WHEN CHRISTMAS WAS ILLEGAL
The law that banned Christmas as told in history books is mentioned in the following article by Robert W. Pelton originally published in the December 1984 issue of Modern Maturity and recently published in The Thomas Stanton Society Newsletter, Number 18, November 2002:
Did you realize there was once a law that actually banned the celebration of Christmas? December 25th of 1620, the first Christmas spent in the New World by the Mayflower Pilgrims, was devoted to hard labor! The Pilgrims utilized all their holiday energies felling trees "in order to avoid any frivolity on the day sometimes called Christmas."
The Pilgrims interpreted the Bible literally, and nothing in the Scriptures mentioned having a good time at Christmas.
While the rest of the Christian world celebrated the Lord's birthday, the Pilgrims chopped wood. Governor William Bradford had to reprimand several of the colonists who took Christmas Day off "to pitch ye barr, and play at stoole ball and such like sports."
On May 11, 1659, in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, the colonial legislature made Christmas illegal: "Whosoever shall be found observing and such day as Christmas . . . shall pay for every offense five shilling," read the law.
One stern old judge, Samuel Sewall, loudly proclaimed that people who made mince pie or plum pudding over the holiday period would surely be "cursed by God for all eternity."
Many people in other colonies disagreed with Bradford and his radical Pilgrims. Their holiday festivities began well before December 25 and lasted until January 6. These people, among them Virginians and the Dutch burghers of New Amsterdam, believed there should be equal parts of religion and revelry during this time.
Although we think of Pilgrims as ideal Americans, actually they were a cantankerous group of fervent believers who had little or no tolerance for those who had different opinions or ideas.
To Robert Brown and his Pilgrim associates, Christmas was nothing more than "a popish frivolity" at its best, and the "dreadful work of Satan" in their midst, at worst. And highest on any reliable and trustworthy Pilgrim's list of intolerable things was any holiday smacking of Roman Catholicism.
Hadn't the people of the Catholic faith celebrated Christmas for centuries? Was this not reason enough to condemn Christmas as a work of the devil?
Because of its association with pagan festivals of early times, the Pilgrims went so far as to outlaw the color green. Pilgrim preachers used their pulpits to strongly denounce holly and ivy as "seditious badges" which were always looked upon as unmistakable signs of the devil at work.
The stern prohibition proved to be extremely unpopular on this side of the Atlantic, causing widespread discontent in the Massachusetts colony. The lawmakers were forced to issue annual proclamations to remind the people of the ban on frivolity on Christmas Day.
But, according to colonial authorities, like it or not, the harsh legal measure was necessary in order to "prevent the observing of such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries to the great dishonor of God and the offense of others."
Did the colonial leadership finally rescind the outrageous Christmas ban? Did the colonists riot and spill blood over this issue as the people in England did some years before? No, the harsh law banning Christmas lightheartedness remained in effect in Massachusetts until 1681.
So in 1681, Christmas could finally be celebrated without dire consequences in the Massachusetts colony. Yet the Pilgrim chill on the holiday persisted for another 175 years. Children in that area of New England were still made to attend school on Christmas Day. This rule applied in Massachusetts up until 1856. Only then was Christmas finally a spirited and happy holiday for old and young!