The Puritans’ War on Christmas: A Historical Perspective

5 mins read
The Puritans’ War on Christmas: A Historical Perspective

The history of Christmas controversies goes back to the 17th century, when the Puritans showed their displeasure with the holiday. They started by discouraging the Yuletide festivities and then proceeded to ban them altogether.

One might think that the Puritans’ ban on Christmas celebrations was a natural consequence of their reputation as joyless and humorless people, a stereotype that still lingers today.

However, as a scholar who has studied the Puritans, I have a different perspective on their animosity toward holiday cheer. I think it was less about their supposed asceticism and more about their ambition to impose their will on the diverse population of New England – both Natives and immigrants.

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A fear of Christmas anarchy

The first documented evidence of their aversion to celebrating Christmas comes from 1621, when Gov. William Bradford of Plymouth Colony scolded some of the newcomers who decided to take the day off instead of working.

But what was the reason behind this?

As a faithful Protestant, Bradford had no doubt about the divinity of Jesus Christ. In fact, Puritans devoted a lot of time to examining their own and others’ souls because they were so determined to create a godly community.

Bradford’s remarks reflected Puritans’ persistent anxiety about how Christmas had been celebrated in England. For generations, the holiday had been an opportunity for riotous, sometimes violent behavior. The moralist pamphleteer Phillip Stubbes argued that Christmastime celebrations allowed celebrants to “do what they lust, and to folow what vanitie they will.” He lamented about widespread “fooleries” like playing dice and cards and wearing masks.

Civil authorities had mostly tolerated the practices because they realized that letting some of the marginalized to vent their frustration on a few days of the year helped to maintain an unequal social order. If the poor felt they were in charge for a day or two, the reasoning went, they would be more obedient and productive for the rest of the year.

English Puritans opposed to accepting such practices because they dreaded any sign of disorder. They believed in predestination, which made them scrutinize their own and others’ behavior for signs of divine grace. They could not stand public scandal, especially when linked to a religious occasion.

Puritan attempts to suppress Christmas revelries in England before 1620 had little effect. But once in North America, these seekers of religious freedom had power over the governments of New Plymouth, Massachusetts Bay and Connecticut.

Puritan intolerance

Boston became the center of Puritan efforts to create a society where church and state supported each other.

The Puritans in Plymouth and Massachusetts used their power to punish or exile those who did not agree with their views. For instance, they banished an Anglican lawyer named Thomas Morton who rejected Puritan theology, befriended local Indigenous people, danced around a maypole and sold guns to the Natives. He was, Bradford wrote, “the Lord of Misrule” – the epitome of a dangerous type who Puritans believed caused chaos, including at Christmas.

In the following years, the Puritans banished others who dissented from their religious views, including Anne Hutchinson and Roger Williams who expressed beliefs that were unacceptable to local church leaders. In 1659, they exiled three Quakers who had arrived in 1656. When two of them, William Robinson and Marmaduke Stephenson, refused to go, Massachusetts authorities executed them in Boston.

Mather in 1688, when he was in London. Portrait by John van der Spriett.
Mather in 1688, when he was in London. Portrait by John van der Spriett. Increase Mather loathed Christmas celebrations

This was the background for which Massachusetts authorities prohibited Christmas celebrations in 1659. Even after the law was repealed in 1681 during a reorganization of the colony, prominent theologians still hated holiday festivities.

The Puritans’ hostility toward Christmas should be understood in the broader context of their desire for societal dominance. They sought to convert Native Americans to Christianity, suppressed what they deemed usurious business practices, and enforced severe punishments for perceived moral transgressions.

While their campaign against Christmas may seem mild compared to their treatment of Natives and dissenting colonists, it serves as a cautionary tale of the consequences when the self-righteous control the reins of power in shaping a society according to their vision.

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