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OPINION

When Massachusetts was the battlefield in the war on Christmas

Long before the Grinch tried to steal Christmas, the Massachusetts Legislature made the holiday illegal

As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could still describe New England as being “in a transition state about Christmas.”
As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could still describe New England as being “in a transition state about Christmas.”AP

You think the Grinch had a bad attitude toward Christmas? He had nothing on Increase Mather, one of colonial Boston’s most celebrated Puritan clergymen.

In 1687, Mather published a blistering attack on the observance of Christmas. The holiday “savors of superstition,” he seethed, and the way people celebrated it was “highly dishonorable to the name of Christ.” There was nothing to connect the birth of Jesus to Dec. 25, Mather insisted. Christmas was nothing but the old pagan festival of Saturnalia, which had been co-opted by the church in Rome; far from being imbued with holiness, the holiday season was “consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, [and] in mad Mirth.”

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Mather was no solitary crank, railing against a holiday everyone else embraced. He was an influential New England minister, devoted to his Puritan faith. And the rejection of Christmas had been a mainstay of that faith for decades.

In 1659, a generation before Mather’s diatribe appeared, the Massachusetts General Court enacted a measure that not only expressed disapproval of the holiday, but also criminalized it:

“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like," decreed the colony’s theocratic legislators, "either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way . . . shall pay for every such offence five shillings.” That law remained on the books in Massachusetts for the next 22 years. Only under pressure from Britain was it eventually repealed.

Hostility to Christmas began in England. It was a major bone of contention between traditional English Christians, who cherished the holiday and celebrated it with gusto, and adherents of the strict new Protestant sects that arose in the late 16th century. Among those austere Protestants were the Pilgrims who came to Massachusetts on the Mayflower and brought the anti-Christmas spirit with them.

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In his history of Plymouth Plantation, the colony’s longtime governor, William Bradford, dryly recounts how he handled some non-Puritans who arrived in 1621. When Dec. 25 arrived, the newcomers expected to take the day off, and bristled when Bradford summoned them to go to work. They said it “went against their consciences” to work on Christmas, so Bradford agreed to let them have the day off “till they were better informed.” But when, a few hours later, he found them playing “stool-ball and such like sports” in the street, he told them that it went against his conscience to let them frolic while others worked. “If they made the keeping of [Christmas] a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses,” he directed, “but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.”

This war on Christmas, to coin a phrase, lasted a remarkably long time. More than 100 years after the Legislature repealed its ban on the holiday, the Puritan-infused hostility to Yuletide merriment remained palpable.

“When I was a school-boy I always went to school on Christmas Day, and I think all the other boys in town did,” recalled Edward Everett Hale, the popular Boston author and preacher, in the December 1889 issue of New England Magazine. On Christmas Eve, Hale and his schoolmates might walk past King’s Chapel — the city’s first Anglican church, where Christmas services were held — and “see the men carrying hemlock for the decorations. But that was the only public indication that any holiday was approaching.” When he lived in Worcester as a young man in the 1840s, Hale wrote, Christmas for many people was still a non-event. “The courts were in session on that day, the markets were open, and I doubt if there had ever been a religious service.”

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As late as 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow could still describe New England as being “in a transition state about Christmas.” There was enough of the old Puritan animus to keep it from being a “cheerful hearty holiday,” he said. But “every year makes it more so.”

Eventually, of course, popular culture came down unreservedly in favor of Christmas. Santa Claus and light-strewn trees, midnight masses and Handel’s “Messiah,” holiday eggnog and gift-wrapped presents — today they’re as much a part of Christmas in Boston and New England as in any other part of the country. In countless ways, American life is still influenced by those devout English Christians who sailed to New England four centuries ago. But not when it comes to Christmas.

God rest them merry, but that’s one war they lost.

Jeff Jacoby can be reached at jeff.jacoby@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @jeff_jacoby. To subscribe to Arguable, his weekly newsletter, go to bitly.com/Arguable.