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How the Puritans once banned Christmas in Massachusetts

An engraved illustration of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, confiscating toys from Pilgrims on Christmas Day. Via Getty Images
An engraved illustration of William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony, confiscating toys from Pilgrims on Christmas Day. Via Getty Images

You've likely heard the story of "How the Grinch Stole Christmas!" — but what about the one where the Puritans in Massachusetts banned the holiday altogether?

The "Penalty for Keeping Christmas" was a law enacted under Puritan rule in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659. For the next 22 years, anyone found celebrating the holiday by failing to work, “feasting, or any other way” would be fined.

According to the state’s trial courts, the five-shilling fine equates to about $50 today.

Jonathan Beecher Field, an associate professor at Clemson University who studies 17th century New England Puritans, attributed the ban in part to the holiday’s emphasis on pagan traditions.

"The Puritans were very concerned with a very scripturally-based form of worship," Field said. "There's not scriptural evidence for Jesus Christ's birth on December the 25th. Christmas was added to Christ about 400 years after he was alive."

The Rev. Increase Mather — the father of Salem witch trial figurehead Cotton Mather — was a leading proponent of the ban. He believed celebrations were highly dishonorable and overconsumed with “excess of Wine, in mad Mirth.” He also questioned whether the celebration would please Jesus Christ himself.

Field said the Puritans were also heavily invested in a social hierarchy defined by class. He pointed to the famed "City Upon a Hill" sermon by the colony's first governor, John Winthrop. In it, Winthrop compares society to a human body.

“Some people get to be the head and some people have to be the feet. So there's a very undemocratic, hierarchical vision that Winthrop had,” Field said. “And one of the things about holidays is that they often will invert social order.”

While traditions like Christmas trees, feasts and gift-giving were not celebrated by the Puritans, they also were not the main target of the ban. Instead, historians say it was spurred by activities that disrupted the social hierarchy valued by the group. This included a tradition called "wassailing," in which poor colonists would show up at rich people’s homes to offer well-wishes in exchange for gifts. However, the alcohol-fueled nature of wassailing meant the activity often turned violent.

"You would have this kind of culture of drunken revelry with poor people barging into rich people's houses and demanding treats," Field said.

The tradition is perhaps best reflected today in the Christmas carol, "We Wish You a Merry Christmas" where the singers demand figgy pudding, and threaten not to leave until the homeowners meet their demands.

The law was eventually repealed in 1681 under pressure from England, but Field said the ban was enough to break cultural norms for celebrating the holiday. While there was no longer a threat of a fine, most people continued to attend school and work on Christmas Day until it was declared a federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant nearly 200 years later.

Stevee Chapman Associate Producer, Morning Edition
Stevee Chapman is an associate producer for WBUR's Morning Edition.

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