Hand over the candy cane, and place your hands behind your head. No, I’m not describing a scene from Bad Santa – the fourth best-selling feature film Christmas DVD of all time according to Home Media Magazine research 2000-2008 (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q1MHXYx2820). I’m wildly imaging what would happen if Christmas was outlawed in America today or tomorrow, because to the amazement of many it actually happened.
“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”
~From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony on May 11, 1659
It existed for 22 years from 1659-1681, but the disproval of Christmas festivities lasted much longer in New England. It took approximately 200 years for Massachusetts to be sweep up in Christmas cheer (1880s). Technically, it wasn’t until the mid-1800s that celebrating Christmas in the Boston area became fashionable. As late as 1869, public-school kids in Boston could be expelled for skipping class on Christmas Day.
The law was revoked in 1681 by an English-appointed governor Sir Edmund Andros, who also revoked a Puritan ban against festivities on Saturday night that facilitated greater church attendance. Priorities showed that Andros valued Christmas, because one of his first acts as the newly appointed governor of the colony was to attend a stake-in-the-ground Christmas religious service. Andros miscalculated the climate. Even after the Christmas ban was lifted, the majority of colonists still abstained from the celebration. It was as much of a political stance as a religious one. Five years later, Andros was still flanked with redcoats and speculation had it that he feared a backlash.
Let’s take a closer look at these Puritans in America that literally purified Christmas for around 200 years. The Puritans who immigrated to Massachusetts first got their name due to their attempt to purify the Church of England. Although many were Calvinists, Puritans were not associated with a single theology or a single definition of the church; but were extremely critical regarding religious compromises. The Bible was their sole authority. Puritans believed that access to Scripture was a fundamental necessity and the principles articulated in the Bible applied to every area of their life. They also encouraged direct personal religious experience (i.e., individual faith) and sincere moral conduct.
On the grounds that Christmas was: invented by man, not prescribed by the Bible, and early church fathers had simply co-opted the midwinter (i.e. Winter Solstice) celebration of several pagan societies, Puritans disapproved of their celebration. Puritans weren’t the only ones to come out of Christmas, most English-speaking Protestant denominations – Quakers, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Methodists – who dissented from the Church of England did too.
Technically, the Pilgrims that came to America in 1620 were English Separatists that were more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs. The Pilgrims/Puritans were known for their original mission of seeking after a more righteous society in the New World and their great hope of the gospel of the kingdom of Christ. They were also known for witch hunts, kill joy attitudes, and a general sense of somberness and gloominess.
The first Christmas the Pilgrims experienced in the New World passed uneventfully according to the records on-hand. Most people worked for the day while a few new settlers celebrated Christmas quietly. But the events of their second Christmas caused the group’s governor, William Bradford, to forbid the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts. However, I believe that he forbad it reluctantly because the ban on Christmas didn’t make it into the law books until 38 years later.
By the time the second Christmas came around, the Pilgrims were in a sorry shape. Sickness had wiped out many of their group, and for the first time they were facing hostility by one of the Native American tribes in the area. Bradford recorded that on the morning of December 25th, he had called everyone out to work, but some men from the newly arrived ship “Fortune” told him it was against their conscience to work on Christmas. Bradford responded that he would spare them “until they were better informed.” But when Bradford returned at noon, he found them playing games in the street.
As the settlement grew and more English settled in the area, tension grew between the Puritans and British. The more pressure the English king exerted on the colonists, the more they resisted. In 1659, the ban of Christmas became official.
The Puritan movement can be traced back to King Edward VI (1537-1553), who was crowned at the age of nine and was England’s first Protestant ruler. The young king was well connected to the Protestant Reformation. He corresponded with John Calvin, and his royal chaplain became the leader of the Scottish Reformation – John Knox.
The central tenet of Puritanism was God’s supreme authority over human affairs as expressed in the Bible. Following Calvin, they argued that the only head of the Church in heaven and earth is Christ (not the Pope or a monarch). However, their policy with secular governors was non-interference rather than separation of church and state due to their belief that secular government was accountable to God (not through the church, but alongside it) to protect and reward virtue.
Puritans sought individual and corporate conformance to the teaching of the Bible. It led them to pursue both moral purity as well as ecclesiastical purity to the highest level.
On the individual level, the Puritans emphasized that each person should be continually reformed by the grace of God to do what’s right before God. Their culture prioritized the need for self-examination and the strict accounting for one’s feelings as well as one’s deeds.
Other notable beliefs include:
- An emphasis on private Bible studies
- A desire to see education and enlightenment for the masses (especially so they could read the Bible for themselves)
- The priesthood of all believers
- Simplicity in worship
- Didn’t celebrate Roman holidays (i.e., Christmas, Easter, etc.), because they believed they violated the regulative principle of worship – not endorsed by the Bible
- Believed the Sabbath was obligatory for Christians, although they believed the Sabbath had been changed to Sunday
- Relatively tolerant of other denominations (but not to people like Mary Dyer who converted from Puritanism to being a Quaker and paid with her life).
Like today, we don’t hear much about the Puritans who lived honorably and well, we usually hear about their mistakes or the fringe fanatics [we all fall short in our journey toward perfection]. Who hasn’t heard of the Salem witch trials? What about people being put in the stocks? For example: If a married couple were caught kissing on Sunday, they were put in the stocks. So were women who showed too much leg as well as people caught lying, cheating, stealing, etc. Making fun of people held in stocks attracted Puritans like a fight in a schoolyard. They saved up their chamber pots and rotten food stuffs to be used as ammo.
In modern usage, the word “puritan” is often used as a derogatory way to describe someone who has a strict view on sexual morality, disapproves of recreation, and wished to impose these beliefs on others. (BTW – None of these qualities are unique to Puritanism.) In reality, Puritans were not opposed to drinking alcohol or enjoying sexuality within the bounds of marriage, but they did publicly punish drunkenness and sexual relations outside of marriage. In fact, Puritan law regarded alcohol as a gift of God. They criticized the early New England laws banning the sale of alcohol to Indians because Puritans said: It was “not fit to deprive Indians of any lawful comfort allowed to all men by the use of wine.”
Experts tend to agree that Puritanism was the very thing that provided a firm foundation for American democracy. Puritans were hard-working, studious, and egalitarian (wanted equal rights for all). Puritans usually migrated to New England as a family unit, a pattern different from other colonies where young, single men often came on their own. The authority and obedience between Puritan parents and children, in a society essentially without police, along with the interactions between the family and larger community, distinguished Puritans from other early settlers.
Education was very important to Puritans. As John Winthrop sailed to New England in 1630, he exhorted his fellow passengers that the society they would form in New England would be “as a city upon a hill,” and that they must become a pure community of Christians who would set an example to the rest of the world. To achieve this goal, the colony leaders would educate all. These men of letters, who attended Oxford or Cambridge and could communicate with intellectuals across Europe, founded New Town College (i.e., Harvard) just six years after the first large migration.
The motive to educate was largely religious, In order for Puritans to become holy, they needed to read, understand and apply the Scriptures. A good Puritan’s duty was to search out scriptural truth for oneself. Further, children needed to read in order to “understand … the … capital laws of this country.” Order was of utmost importance for a Puritan community. The emphasis on education in Puritan New England, with the possible exception of Scotland, did not exist anywhere else in the world at that time.
Copyright Dec. 3, 2012 – Author: Robin Main.
Most references to the things I write on this blog can be found in my book SANTA-TIZING: What’s wrong with Christmas and how to clean it up (available on amazon http://www.amazon.com/SANTA-TIZING-Whats-wrong-Christmas-clean/dp/1607911159/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1353692179&sr=1-1&keywords=SANTA_TIZING).