Christmas in Colonial America: New England
The first bands of settlers to colonize New England were mostly made up of Puritans, members of a minority religious sect in Eng-land. They advocated a simplified style of worship and the elimination of many religious holidays, including Christmas. Although they came to America in search of religious freedom, once here, the Puritan settlers established rules and laws favoring their religion above all others, as was the custom in Europe at the time. In Plymouth colony, the first European settlement in New England, Puritan leaders frowned upon Christmas from the very beginning. In 1621, one year after their arrival from England, Governor William Bradford discovered young men playing ball games in the streets on Christmas Day. He sent them back to their work, remarking in his diary that while he may have permitted devout home observances, he had no intention of allowing open revelry in the streets. In 1659 Massachusetts Bay Colony made Christmas illegal. Any person found observing Christmas by feasting, refraining from work, or any other activity was to be fined five shillings. In 1681, however, pressure from English political authorities forced colonists to repeal this law. The anti-Christmas sentiment continued, though, and most people went on treating Christmas like any other workday. Many Puritan colonists resented the presence of the few Anglicans in their midst, especially if they were British officials. On Christmas Day in 1706 a Puritan gang menaced worshipers at the King’s Chapel in Boston, breaking windows in protest against the Anglican worship service taking place inside.
The very fact that Puritan leaders passed a law against the holiday suggests that some New Englanders were tempted to make merry on that day. Historic documents record a few instances of seventeenth-century Christmas revelers and mummers being cold-shouldered by their more severe neighbors. The late seventeenth and eighteenth centuries witnessed a slight thawing in Puritan attitudes towards Christmas, as the New England colonies began to fill with people from a wider variety of religious backgrounds. Many still criticized drinking, gaming, flirting, feasting, and mumming as unholy acts of abandon that dishonored the Nativity of Christ, but some now accepted the idea of marking the day of Jesus’birth with religious devotions. Nevertheless, noted Puritan minister Cotton Mather (1663-1728) clearly warned his congregation against secular celebrations of the holiday in his Christmas Day sermon of 1712: Can you in your conscience think that our Holy Saviour is honored by Mad Mirth, by long eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling? ... If you will yet go on and do Such Things, I forewarn you That the Burning Wrath of God will break forth among you [Christmas in Colonial and Early America, 1996,12].
In eighteenth-century New England, Christmas services could be found in Anglican, Dutch Reformed, Universalist, and other churches representing pro-Christmas denominations.