December 24, 1659 — Struggling for sleep, millions of excited children across the world will tonight have one eye on the clock as the countdown to Christmas Day runs its magical course. But it wasn’t always like that.
Bah, humbug! has become the commonplace taunt of those wishing to distance themselves from Christmas festivities – a direct reference to the Charles Dickens’ character, Scrooge.
But long before him, the English Puritans under Oliver Cromwell who overthrew King Charles I in 1647 took it much further and banned Christmas celebrations altogether.
After chopping off the King’s head, one of their first acts was to decree that instead of feasting and making merry, Christmas should instead be a time of “fasting and humiliation” when people should account for their sins.
Before Christmas came to be widely celebrated as a Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ, the Romans were celebrating Saturnalia – a festival in honour of the god Saturn. They spent the festival gambling, singing, playing music, feasting, socialising and sharing gifts.
In the 1680s, a clergyman with the unlikely name of the Reverend Increase Mather preached in Boston, Massachusetts, where Puritans had set up camp after sailing aboard the Mayflower from England in 1620.
He declared that the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 “did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”
In his book, The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum writes: “The Puritans tried to run a society in which legislation would not violate anything that the Bible said, and nowhere in the Bible is there a mention of celebrating the Nativity.
“It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity.
“The Puritans were correct when they pointed out – and they pointed it out often – that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.”
Noting that the scriptures did not mention a season, let alone a single day, that marked the birth of Jesus, and seeing Christmas as a false holiday with stronger ties to paganism than Christianity, the Puritans of New England decided to follow the lead of their English kinfolk and ban it.
And so, in 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature declared: “For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God & offense of others, it is therefore ordered that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the county.”
The ban remained in place for 22 years until it was repealed in 1681 after a new group of European immigrants demanded that the holiday be restored. But public celebration of Christmas continued to be frowned on in Massachusetts for many years. It was normal well into the 1800s for businesses and schools to be open on December 25 while many churches were closed.
The pressure was on though, and in 1856 the Massachusetts legislature at last made Christmas an official holiday. Finally, in 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant made it a national holiday.
In England, Christmas became legal again after the restoration of the monarchy in 1660. And it has been celebrated ever since. Except, perhaps, by Scrooge. Christmas? Bah, humbug!
Published: December 17, 2019