmas may have been a time of work for Martha Ballard, but what is equally striking is how often that work involved the preparation of special meals for the season. It is on this very point that her diary is most revealing. On December 24, 1788: “Dan’l Bolton & his wife Dined here, we made some mins Pies.” Three years later, Ballard spent the entire week from December 21 to December 27 staying at the home of one Mrs. Lithgow, a young woman who was waiting to deliver her first baby (which would be born on Christmas Day itself). But on December 23, the pregnant woman and her midwife turned to other tasks: “I helped mrs Lithgow make Cake & Pies….” On December 31, 1802, New Year’s Eve, Martha was at home and “made pumpkin and apple pies.” A year later she recorded that her son Jonathan (together with his wife, Sally, and their six children) dined at their parents’ house on “puding and roast spare rib.”55

On two occasions Martha Ballard actually went shopping for her New Year’s dinner, and she recorded her purchases in such detail as to make it clear that she was planning to cook a special holiday meal. On December 31, 1791, she shopped in three places and came home with what are unmistakably the ingredients for special cakes and pies: almost ten pounds of sugar, one pound of raisins, a pound of ginger, “2 half muggs,” and a pint and a half of rum. And in 1808 Ballard reported on December 28 that her husband went shopping for almost the same ingredients: “[M]r. Ballard went to the Settlement, brot home 1 gl’n Molases, ½ [gallon] N E rhum, ¼ do Ginger, ¼ lb Allspice, a bottle of Slolens Elxr.” Ballard spent the next two days cooking with what were almost certainly these very items: “I Bakt mins pies” on December 29; and on December 30: “I have Bakt Mins and Apple Pies….” (On New Year’s Day she reported, “Sons Jona, Ephm & wife Supt with us … at home. Childn here….”)56 We can probably assume that the family consumed at least part of what Ballard—she was then in her mid-seventies—had spent the previous two days preparing for them.

During Martha Ballard’s old age, such feasts may have been occasions of reconciliation within this family (as Laurel Ulrich has shown, the Ballards had gone through a period of intergenerational alienation and conflict). It appears that in the last five years of their mother’s life, Martha’s children began to bring her New Year’s presents—presents that invariably took the form of special food for the dinners in which they themselves partook. It was in 1807 that this ritual seems to have taken place for the first time: “Son Ephm made us a present of 12½ lb Beef, Son Town [a present] of a fine Goos & 2 wings; they both sleep here [in other words, they stayed to eat].”57 A year later the ritual was repeated, and this time Martha concluded her entry for the day with a clear expression of her own reaction: “Jan. 1, 1808: Son Lambard Conducted his wife and Henry to See me … they made me a present of a Loin of muttun, Some Sugar, Butter and Bread. Son Ephms wife Came here, Jona[than’]s wife also. She brot me 2 Pumkin pies. O happy has this year began and So may it proceead….”58 On at least one occasion during this period, Martha appears to have reciprocated. On December 23, 1808, she “bak’t apple & Squash pies & brown bread,” and sent a couple of the pies to one of her daughters, along with “a Stake of fresh Pork.”59

What Martha Ballard’s entries make strikingly clear is that for the Ballard family the celebration of the Christmas season was deeply embedded in the normal rhythms of seasonal activity. In any traditional rural society, late December was ordinarily the time when animals were slaughtered, when there was food and drink aplenty and (for men, at least) the opportunity to relax after the labors of the harvest. Martha Ballard and her neighbors might very well have been baking “mins pies” at this time even if there were no special holidays to mark the occasion. A supply of mince pies, if properly stored, would last through much of the winter. Even the “presents” (of food) that her children brought her after 1806 were part of a normal, ongoing exchange of goods and services that characterized life in communities of this sort.

There was nothing about those presents that marked any real departure from the ordinary dynamics of life in Hallowell. Above all, the presents were not intrinsically commercial. The goose, beef, and mutton, the bread and butter, the pumpkin pies—these were nothing more than the things that Hallowell families raised or produced in the normal course of events. Only the special ingredients that went into making cakes and pies—the sugar, ginger, allspice, and rum—involved a commercial transaction. But this suggests only that Martha Ballard’s Hallowell community had links to the broader Atlantic world and was not some isolated backwater whose economy operated at a level of subsistence production.

The Transformation of New England Almanacs and Hymnals

Martha Ballard’s diary records a single present of a commercial nature. On December 29, 1796, she noted that “Daniel Livermore made a present of an Almanack to my Son Cyrus.”60 We cannot know what prompted Livermore to make such a gift, or just which almanac he chose (there were many), but of one thing we can be sure: The almanac would have noted that December 25 was Christmas.

There is a story here. As far back as the seventeenth century, and even among devout Puritans, there had never been complete unanimity about the need to deny that Christmas could be an occasion for legitimate religious observance. In England, in 1629, no less prominent a Puritan than John Milton wrote a Christmas poem, “On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity.” The poem began by announcing (almost defiantly, given the political context in which it appeared), “This is the month, and this the happy morn….”61 In Boston itself, on December 18, 1664, the young minister Increase Mather felt it necessary to deliver a sermon reinforcing the colony’s official policy. The day after Mather delivered it, he was confronted by three of the wealthiest members of his own church, who demanded that he discuss the subject further with them. In his diary Mather recorded the argument with tantalizing brevity: “Discoursed much about Christmas, I Con, they Pro.”62

Such evidence is scarce. But there is another kind of record that is much easier to come by and has broad implications—once again, the printed almanac. As we have seen, seventeenth-century almanacs were purged of all the traditional red-letter days that marked the seasonal calendar in English society (except, of course, for the countercultural almanacs that John Tully produced in the period of direct English rule from 1687 to 1689).

But there was a pair of exceptions to the ordinary rule. In the almanac for 1669, quietly placed at this date, in small italic letters, can be found the Latin phrase “Christus Natus” [i.e., Christ born]. And exactly ten years later, the 1679 almanac indicated, in English, “Our Saviorborn.”63

These two almanacs, like every book published in New England during the period, were printed on a press owned by Harvard College. The authorities must have noticed the insertions and allowed them to be made. A small notation in an almanac or diary may not seem very important today. But in the context of seventeenth-century New England, this gesture would have been charged with meaning. It was such small things that signaled to contemporaries the shifting lines between what was open for public debate and what was not.

Those lines shifted more clearly after 1700. During the 1710s, several almanacs named Christmas (one of them written by Edward Holyoke, a future president of Harvard). And in the 1720s James Franklin published several more.* 64 By 1730 the hegemony of the government of Massachusetts in the matter of almanacs was fading. From that point on, the dominant role in determining whether the holiday was named was played not by official preferences but by the forces of the market, in concert with the personal predilections of individual almanac-makers. Before 1730 or so, it was not wholly safe to publish an almanac that named Christmas or the Anglican saints’ days. After 1730, it was safe. Over the next thirty years, some writers chose to name Christmas in their almanacs, and others chose not to.

But after 1760 it was exceptional not to name Christmas. The last major holdout, Nathanael Ames, named Christmas in 1760, and when he did so he added an explicit religious verse (“This is a Time for Joy and Mirth / When we consider our Saviour’s Birth”). Ames went further still that year: He incorporated all the saints’ days in the Anglican Church calendar. It was a major change, and the newspaper advertisements for the 1760 Ames almanac made a point of noting that it contained, “besides what is usual, The Feasts and Fasts of the Church of England.”65 The year 1760 was also when Ames began his systematic campaign—described earlier—to take the gorging and drunkenness out of the Christmas holiday. The timing of Ames’ decision to name Christmas thus provides still another indication that the holiday became accepted into mainstream New England culture only as it was purged of seasonal excess.

The change is confirmed by the experience of Connecticut almanac-maker Roger Sherman. Sherman published a series of almanacs from 1750 to 1761. Every one of these almanacs listed Christmas and the saints’ days. But in 1758 Sherman felt obliged to publicly defend his practice. He had learned, as he wrote in the preface to that year’s almanac, “that some good People in the Country, dislike my Almanack, because the observable Days of the Church of England are inserted in it.” Sherman, a good Congregationalist, denied that he had Anglican leanings. He insisted that his almanac was not intended as an expression of personal belief; rather, “my Design in this Performance is to serve the Publick.” Everybody was free to observe such days or not, and no harm would be done as long as the physical space in the almanac taken up by naming the red-letter days “does not crowd out any Thing that might be more serviceable.”66

Sherman’s words concealed his real point. After all, the “good People in the Country” who “disliked” the practice were themselves members of the “Publick.” What Sherman was really alluding to was not religious freedom but market demand. His words suggest that the old Puritan preference for a “reformed” almanac remained just important enough to warrant a rhetorical response, just as his actual practice reveals that such an old-fashioned preference was no longer widespread enough to require anything but a rhetorical response. “Reformed” almanacs were still being published in 1758, but only four years later they would be gone, gone for good. By the 1760s the naming of Christmas and the saints’ days seems to have offended such a small group that it would not pay to produce even a single almanac for them. The Puritan buying market seems simply to have evaporated.

WHAT WAS true of almanacs was equally true of another immensely popular form of culture in early New England, the hymnal. During the seventeenth and well into the eighteenth century, most New England congregations used the so-called Bay Psalm Book, a rhymed version of the Old Testament Psalms, with additional hymns taken from various biblical sources (this was the first book published in New England). None of these hymns dealt with the Christmas story.

But by the 1750s the Bay Psalm Book had largely been replaced in New England churches by a pair of new verse translations of the Psalms, both of which contained Christmas hymns. The first of these had been written late in the seventeenth century by the English poets Nicholas Brady and Nahum Tate. (Tate was then England’s poet laureate; he is best known today as the librettist of Henry Purcell’s opera Dido and Aeneas.)67 Brady and Tate’s New Version of the Psalms contained a hymn that told the story of the Nativity. (Written by Nahum Tate, this hymn is still popular today. It begins with the lines “While Shepards watch’d their Flocks by Night, / All seated on the Ground, / The Angel of the Lord came down / and Glory shone around.”) The New Version was first printed in Boston in 1713. It was reprinted three times between 1720 and 1740, and some forty times more between 1754 and 1775.68

The other version of rhymed psalms and hymns that replaced the old Bay Psalm Book was written by the great English hymnist and religious poet Isaac Watts (1674–1748). Watts published not one but two Christmas hymns; both (like Tate’s) were rhapsodic accounts of the Nativity. Each was called “The Nativity of Christ,” and each placed the Nativity “today”—which would have made the hymns almost impossible to sing at any time other than the Christmas season.69 Watts’s religious verse became the steadiest of what David Hall has termed “steady sellers.” One New Englander who grew up toward the end of the century later recalled that as a youth “I could recite Watts’ version of the Psalms from beginning to end, together with many of his Hymns and Lyric Poems.”70

After 1762 no Congregationalist hymnal published in New England failed to include a hymn for Christmas. What makes the change especially suggestive, of course, is the way it parallels the transformation of New England almanacs. In both cases, Christmas was hardly to be found before 1720; after 1760 it could not be avoided.

THESE HYMNALS were printed with texts only, and they could be sung to any tune that fit the meter. In fact, the earliest religious music to be printed in New England first appeared in 1698. Thereafter a familiar pattern emerged. In the first half of the eighteenth century, none of the religious “tune books” published in New England had texts that referred to the Nativity. But in 1760 (that year, again!) a tune book published in Boston included the music and words to a “Hymn on the Nativity,” composed by Englishman William Knapp to the familiar text of Nahum Tate. Other Christmas music composed by Englishmen appeared throughout the decade. In all, during the 1760s nine different Christmas songs were published in New England.71

Beginning in 1770, a new set of Christmas songs began to appear—songs written by native New England composers. The most famous of these Yankee composers, William Billings of Boston, composed Christmas music for each of the tune books he published between 1770 and 1794; there were eight such Christmas pieces in all, several of them extended contrapuntal “anthems.”72 Three of these pieces (and part of a fourth) were settings for the hymns by Isaac Watts and Nahum Tate. The texts of the others were written by Billings himself.

William Billings, “An Hymn for Christmas” (1770). The first of Billings’s eight Christmas pieces. The words, taken from Nahum Tate’s hymn “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night,” are indicated only by the opening phrase of each line—perhaps the singers were already acquainted with the text. The hymn’s subtitle, “Charlston” (i.e., Charlestown), probably names the congregation for which Billings first wrote the piece. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Billings was hardly alone. All told, during the last two decades of the eighteenth century, seven different New England composers published original Christmas music. And Christmas pieces by English composers continued to be routinely included in the anthologies of sacred music that appeared with accelerated frequency in the 1780s and ’90s. One of the most important of the new tune books, Isaiah Thomas’s 1786 Worcester Collection of Sacred Harmony, even contained the “Hallelujah Chorus” from Handels Messiah! And another composer, Daniel Read, published an unattributed arrangement of a second chorus from Messiah, “Glory to God in the Highest,” together with his own version of the several recitatives that precede this chorus (beginning with “There were angels abiding in the fields”).73 Between 1760 and 1799 at least thirty different Christmas songs were published in New England. It is safe to say that the decades after 1760 saw a veritable explosion of Christmas music in the region.

A Devotional Christmas

Beginning in about the middle of the eighteenth century, even some orthodox Congregationalist ministers began to confess their desire to observe Christmas, along with their regret that it carried too much unacceptable baggage, social as well as theological. (Their ambivalence is similar to the feelings about this holiday experienced by many contemporary American Jews.) One of these ministers, the Reverend Ezra Stiles, reflected on the quandary that would be faced over the coming years by an increasing number of Congregationalist clergymen (Ezra Stiles himself would later become president of Yale). On December 25, 1776, Stiles confided to his diary:

This day the nativity of our blessed Savior is celebrated through three quarters of Christendom …; but the true day is unknown. On any day I can readily join with my fellow Christians in giving thanks to God for his unspeakable gift, and rejoice with them in the birth of a Savior. Tho’ [i.e., if] it had been the will of Christ that the anniversary of his birth should have been celebrated, he would at least let us have known the day….74

In 1778 Stiles specified the nature of his own reservations: “Without superstition for the day I desire to unite with all Christians in celebrating the incarnation of the divine Emmanuel.”75 In fact, as president of Yale, Stiles permitted his students to attend Christmas service (as Edward Holyoke had done at Harvard a generation earlier).76

Ezra Stiles was a theological liberal. But there were several more conservative Congregational ministers who left records of their attraction to Christmas in their private diaries. The Reverend Ebenezer Parkman of Westborough, Massachusetts, was one of these. For twenty years Parkman had been going about his ordinary business each December 25; he had even been chiding his neighbors for attending Christmas services in a nearby Episcopal Church. But suddenly, in 1747, Parkman revealed that he himself was tempted to join them: “God grant that I and mine may be happy partakers this Day with all those who Sincerely celebrate the Nativity of Jesus Christ!” Eight years later, in 1755, Parkman expanded on his earlier entry: He wrote that he had once again “had some serious Thoughts on the Day, as kept by many in Commemoration of our Lords Nativity.” And he expressed the “desire to be one with all of them that are one with Christ, and who avoid the Superstitions and Excesses of this Day, and Serve the Lord in sincerity [italics added].” The caveat was crucial: Like Ezra Stiles, Ebenezer Parkman wished to celebrate Christmas with those people who did so “in sincerity,” not with those who did so with “Superstitions and Excesses.”77

The Reverend David Hall was minister to the central Massachusetts community of Sutton for sixty years, from 1729 until his death in 1789. Born in 1704, Hall was a “New Light,” an evangelical supporter of the Great Awakening during the 1740s. Hall began to keep a diary in 1740, but it was not until 1749 that he chose to refer to Christmas. When he did so, it was with enthusiasm: “[T]his day, as tis apprehended, the Saviour was born[,] w[hic]h was to be glad tidings of Great Joy to all people…. I’ll join to sing a Saviours love for there’s a Saviour Born.” And he added, in a further indication of what it was that really worried all these New England ministers, “Would to God more notice was taken of the day in a suitable manner [italics added].”78

In a suitable manner… Without superstition … The excesses of this day … We should not assume that these were merely the prim phrasings of unworldly clergymen. Consider a little episode that took place on the night of December 22, 1794, in the rural western Massachusetts town of Deerfield (now the site of Historic Deerfield). It is the kind of incident that rarely leaves any mark in the written record. We know about this one only because it appeared in the account book of a disgruntled local shopkeeper, John Birge by name. What Birge reported was a charivari of sorts. “Just before two of the Clock in the morning,” he wrote, “my house was assaulted by sum Nightwalkers—or rather blockheads.” These wassailers demanded entry: They “assaulted the house very bould by knocking or pounding as if they meant to force the house.” When Birge refused to let them in, the intruders shattered one of his windowpanes “all to slivers.” They may even have broken in and carried something away—the shop sold foodstuffs and clothing—because Birge ended his account with the comment, “I cannot see why it was much better than Burglary.”79

WHAT DOES it all add up to? The answer must be that when Christmas returned to New England in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was embraced by different groups with different cultural agendas. Then as now, there was no single “Christmas.” For some it was probably little more than the name for a day in the year. For others it was a time of pious devotion, devotion that could range all the way from mirthful joy in the Savior’s birth to angst over personal failings, and from stately prayers to ecstatic hymns. For others still it was a time of feasting—accompanied or not by a supply of alcohol. Finally, Christmas might mean misrule and carnival, in which alcohol could lead to sexual liberties, social inversion, or even violence.

But not one of these ways of celebrating Christmas bore much resemblance to the holiday that most of us know today. All of them were public rituals, not private celebrations; civic events, not domestic ones. In none of them would we have found the familiar intimate family gathering or the giving of Christmas presents to expectant children. Nowhere would we have found Christmas trees; no reindeer, no Santa Claus. Christmas in late-eighteenth-century New England—or anywhere else—was not centered around the family or on children or giving presents. It was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.


The House of Ale: A Masonic Holiday

Nowhere is the variety of forms in which New Englanders celebrated Christmas, and their occasional intersection or even conflict, better revealed than in the region’s major urban center, the town of Boston. We have already encountered Christmas in eighteenth-century Boston, in the 1711 Christmas “frolic” that moved Cotton Mather to deliver his sermon “Grace Defended.” Mid-century Bostonians witnessed a far more open display of Christmas revelry, performed by some of the town’s most prosperous merchants and tradesmen. These were the members of the Boston lodge of Freemasons. The Masonic lodge had been organized in 1730, and it held a festive banquet each 27th of December, the name-day of St. John the Evangelist.

As it happens, the lodge’s 1749 banquet was described by one of the participants in a long and comic poem published several weeks after the event. (The poem constitutes the sole extant record of any of these Masonic festivities.) It begins by promising to “regale” its readers “with a diverting christmas tale.”

The “tale” went like this. First, the Freemasons assembled at a tavern, then they attended a church service, and finally they marched back to the tavern in a formal procession that gathered along its route an “aprond throng” of curious workingmen. It was the eating and drinking that formed the center of the story, and it was this that bound the masons together in mutual brotherhood. As the poet put it (in what amounts to a stunning parody of both Masonic culture and Puritan social theory, with its insistence on the need for mutual love):

’Tis Love, pure Love cements the whole.

Love—of the BOTTLE and the BOWL.

The interval of religious service (“Masons at church! … / Such folk as never did appear / So overfond of coming there”) is treated simply as an ironic interlude, showing “how they came

To house of God from house of ale

And how the parson told his tale:

How they return’d, in manner odd,

To house of ale from house of God.

Even the clergyman who preached on this occasion (“told his tale”) acknowledged that it was the feast, and not the sermon, that made up “the weightier business of the day.” His “sermon” is reported in aphoristic verse modeled on that of the English poet Alexander Pope:

For eating solid sense affords,

Whilst nonsense lurks in many words.

Doubting does oft arise from thinking,

But truth is only found in drinking.

This having said, the reverend vicar

Dismiss’d them to their food and liquor.80

These verses are funny today (and would have been shocking in 1749) for their deliberate juxtaposition of the sacred and the profane. And the event they described must have made for quite a scene in mid-eighteenth-century Boston. But in the context of older Christmas traditions one point stands out: The Freemasons’ banquet was limited to the lodge members themselves, all of whom were prosperous men. The “aprond throng” that collected on the streets to watch the procession was not invited to participate in the feast itself. Even so, it may have been part of the ritual. The British historian E. P. Thompson has argued that in England, too, the eighteenth-century elite no longer performed the requisite paternalist rituals of the season, but Thompson adds suggestively that the English elite still continued to “perform” in front of the poor, in a kind of disdainful “theater of the streets.”81 That may have been what the Boston Freemasons were doing when they chose to march to their feast in a formal procession. The poet even suggests that the “apron’d throng” put on something of a performance of its own in response to the march—“shouldering close,” they managed to “close, press, stink, and shove” around the marchers.” In an aside, the poet reveals that the Grand Master of the lodge, a wealthy Boston merchant, decided not to attend the banquet—ostensibly because he had caught a cold, but in fact because he had foreseen “that the jobb/Would from all parts collect the mob.”82 An interesting reason: Could it be that the Grand Master was not wholly comfortable with the implications of this performance?

Carriers’ Addresses: Wassailing in the Streets

It is difficult to know how the poorest residents of eighteenth-century Boston observed the Christmas season. But the limited evidence that does exist suggests a reemergence of Christmas misrule, reminiscent of what was happening in European cities. In its more innocent form this involved a ritual that is still with us today: giving Christmas tips to the paper carrier. Newspapers were delivered door to door in eighteenth-century Boston. During the Christmas season these newspaper carriers expected a tip. Unlike their modern successors, the colonial carriers were not members of prosperous families who took on a paper route to earn a little extra spending money; they were the sons (very likely the teenage sons) of the poor.

By the 1760s these Boston carriers were going on their begging rounds armed with little printed verses that they presented in turn to each of their patrons. Such “carriers’ addresses” were usually written and printed by the editor of the newspaper and distributed on or about New Year’s Day. (The custom originated in Philadelphia during the 1730s and had been picked up in Boston by 1760.) But there were at least four Boston carriers’ verses (printed between 1764 and 1784) that referred to Christmas as well as New Year’s. The 1764 verses in the Boston Evening Post, for example, was headed “The News-Boy’s Christmas and New Year’s Verses.” It begins:

The Boy who Weekly Pads the Streets,

With all the freshest News he meets,

His Mistresses and Masters greets.

Christmas Begging Broadside. This Boston “Carrier’s Address” was delivered during the 1770 Christmas season. The final verse asks patrons to bestow a “few shillings on your lad.” Similar broadside pleas were used by other “plebeian” residents of Boston. One, dating from the mid-176os, was from a blacksmith’s apprentice: “This is unto all Gentlemen who shoes [sic] here, / I wish you a merry Christmas, a happy New Year: / For shoeing your Horses, and trimming their Locks, / Please to remember my New-Years Box.” (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

And it goes on:

Christmas and New-Year, Days of Joy,

The Harvest of your Carrier Boy,

He hopes you’ll not his Hopes destroy….

[That] His generous Patrons may inspire,

By filling up his Pockets higher!83

Three other carriers’ addresses wished their recipients “a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year,” and asked, respectively, for a “few shillings,” “some pence,” and a “lib’ral hand.”

To be sure, this ritual was a far cry from the boisterous begging we have encountered in European popular culture (and will reencounter shortly in Boston itself). The paper carrier approached his patrons individually, not as part of a gang. As far as we know, he did not demand entry into his patrons’ houses or threaten damage if refused a gift. Above all, the verses that the carrier handed to his patrons were written by his employer. This was a ritual that was largely controlled and regulated from above—and perhaps that was its point. Nevertheless, it was a form of door-to-door begging, in which poor and youthful clients approached older and more prosperous patrons. It involved the exchange of gifts for expressions of goodwill, and the exchange was mediated by a “performance”—the token gift of a verse that expressed the essence of the exchange. The ritual’s roots in wassailing are clear, and they were probably in the back of the participants’ own minds. (And if the newsboy was not tipped, he was always capable, like his modern descendants, of leaving water-soaked newspapers at his patrons’ doors.)

The An ticks: Mumming in the Houses

As begging goes, the “Carriers’ Addresses” may have been pretty tame stuff. But that is not to say that other forms of begging, more aggressive or threatening, did not take place. Evidence of such activity is hard to come by. Generally, the only public disorders reported by eighteenth-century Boston newspapers were those occasional crowd actions that had serious and overt political meaning (such as the Stamp Act riots of 1765). Episodes of a more ordinary nature—including the less politicized rituals of the Christmas season—did not make it into print.

With one vivid exception. Several sources, taken together, make it clear that a tradition of aggressive Christmas mumming (a variety of wassail) was practiced by some of Boston’s poorer inhabitants over a period of at least thirty years, beginning no later than the early 1760s and continuing at least into the mid-179os. These groups called themselves the Anticks, masked troupes who demanded (or forced) entry into the houses of respectable Bostonians at Christmas. Once inside, they engaged in a dramatic “performance” and demanded gifts of money in return.

The first piece of evidence of the existence of the Anticks is sketchy, taking the form of an oral report given to a folklorist late in the nineteenth century by a man whose mother—born in about 1752—had told it to him.84 It serves chiefly to date the origin of the Anticks at least as far back as 1760 or so. The second report, too, is from the later recollection of a Bostonian who recalled their visits from the years of his childhood. But his is a detailed account of the Anticks’ actual “performance.” The man, Samuel Breck, belonged to a very wealthy family. He was born in 1770 and lived in a mansion in central Boston during the years when the Anticks paid their holiday visits (his recollections presumably date from the years around 1780). Breck recalled the Anticks as “a set of the lowest blackguards” who were “disguised in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces.” They “went from house to house in large companies, and bon gre, mal gre, obtruding themselves everywhere, particularly into the rooms that were occupied by parties of ladies and gentlemen.” There they “would demean themselves with great insolence.”

Breck’s account makes it amply clear that the Anticks were indeed Christmas mummers, and that they would actually perform an old mummer’s play, “St. George and the Dragon”:

I have seen them at my father’s, when his assembled friends were at cards, take possession of a table, seat themselves on rich furniture and proceed to handle the cards, to the great annoyance of the company. The only way to get rid of them was to give them money, and listen patiendy to a foolish dialogue between two or more of them. One of them would cry out, “Ladies and gentlemen sitting by the fire, put your hands in your pockets and give us our desire.” When this was done and they had received some money, a kind of acting took place. One fellow was knocked down, and lay sprawling on the carpet, while another bellowed out,

“See, there he lies,

But ere he dies

A doctor must be had.”

He calls for a doctor, who soon appears, and enacts the part so well that the wounded man revives.85

This often went on for half an hour. Breck remembered that even after the men finally left, “the house would be filled with another gang.” (Apparently there were multiple bands of Anticks.) Breck concluded by recalling an especially significant cultural point, that the victims of such visitations did not feel entitled to expel the Anticks from their houses: “Custom had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose.” (“What should we say to such intruders now?” Breck asked rhetorically in the very different culture of his old age. “Our manners would not brook such usage a moment.”)

The third and final report about the Boston Anticks reveals that at the century’s end the customary “license” to which Breck referred was coming under challenge. This third report, dating from 1793, is firsthand evidence. On December 20, 1793, a Boston newspaper printed an anonymous letter to the Boston Police Inspector, warning of the Anticks’ imminent annual appearance and demanding that something be done to stop them. The letter specified in outraged detail the threat these mummers posed to respectable Bostonians:

The disadvantages, interruptions, and injuries which the inhabitants sustain from these gangs, are too many for enumeration, a few only must suffice. When different clubs of them meet in the street, noise and fighting immediately commences. Their demands for entrance in house, are insolent and clamourous; and should the peaceful citizen (not choosing to have the tranquillity of his family interrupted) persevere in refusing them admittance, his windows are broke, or the latches and knockers wrenched from his door as the penalty: Or should they gain admittance, the delicate ear is oftentimes offended, children affrighted, or catch the phrases of their senseless ribaldry. [In other words, the Anticks used bawdy language.]86

Aggressive, indeed. But the behavior of these mummers can also be seen as a kind of symbolic “counter-theater,” their response to the refusal of “peaceful citizens” to perform their allotted Christmas role. In any event, the Police Inspector responded with a letter of his own. Such gangs had been performing for years, he noted, though he agreed that they caused “inconveniency and frights” by “disturbing families and begging a Copper.” But it was difficult to identify the participants, because they went around in disguise. The Inspector also implied that they came from the town’s poorest classes (the kinds of people who “seldom if ever read the public papers”). In conclusion, the Police Inspector urged Boston’s respectable citizens to take into custody any Anticks who harassed them, promising that such persons would be prosecuted as criminals. (When William Bentley of Salem read this item, he considered it worth noting in his diary that “[t]he inspector of Police in Boston has forbidden the ‘Anticks,’ as they are called, by which the resemblance of this Christian feast to the Saturnalia has been so admirably maintained.”87)

A final note about this episode. The exchange of letters about the “Anticks” never once mentioned Christmas by name, even though the connection would have been clear enough to anyone (as it was to Bentley). But the same issue of the newspaper that contained the Police Inspector’s notice also contained a pious poem about the mystery of the Nativity—and it took Christmas as its title. The presence of this word in the poem, and its complete absence in the discussion of the “Anticks,” suggests something of a rhetorical contest over the meaning of the word itself—whether it signified pious devotion or disruptive misrule. Back at the beginning of the eighteenth century, the people who “spoke for” New England culture associated Christmas so profoundly with misrule that they needed to suppress it altogether. By the end of the eighteenth century, the descendants of those same people had discovered an alternative (and more acceptable) meaning of Christmas. Now they could wrest the word—if not the thing itself—away from the Anticks and their ilk, to redefine (and reclaim) it as their own.

The House of God: Reviving Christmas as a Public Holiday

With the turn of the nineteenth century, the reappropriation of Christmas took on a concerted form—a move to hold church services on December 25. This move was led by both evangelicals and liberals. In the forefront of the evangelicals were the Universalists. Largely a rural sect, Universalists openly celebrated Christmas from the earliest stages of their existence in New England. The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, even before their congregation was officially organized,88 and in the early nineteenth century it was this denomination that proselytized for Christmas more actively than any other.

The Unitarians were close behind. Compared with Universalists, Unitarians were more genteel, and (for all their theological liberalism) more socially conservative. And there were also more of them, especially in Boston. As a formal institution, the Unitarian movement was not organized until 1825. But by the early 1800s ministers who were inclined to doubt the trinity of the Godhead (and, by implication, the divinity of Christ) had come to dominate the Congregational churches in Boston. In fact, for most of the first decade of the nineteenth century, not a single church within Boston’s town limits remained in Trinitarian hands. So bad was the situation from an orthodox point of view, that in 1809 a group of theologically conservative ministers from neighboring communities found it necessary to establish a new church in the heart of Boston that would serve as a beachhead of orthodoxy, a kind of mission church on hostile turf. (The new Park Street Church was soon dubbed “Brimstone Corner,” after its first minister preached a sermon titled “The Use of Real Fire in Hell.”)89

Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to. And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.

In 1817 a concerted two-pronged effort got under way to transform Christmas Day in Boston: by holding services in the local churches and by closing down its businesses. Within three years that effort would fail, but for the moment it was waged hard and with the support of influential citizens. The local press helped out, blanketing the town with publicity. The following report was typical:

Many Christians of the Congregational denomination in this town, have for a long time been desirous, that the anniversary of the nativity of our blessed Saviour should be marked by some religious observance of the day, and by a general abstinence from secular concerns. In consequence, some of the churches of that denomination will be open for public worship….

That was one prong of the campaign. A second local paper described the other prong, announcing that “Gentlemen of business in State-street” had “circulated a paper” to their colleagues. Those who signed the paper pledged themselves “to close their places of business, provided the same engagement should be signed by the principal part of the gentlemen on that street.” The circulators of this paper had received “the signatures of about seven eighths of the gentlemen on the street, and of nearly all to whom it was offered, including all who have the government of public offices.”90

The businessmen appear to have kept to their pledge. One rural merchant who was in town on a buying trip noted in his diary that “[t]he inhabitants of Boston introduced the suspension of business for the first time, with a view to commemorating this day in Religious Exercise.” He added that “but little business could be done,” and that he had been forced to reload the goods he had brought in to sell that day.91

The crusade was renewed the following year. For a week before Christmas, the newspapers were filled with letters and editorials calling for the general observance of the day as a religious holiday.92 One woman pointed out an additional reason. “Christmas is now generally observed as a holiday,” she wrote (i.e., a holiday in the de facto sense). “Our children and domestics claim it as such.” She added that “[s]chools and public places are closed … and generally the day is spent in idleness, and with regret I may add, by many in revelry and dissipation.” Opening the churches, she implied, would help reduce both the idleness and the dissipation. Another citizen turned the same point on its head, arguing plausibly that if Bostonians abandoned their regular business on December 25, “it would become only another reason for dissipation, for frolic and insobriety.”93

Services were held in five reformed churches on Christmas Day, 1818 (in addition to the Catholic and Episcopal churches). These included three Congregational churches as well as a Universalist and a Methodist one. Services were held in the central Massachusetts town of Worcester as well, in the Congregational church led by Aaron Bancroft (father of historian George Bancroft). That same year one Boston newspaper published, without comment, the 1659 Puritan law banning the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts.94 No comment was needed, since everyone would have caught the point: We’ve come a long way since those days.

A long way, indeed. That year, 1818, even the staunchly Trinitarian Congregationalist paper in Boston, the Recorder, indicated its approval. The Recorder was the organ of the Park Street Church—“Brimstone Corner.” But its editorial began: “We are happy to learn that it is the intention of many persons to observe Christmas day, this year, in a more solemn manner than they ever yet have done….”It even went on to imply that the Park Street Church itself should join in: “We are … decidedly in favor of the measure, and hope divine service will be performed in all our churches.”95

And so again in 1819. A letter to one newspaper declared that “all the banks, public offices, &c. will suspend business,” and expressed the hope that “every merchant and liberal minded man will also follow the example, and observe Christmas more universally, if possible, than Bostonians did the last year.” By this time the movement had reached as far as the rural New Hampshire town of Amherst, whose newspaper printed an impassioned editorial arguing that Christmas was more important than Thanksgiving.96

But the movement ran out of momentum that very year (religious services were held only at the two Universalist churches and at the Old South Church). Many businesses did remain closed that year, although by 1823 one paper reported with amusement that several shops only appeared to be closed—their window shutters were fastened, but “their doors kindly opened to all who would take the trouble to lift the latch.” The newspaper that reported this development went on to express its pleasure that “no law, either civil or divine,” actually required “the observance of the feasts of the papal and episcopal churches,” and to deplore the fact that Boston’s businessmen felt unable to “pursue their occupations openly.”97

Actually, this movement seems to have been part of a larger counterattack. Early in 1820 a religious magazine published in Boston assaulted the idea of making Christmas a public holiday. But its argument had nothing to do with theology, with the dating of Christ’s birth. The magazine acknowledged that December 25 was a time of “rejoicing, and of religious ceremonies” for many Christians. The problem lay with other kinds of 'font-size:10.0pt; font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:blue;position:relative;top:-3.0pt'>98

As it turned out, the years 1817–19 were to represent a historical high-water mark in the religious celebration of Christmas in Boston. To this day New England’s Unitarian, Baptist, and Methodist churches are ordinarily closed on Christmas Day, along with its Congregational and Presbyterian ones.

What happened was that in New England, as elsewhere, religion failed to transform Christmas from a season of misrule into an occasion of quieter pleasure. That transformation would, however, shortly take place—but not at the hands of Christianity. The “house of ale” would not be vanquished by the house of God, but by a new faith that was just beginning to sweep over American society. It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmastime not by Jesus of Nazareth but by a newer and more worldly deity—Santa Claus.

* If there was any point at which the two modes of celebrating Christmas—as carnival and as pious devotion—managed to intersect, if only in theory, it was here. The Gifts of the Magi, too, represented the high-in-status waiting on the low—three kings paying homage to an infant lying in squalor. (But of course that ritual simultaneously represented the low bringing gifts to the high—mere mortals paying homage to a deity.)

* James Franklin was often a thorn in the side of the Massachusetts authorities. In 1722 he featured a front-page poem in praise of Christmas in his newspaper, the New England Courant (the legislature’s efforts to suppress the Courant a decade earlier are reported in Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography). In his 1729 almanac, James Franklin included a belief originating deep in popular lore—that Christmas was a season when witches and evil spirits could do no harm, when bad spells would have no effect: “This month [December] is a great Enemy to evil Spirits, and a great Dissolver of Witchcraft, without the help of Pimpernal, or Quicksilver and Yellow Wax [these were supposed to be counterspells that would protect against witchcraft]…. Some Astrologers indeed confine this Power over evil Spirits to Christmas Eve only; but I know the whole Month has as much Power as any Eve in it: Not but that there may be some wandering Spirits here and there, but I am certain they can do no Mischief, nor can they be seen without a Telescope.” In fact, William Shakespeare reported a similar belief in Hamlet (Act I, Scene 1), where a minor character speaks the following lines upon hearing a cock crow: “Some say that ever ‘gainst that Season comes / Wherein our Saviour’s birth is celebrated, / This bird of dawning [i.e., the cock] singeth all night long; / And then, they say, no spirit dare stir abroad, / The nights are wholesome, then no planets strike, / No fairy takes, nor witch hath power to charm, / So hallow’d and so gracious is that time.” (To this, Hamlet’s friend Horatio responds noncommittally, “So have I heard and do in part believe it.”)

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