Just how rowdy was a New England colonial Christmas? It depended on who was celebrating. But it bore little resemblance to Christmas today, and New Englanders found it a touchy subject from the start.
The Pilgrims who arrived in Plymouth were a mix of people. They were led by separatists who despised the Christmas traditions of the Anglican Church as well as the Roman Catholic Church. They wanted to establish their own protestant churches, free of Christmas.
But many of the Pilgrims did not come to America for religious reasons at all. They were craftsmen or farmers recruited to ensure the colony would survive, and they simply wanted to make a better life in America.
New England Colonial Christmas
On their first Christmas at Plymouth, the Pilgrims celebrated the best way they knew how: They worked right through it. By the next year, Christmas traditions began infiltrating the group, and Gov. William Bradford had to put down the celebrations. He went so far as to call the Christmas treat mincemeat pie ‘idolatrie in a crust.’
As the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony gained ascendance, they had plenty of disagreements with the Pilgrims in Plymouth. But they largely agreed in their dislike of Christmas.
There remained in their midst, however, people who did celebrate Christmas with gusto. The fishing communities especially embraced the New England colonial Christmas, with their less-literate members mostly celebrating the holiday. Much of what actually happened was never recorded. What was recorded was seen through the eyes of the Puritan theocracy, and they painted an ugly picture of Christmas indeed.
The Puritans complained that Christmas arose from an unnatural ideological marriage between the Roman Catholic Church and the pagans. They thought it originated in the Roman festival Saturnalia.
Just how pagan is Christmas? We won't try to settle that debate. But the New England colonial Christmas increasingly irritated the Puritans, and they decided to stomp it out.
In 1647, the reformers in England outlawed Christmas. And in 1659, the Puritans in New England followed suit. People who celebrated Christmas would be subject to a fine of five shillings.
In 1662, William Hoare of Beverly, Mass., found himself in court for hosting a drunken gathering on Christmas Day. Hoare was a troublemaker whose family frequently tangled with Puritan society. Eventually their attitudes would cost his wife her life, as she was hanged as a witch in the Salem witch frenzy 30 years later.
A second glimpse of Christmas mayhem occurred on Christmas Day in 1679 in Salem, Mass. Joseph Foster, Benjamin Fuller, Samuel Brayebrooke and Joseph Flint decided they wanted some booze for the holiday. They apparently didn't know anyone as obliging as Hoare. But they did know 72-year-old John Rowden had made perry, a liquor made from pears. So they dropped in to pay him an unscheduled visit.
Rowden told them to get out. Fuller refused, saying "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,” according to court records. The encounter ended in a fight and stolen property.
Drinking was just the tip of the iceberg when it came to Christmas debauchery. The New England colonial Christmas included wassailing, mumming, gambling and feasting.
The Puritans constantly struggled to keep Christmas under control. The hoi polloi embraced the New England colonial Christmas as quite a good time.
With the harvest over, the cupboards full and the long winter yet to come, December seemed a perfect month for a ripping good celebration.
Lord of Misrule
In England and elsewhere in the colonies, towns would appoint a 'lord of misrule.' This custom borrowed from Saturnalia as well. Generally the towns appointed someone of lower standing to this role to serve as master of ceremonies of the Christmas celebration either up to or including the Twelfth Night festivities.
The reason? During the New England colonial Christmas, people reversed their roles and the poor ruled over the wealthy. In addition to the feasting and drunkenness, the more outgoing celebrants used the holiday as an excuse for wassailing. Wassailing involved barging into the houses of the wealthier citizens, singing a song or two or putting on a short skit, and demanding food, drink and money.
Perhaps you’ve sung the Christmas carol, We Wish You a Merry Christmas, with its chorus of “Oh, bring us a figgy pudding…we won’t go until we get some.” They meant it.
The more obliging citizens would fork over the goods. Others, however, declined -- resulting in fights, rock-throwing and hard feelings. Even more abhorrent to the Puritans was the sexual promiscuity that accompanied Christmas. Celebrants cast aside their inhibitions.
One of the more colorful New England colonial Christmas traditions was mumming, in which men dressed like women (and vice versa) or simply disguised themselves in a range of costumes. Mumming could be as innocent as street theater or as bawdy as a loosely disguised roving orgy.
The Puritan objected to the custom because a person disguised could slip into a neighbor’s house for an assignation without raising eyebrows. How commonplace was the debauchery? It's probably impossible to say, though the good Puritans wanted nothing to do with it.
In 1681, with the Civil War over in England, the crown began pressuring Massachusetts to embrace the Anglican Church and roll back Puritan reforms. The colony complied by repealing the laws against Christmas. But the holiday remained frowned upon.
In 1687 the Puritan minister Increase Mather railed against Christmas. He declared that those who celebrated it 'are consumed in compotations, in interludes, in playing at cards, in revellings, in excess of wine, in mad mirth.'
No one really disagreed. It just didn’t bother some people the way it did Mather and the Puritan leadership.
It would take more than 100 years for Christmas to develop the wholesome, twinkly veneer it has today. While the southern colonies and New York, with its Dutch roots, embraced Christmas earlier, New England Protestants would hold out well beyond 1800.
The rest of the nation also felt the influence of the New England colonial Christmas tradition. In 1789, for instance, Congress held a session on Christmas Day. Businesses throughout New England always opened on Christmas. And children attended school on Christmas well into the 1800s.
The New England Colonial Christmas Gets a Facelift
By the early 1800s, however, with Episcopalians and Catholics already celebrating Christmas, the holdout Protestants felt pushed to join in. Most, though, most still considered Christmas a pagan holiday that the Catholic Church had co-opted for its own purposes.
After the Civil War, the battle ended. New England joined the rest of the country in embracing Christmas. And Christmas, by the way, embraced New England values, at least to some degree. The over-the-top debauchery and drunkenness gave way once and for all to the quieter, conventional celebrations we know today.
To read more about the history of New England colonial Christmas, you may want to read The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum.
This story about New England colonial Christmas traditions was updated in 2018.