Massachusetts

Puritan Easter, or The Devil’s Holiday

 

John Winthrop famously wrote in this journal that the Arbella departed for the New World on Easter Monday – March 29, 1630.

Journals of John Winthrop

Portrait of John Winthrop, American Antiquarian Society.

But upon arriving in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Winthrop and his fellow Puritans took pains to avoid mentioning even the word ‘Easter.’

The Puritans wanted to abolish all references to pagan gods and popish rituals. The Bible didn’t mention holidays, they reasoned, so saints’ days and feast days were nothing more than Roman inventions.

"They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday," they liked to say.

Samuel Sewall

Samuel Sewall

Judge Samuel Sewall, the Puritan diarist born in 1652, once wrote in his journal that he’d been given an almanac. “I blotted against Feb. 14, Valentine, March 25, Annunciation of the B. Virgin; April 24, Easter; Sept. 29, Michaelmas; Dec. 25 Christmas; and no more," he wrote.

Puritan Easter

The early Puritans didn’t like Easter any more than they liked Christmas. They banned Christmas in 1659, fining anyone five shillings for celebrating the holiday. Easter, Whitsunday and other holidays were ignored. May Day celebrations, which included the hated Maypole, were punished severely.

The Puritans did loosen up one Anglican tradition. Unlike the Anglicans, they allowed marriage to take place during Lent. Good Friday was sometimes observed as a Fast Day.

Puritan worship. No Easter mentioned.

Puritan worship. No Easter mentioned.

Easter posed a few problems, though. It always fell on a Sunday, and Puritan preachers weren’t sure what they should say in their sermons. The usual solution was to preach about something other than Easter.

They also couldn’t ignore Easter, because Election Day was determined by the Easter calendar. Election Day was actually one of the important four secular holidays the Puritans celebrated, along with Commencement Day, Thanksgiving and Training Day.

Puritans thought it unchristian to use the names of heathenish deities. For a while, they managed to abandon the word ‘Monday’ and all the rest of the days of the week, as well as the names of the months.

So Sunday, derived from the Teutonic name for its sun deity, Sonntag, became simply the first. Monday was the second, Tuesday the third, and so forth.

The Puritans also called the months by numbers, with March being the first and February the twelfth.

Eventually, the traditional names for days and months crept back into the Puritan vocabulary.

Devil on the March

Sir Edmond Andros, bigoted papist

Sir Edmond Andros, bigoted papist

The Puritans weren’t the only people living in Massachusetts Bay Colony. Anglicans, Huguenots and Catholics, for example, had also immigrated to the New World.

When King James II took the English throne, he consolidated the northeastern colonies and in 1686 appointed Sir Edmund Andros governor of the Dominion of New England.

It wasn’t going to end well. Neither James nor Andros were fans of the Puritans. The Puritans considered Andros a ‘bigoted papist.’

When Andros came to Massachusetts, he restored the popish holidays, celebrated royal holidays and allowed a Maypole to be set up in Charlestown. Puritan minister Increase Mather was appalled. The devil had begun his march of triumph, he wrote.

The Puritans had forced Anglicans to hold services in the open air. Andros wrangled with the Puritan theocracy; he wanted Anglican services held at Old South Meeting House. On Good Friday in 1687, he ordered the sexton to open the doors of Old South and ring the bell for ‘those of the Church of England.’ Whether the sexton was persuaded or coerced is not known, but the doors were open, the bell rung and the service held.

It was an affront the Puritans would not forgive. They revolted in 1689 and sent Andros packing back to England.

2 Comments

2 Comments

  1. Pingback: What They Said About Easter in New England - New England Historical Society

  2. Gigi

    April 20, 2017 at 2:15 pm

    Puritans were a rather dour people. They seemed determined to make life miserable. Not surprising that the witch incidents grew out of these repressed, gossipy citizens.

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