Christmas was a riot
Ever long for a traditional New England Christmas? Be careful what you wish for.
By Stephen Nissenbaum | December 20, 2009
AS THE HOLIDAY season rolls around, it has become commonplace to yearn for the more authentic Christmases of yesteryear, unsullied by crass commercialism or political correctness - a brief season for the values of religion and family to eclipse those of materialism and controversy.
And what more authentic heartland for those genuine Christmas values than New England? With its crisp December snows, clapboard houses, and white-steepled churches, the region has given America its image of what old-time Christmas looks like.
But such an authentic Christmas, the record shows, never really existed. The Puritans who ran the Massachusetts colony were so deeply opposed to Christmas that they actually banned the holiday for a generation. When the holiday was celebrated in old New England - in the teeth of concerted opposition from both church and state - it was apt to take the form of an irreligious and increasingly violent public celebration that left citizens worried for their safety. As for the commercialism that sullies today’s holiday - the constant advertising, the frenzied buying of Christmas presents - that tradition, at least in Boston, is older and more deeply rooted than going to church that day.
The unsullied traditional Christmas of yesteryear, it turns out, is every bit as manufactured as the bright plastic products we see in the stores. It was invented, in part, by proper Bostonians trying to remake the holiday in a more acceptable guise. And if we can appreciate that historical reality - appreciate what an old-time Boston Christmas really was, as well as what it wasn’t - then we might not feel so bad about enjoying the version we’ve got now.
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ANYONE DESCENDING ON Boston in the mid-1600s, when the Puritan grip on the town was still largely unchallenged, would be shocked at what they found on Christmas Day: the shops open for business, the churches firmly shut.
On December 25, 1685, Boston Magistrate Samuel Sewall proudly wrote in his journal that “the Body of the People profane the Day” - that is, the town’s residents went about their work as usual - “and blessed be God no Authority yet compel them to keep it.” Indeed, in a kind of reverse Blue Law, for a quarter century during the mid-1600s the Puritan leaders of Massachusetts actually outlawed its celebration.
Why reject the holiday? In their attempt to reform the Christian church and “purify” it of medieval superstitions, Puritans tried to base their laws on Scripture, and the Bible had never ordained a celebration of the anniversary of Jesus’s Nativity. (In fact it was not until the year 395 C.E. that the Church Fathers decreed its observance.) Furthermore, the Bible failed to provide evidence of the time of year Jesus was born. Most Puritans agreed that Jesus was born in early October, not at the end of December.
But the broader Puritan disapproval of Christmas had to do less with theology than with bad behavior. Throughout Christendom most people in the 1600s celebrated the Nativity not with pious observance but as an excuse for revelry. In New England, as in old England, late December was an extended season of leisure following the strenuous labor of the harvest. To discourage the inhabitants of the young colony from engaging in the traditional practices of the English countryside, Boston minister Cotton Mather published a tract in 1693 explaining “how to employ the Liesure [sic] of the Winter for the Glory of God” and not as a time “to work Abominations . . . or Prohibited Sensualities.”
As Mather saw it, Christmas was a holiday of pagan origins, all too often an occasion for “dancing and drunkenness, chambering and wantonness.” (Chambering was a common euphemism for fornication.) Mather summed up his analysis by quoting an eminent English bishop: “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
These were not merely the delusions of a Puritan fanatic. Across Early Modern society, Christmas was celebrated - especially by the poor and the young - as an occasion of boisterous misrule, “monstrous Revels” that often involved (in addition to the casual sex that especially bothered Mather) roaming house to house, often in disguise, to beg noisily for money or alcohol.
Despite the efforts of the Puritans, evidence suggests that by 1700 such behavior was seeping back into Boston. In 1711 Mather himself was appalled to discover that some of his own Boston parishioners, “young people of both sexes,” had held a “revelling feast” and “frolick” on Christmas night. Local almanacs linked late December with drinking and begging, and by the 1760s Boston’s newspaper carriers were asking their patrons for Christmas tips.
By the years following the American Revolution, an even more alarming tradition had taken hold. Gangs of beggars would roam the streets at Christmastime, calling uninvited at the houses of the town’s wealthier citizens. They called themselves Anticks, a word that at the time meant “grotesques,” referring both to their attire and their behavior. And they caused trouble.
Decades later, one man recalled the Anticks from his childhood in a large Boston mansion, at the corner of Winter and Common (now Tremont) Streets. This man, Samuel Breck, described the Anticks as “a set of the lowest blackguards” who disguised themselves “in filthy clothes and ofttimes with masked faces,” travelling “from house to house” and loudly demanding entry. “I have seen them at my father’s,” Breck recalled, “when his assembled friends were [playing] at cards, take possession of a table, seat themselves on rich furniture and proceed to handle the cards, to the great annoyance of the company. The only way to get rid of them was to give them money.” After those Anticks left, Breck reported, “the house would be filled with another gang.”
Significantly, Breck also remembered that the well-to-do victims of the Anticks felt a moral obligation to let the gangs into their houses. The aggressive gangs were in fact a more threatening version of the wassailing beggars who had always appealed for gifts from the wealthy. “Custom,” Breck wrote, “had licensed these vagabonds to enter even by force any place they chose.” It was Christmas, after all.
Eventually, the town’s respectable citizens tried to put a stop to the Anticks. Several letters printed in a Boston newspaper in late December 1793 complained that their behavior frightened children and that the “delicate ear” of the ladies was offended by their “immodest gestures” and “obscene songs.” And if the man of the house tried to forestall this by refusing to admit them, “his windows are broke, or the latches and knockers wrenched from his door.” The letters demanded that Boston’s police chief “put a stop to this annual and nefarious custom.”
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THAT WAS ONE prong of a changing policy toward Christmas on the part of Boston’s respectable citizenry. The other prong involved a decision finally to embrace Christmas as a religious holiday.
As early as 1750 or so, some of New England’s Congregationalist clergy - inheritors of the reformed Puritan faith - were privately regretting that they could not celebrate the Nativity of Jesus. Outside of Puritan territory, Christmas had been celebrated as Jesus’s birthday for centuries, and Anglicans and Catholics - Boston’s un-reformed inhabitants - had brought that traditional practice with them. They always held services on Christmas, even in Boston, and now the more open-minded leaders among the Congregationalists were coming to regret they could not do so as well.
To these clergymen it was no longer a major obstacle that Dec. 25 was not a historically defensible date - what worried them instead was the difficulty of transforming Christmas, with its rowdy celebrations, into a devotional holiday. In 1755 one Congregationalist minister confided to his diary a wish that he could celebrate that date “in Commemoration of our Lord’s Nativity” and to join with other Christians “who avoid the Superstitions and Excesses of this Day.”
It fell to New England’s music-masters to lead the way. The most famous of these, William Billings of Boston, composed no fewer than eight Christmas hymns and anthems in the tune-books he published between 1770 and 1794, one of them a setting of the hymn “While Shepherds Watched Their Flocks by Night.”
Billings was probably sympathetic to Universalism, an emerging Protestant denomination. And it was the Universalists who in 1789 held the first Christmas Day service in any of Boston’s reformed churches. (That same year, a gang of vandals - Anticks, perhaps? - broke up a Christmas Eve service at the local Roman Catholic church, in the process “destroy[ing] the greatest part of their pews.”)
Three decades later the Universalists were finally joined by Boston’s other reformed denominations. The years 1817 and 1818 saw a concerted effort to establish Christmas as a mainstream religious holiday in Boston. For the first time, five local reformed churches - three Congregational and one Methodist, in addition to the Universalist meetinghouse - held special services on Christmas Day. Tellingly, in those same years most of the shops on State Street closed for business on Dec. 25.
These developments were carefully orchestrated by the Boston elite to create a new kind of Christmas - part of a general agreement, as one Congregationalist newspaper suggested, that “the anniversary of the birth of our blessed Savior should be marked by some religious observance of the day, and by a general abstinence from secular concerns.”
It did not work. By 1820 the churches had all but stopped holding Christmas Day services - and to this day Boston’s reformed churches remain closed on that day, except when it happens to fall on a Sunday. By the mid-1820s most of the State Street businesses were again open for business on Dec. 25. Christmas did not become a state holiday in Massachusetts for another three decades, until 1856.
One tradition introduced in the movement of 1817-18 did take hold: singing Handel’s “Messiah” at Christmas. Boston’s Handel and Haydn Society, established in 1815, and still an important part of Boston’s cultural scene, gave the first American performance of Handel’s great oratorio on Christmas Day 1818. “Messiah” had actually been written for Easter, and before 1818 there was no tradition anywhere of associating it with Christmas. This innovation was the one distinct success in the campaign to provide Boston with more pious ways to celebrate Christ’s Nativity.
* * *
THE RITUAL THAT really did manage to transform the Boston Christmas from a boisterous holiday to a more tranquil one was neither liturgical nor musical; it was the exchange of Christmas presents. We can trace the growth of this new practice in Boston - of course, it occurred in other American cities as well - by examining Boston newspaper advertisements of the time. The first instance of an ad for Christmas presents I have found dates from 1808, advertising “a great variety of books for children, suitable for Christmas and New-Year’s gifts.” By 1810 another bookshop was selling jigsaw puzzles for children.
By 1811 these ads were proliferating in number and variety: one, headed “Luxuries for Christmas Holydays,” promised “boxes of real Havanna [sic] Cigars”; two offered fresh “Oranges for Christmas”; still another touted its collection of “Valuable and Fashionable Presents.” (This last shop, at the corner of present-day Washington and Milk Streets, was not exaggerating: it had on offer “a great variety of Jewellery ornaments, viz., Ear-rings, Finger-rings, Broaches, Bracelets, Necklace, Clasps, and Buckles, set in fine Pearl, brilliant Stone, and Gold” - and exchanges were welcome.)
A profusion of luxury goods, cheap and always exchangeable: By 1811, Boston was beginning to invent the modern Christmas. And matters proceeded apace. Before long, townsfolk were actually complaining about how difficult it was to find the right Christmas presents. A letter printed in one Boston magazine as early as 1834 put the problem squarely: “I observe that the shops are preparing themselves with all sorts of things . . . , and I am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless . . . articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.”
So where does this leave the old-fashioned Christmas of yesteryear, untainted by commercialism or ideological dispute? The evidence from Boston suggests it was never there. When the Boston public embraced a more family-centered, domestic version of the holiday, it was already commercial at its very core.
But in one important respect the new commercial version of Christmas, the holiday that is with us still, did resemble the boisterous older one it replaced: it offered an opportunity to step outside the boundaries that defined acceptable behavior the rest of the year. The modern Christmas, much like the wanton one that Cotton Mather had excoriated back in the early 1700s, is a season of ritually sanctioned excess. In Mather’s day, such excess might take the form of drinking and sex; in our own time, it is more apt to take the form of spending too much money - though Mather himself would have no trouble recognizing one modern holiday ritual, the office Christmas party. Perhaps religion never really stood a chance.
Stephen Nissenbaum is a professor emeritus of history at UMass Amherst and adjunct professor of history at the University of Vermont. His book “The Battle for Christmas” was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in history.
Hmm...I think I need to find myself a copy of this book. Sounds fascinating.