Just how rowdy was a New England Colonial Christmas? It depended on who was celebrating. But it bore little resemblance to Christmas today, and it was 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 were not drawn to America for religious reasons at all. They were craftsmen or farmers who were recruited to ensure the colony would survive, and they simply wanted to make a better life in America.
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 of Boston gained ascendance, they had plenty of disagreements with the Pilgrims in Plymouth. But they were largely united in their dislike of Christmas.
There remained in their midst, however, people who did celebrate Christmas with gusto. Especially in the fishing communities, Christmas was embraced. The holiday was mostly celebrated by the less-literate members of the community, and much of what actually happened was never recorded. What was recorded was seen through the eyes of the religious/civic leadership, and they painted an ugly picture of Christmas indeed.
The main complaint raised by the Puritans against Christmas was that it was a festival born out of an unnatural ideological marriage between the Roman Catholic Church and the pagans, with its origins in the Roman festival Saturnalia. Just how pagan is Christmas? We won't try to settle that debate. But Christmas was a growing irritant to 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., was brought to court for hosting a drunken gathering on Christmas Day. Hoare was a troublemaker whose family was frequently at odds 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. Wassailing, mumming, gambling and feasting were all popular Christmas pastimes. And it was a constant struggle for the Puritans to keep Christmas under control because Christmas was embraced by some of the hoi polloi, who thought it was quite a good time.
With the harvest over and 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 someone of lower standing was appointed to this role to serve as master of ceremonies of the Christmas celebrations and festivities either up to or including the Twelfth Night festvities. This was to demonstrate that during Christmas, roles were reversed and the poor would rule over the wealthy. In addition to the feasting and drunkenness, the more outgoing celebrants used the holiday as an excuse for wassailing. This was the practice of 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 weren’t kidding.
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. Inhibitions were cast aside. One of the more colorful traditions was mumming, in which men would dress like women (and vice versa) or simply disguise 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 objection to the custom was that 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, shiny 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, and their influence was felt nationally. In 1789, for instance, Congress was in session on Christmas Day. Businesses throughout New England were always open on Christmas. And children attended school on Christmas well into the 1800s.
By the early 1800s, however, with Episcopalians and Catholics already celebrating Christmas, the holdout Protestants felt pushed to join in, though most still believed Christmas was essentially a pagan holiday that the Catholic Church had coopted for its own purposes. The poem Twas The Night Before Christmas, published in 1822. and Charles Dickens’ classic A Christmas Carol in 1843 gave the holiday a facelift, and the opposition in the church began to relent.
After the Civil War, the battle was over. 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 Christmas in New England, you may want to read The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum. This story was updated from the 2013 version.