Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681, and anyone caught celebrating would be subject to a fine of 5 shillings.
Who knew “the war on Christmas” was that old!
Of course, the irony is that it was Christians who outlawed Christmas, specifically the Puritans who ran Massachusetts in those days—though their opposition to Christmas celebrations was part of a larger posture within Protestantism. Their piety was shaped by what’s been called the “regulative principle of Biblicism,” meaning that not only should one do what the Bible says to do, but when it comes to practices of spiritual significance, one should avoid that which the Bible does not expressly say to do. And while the birth of Christ is of course included in the gospels, the celebration of Christmas is not.
And the emphasis is on celebration. Another reason the Puritans and other Protestant traditions were suspicious of Christmas and other holiday celebrations was that they were known to involve “social disorder”–drunkenness, carousing, irreverence, and other behavior the Puritans found unacceptable.
Dr. David F. Holland, a professor at Harvard Divinity School describes this period in church and American history on a recent podcast.(Check out the most recent episode of “The Harvard Religion Beat,” hosted by Jonathan Beasley entitled, “When Boston Banned Christmas,” for the full story.)
It turns out that the anti-Christmas sentiment persisted in New England and other parts of the country well into the 19th-century, until Christmas became a national holiday in 1870. And the reason behind the shift wasn’t some new interpretation of the scriptures, but instead a new understanding of human development.
As Holland puts it, what really gave Christmas it’s legitimacy in the culture of New England was the rise of what some scholars have called “the birth of childhood.” Or rather, “the recognition of childhood as a distinctive stage of human development that deserved a certain kind of indulgence and a certain kind of happiness.”
In other words, an appreciation of what Christmas could mean to a child was able to warm even the hardest Puritan hearts.
And as it turns out, what is good for children is usually good for the rest of us. Vegetables and enough sleep, to be sure. But also the deeper things that mark this time of year. Things like wonder and anticipation. Things like the occasional excess and time spent with loved ones. Things like hope, peace, joy, and love.
Yes, we can say that we do it all for the kids. But deep down we know that we never stop needing these things. And every year as we move into this season (that the Puritans were surely not entirely wrong about, with it’s rampant commercialism and all the rest of it), we remind ourselves again just how essential these things are. We re-tune our hearts to sense them and feel them. We retrain our mouths to speak them, and our hands to give them.
We can say it’s for the kids, but to paraphrase Christ in the gospels, the best parts of us never grow up.