Years Without a Santa Claus

Puritans, pagans, and Christmas


On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts General Court banned Christmas. More specifically, it outlawed "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way." Miscreants would be fined five shillings. The law stayed in force until 1681, when the mother country's disapproval compelled the colony to repeal it. The local authorities continued to denounce the December holiday long after it became legal. "Christmas-keepers," the Harvard rector Increase Mather complained in 1687, were doing something "highly dishonourable to the name of Christ."

I read Mather's comment in Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas, a social history released to well-deserved acclaim in 1996. At a time when the Puritans' War on Christmas sometimes seemed to have been reduced to a perennial entry in those Wacky Laws articles ("In Grim Bumbershoot, Maine, it's illegal to feed a banana to a horse!"), Nissenbaum dug into the record to explain the New Englanders' hostility to the holiday. Christmas, they believed, was too pagan.

I'm using the word pagan in two different senses. On a more literal level, the Puritans pointed out that there wasn't any scriptural support for the idea that Jesus was born in December. That date, they argued, had been selected not to honor God but to annex pre-Christian winter celebrations for the Church. "Christmas Holidays were at first invented and institute in compliance with the Pagan Festivals," Mather wrote, pointing in particular to "the Heathens' Saturnalia" celebrated in Rome.

The wild rituals of Saturnalia and similar festivals had not been Christianized so much as they were Christmasized: The formal rationale for the celebrations may have changed, but winter remained a time of feasting, gambling, drinking, dancing, sex, and social inversion. One raucous tradition that Nissenbaum describes is wassailing, in which "roving bands of youthful males" from the lower classes came to the homes of the wealthy demanding beer and other refreshments in exchange for goodwill. "The wassail usually possessed an aggressive edge—often an explicit threat—concerning the unpleasant consequences to follow if the beggars' demands were not met," Nissenbaum writes. He illustrates that edge with a quote from a wassailers' carol: "We've come here to claim our right…/And if you don't open your door/We will lay you flat upon the floor." Trick or treat.

That was the other reason the holiday was too pagan for the Puritans: It was filled with the sort of revelry they despised. In 1713, three decades after Christmas was legalized, the Rev. Cotton Mather—Increase's son—denounced the "Abominable Things" that the "vainer Young People" did during their "Christmas-revels." Nissenbaum reports that this mostly meant sex, and he supplies some demographic data that suggest that Mather might not have been imagining things. There was a spurt in premarital pregnancies in this period of New England history, and Nissenbaum sees a seasonal pattern to them: "a 'bulge' in the number of births in the months of September and October—meaning that sexual activity peaked during the Christmas season."

But there was an significant difference between Cotton Mather's attitude towards Xmas and his father's. In a 1712 sermon, the younger Mather denounced the rambunctious Christmas festivities but was more tolerant of Christmas itself. "For Increase Mather," the historian writes, "the licentious fashion in which Christmas was commonly practiced was just an intrinsic expression of its non-Christian origins as a seasonal celebration; the holiday was 'riotous' at its very core." A generation later, by contrast, "the essence of the holiday could be distinguished, at least in principle, from its historical origins and the ordinary manner of its celebration….Cotton Mather's concession, small as it was, left little room to contest the legitimacy of any movement that managed to purify Christmas of its seasonal excesses."

It was the beginning of the holiday's march toward respectability, a story that takes up the remainder of Nissenbaum's book. By the end of the story, Americans intent on preserving the Christian content of the holiday were still fending off a subversive force; it's just that now the enemy wasn't Saturn but Santa. Christmas' secular side evolved from a rowdy public celebration to a child-centered day at home trading presents with your family. This shift was more or less completed in the 19th century, as the collection of tales and traditions that make up our modern notion of "Santa Claus" was assembled (though these have their own pagan roots). The public rowdiness didn't disappear so much as it settled on December 31 rather than December 25. On the seventh day of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a wild drunken New Year's party.

As for the religious side of the season, I'll just note that when conservative pundits complain that a new War on Christmas is transpiring, they tend to focus on the fact that retailers sometimes wish their customers "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" when selling the gifts to be presented in Santa's name. When you're reduced to fighting for lip service, the larger battle was lost long ago.