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Why did the Puritans in New England try to suppress Christmas?

In 1620 the first Puritans arrived in Massachusetts. For about 200 years the Christmas holiday was suppressed or ignored. From 1659 to 1681, it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts. Christmas day was a normal work day. “The holiday they suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of a traditional Christmas. … It involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today— rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.” Wassailing was like treat-or-treat for young men who used threats or force to get food and drink from the homes of others. In agricultural societies, December was a time of little work, abundant food, fresh meat, beer, and wine. For most people, the Christmas season was a time to eat, drink, and be merry. Gluttony and drunkenness were common. When people were drunk, they would make merry which meant loud laughter, lewd behavior, and sexual promiscuity resulting in a higher birthrate nine months later. “Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.” (Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, 5–7, 22) Today we see similar public celebrations on New Year’s Eve and during Mardi Gras or Carnival as it is called in other countries.

Starting around 1730 almanac-makers like Ben Franklin and Nathaniel Ames began spreading the new idea “that Christmas could be a time of cheer without being taken to excess.” In 1760, Ames began a systematic campaign “to take gorging and drunkenness out of the Christmas holiday.”  Before 1730 few almanacs mentioned Christmas. After 1760 almost all almanacs mentioned Christmas. Before 1750, church hymn books did not include Christmas hymns. After 1760 all Congregationalist hymnals included Christmas hymns. (ibid., 27–28, 32–34)

By the 1800 Christmas for some was “the name for a day of the year. For others it was a time of pious devotion. … For others still it was a time of feasting … [and] alcohol [which] could lead to sexual liberties, social inversion, or even violence. But not one of these ways of celebrating Christmas bore much resemblance to the holiday most of us know today. All of them were public rituals, not private celebrations; civic events, not domestic ones. In none of them would we have found the familiar intimate family gathering or the giving of Christmas presents to expectant children. Nowhere would we have found Christmas trees; no reindeer, no Santa Claus. Christmas … was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.” (ibid., 37–38)

By the early 1800s churches began holding Christmas services and shutting down businesses “to help purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.” Between 1817 and 1819 most businesses Boston closed for Christmas. After that businesses began to remain open and by 1828 few businesses closed. “The ‘house of ale’ would not be vanquished by the house of God.”  (ibid., 43–48)