Saturday, December 14, 2013

Fea: Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?

By John Fea. See here and here. A taste:
The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.


Tom Van Dyke said...

So start the humbug posts. If you want real humbug, check out Oliver Cromwell's Puritan England of the mid-1600s.

Increasingly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, many people, especially the more Godly, came to frown upon this celebration of Christmas, for two reasons. Firstly, they disliked all the waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality of the Christmas celebrations. Secondly, they saw Christmas (that is, Christ’s mass) as an unwelcome survival of the Roman Catholic faith, as a ceremony particularly encouraged by the Catholic church and by the recusant community in England and Wales, a popish festival with no biblical justification – nowhere had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in this way, they said.

What this group wanted was a much stricter observance of the Lord’s day (Sundays), but the abolition of the popish and often sinful celebration of Christmas, as well as of Easter, Whitsun and assorted other festivals and saints’ days.


During the 1650s parliamentary legislation was passed to reinforce the structure that had been put in place by the end of the 1640s. Specific penalties were to be imposed on anyone found holding or attending a special Christmas church service, it was ordered that shops and markets were to stay open on 25 December, the Lord Mayor was repeatedly ordered to ensure that London stayed open for business on 25 December, and when it met on 25 December 1656 the second Protectorate Parliament discussed the virtues of passing further legislation clamping down on the celebration of Christmas (though no Bill was, in fact, produced). Legislation was passed to ensure that Sundays were even more strictly observed as the Lord’s Day, but the holding of a regular monthly fast on the last Wednesday of the month, which had never proved popular or been widely followed, was quietly dropped.

Although in theory and on paper the celebration of Christmas had been abolished, in practice it seems that many people continued to mark 25 December as a day of religious significance and as a secular holiday. Semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and the secular elements of the day also continued to occur – on 25 December 1656 MPs were unhappy because they had got little sleep the previous night through the noise of their neighbours’ ‘preparations for this foolish day’s solemnity’ and because as they walked in that morning they had seen ‘not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’ in London. During the late 1640s attempts to prevent public celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open had led to violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, including London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Many writers continued to argue in print (usually anonymously) that it was proper to mark Christ’s birth on 25 December and that the secular government had no right to interfere, and it is likely that in practice many people in mid seventeenth century England and Wales continued to mark both the religious and the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday. At the Restoration not only the Directory of Public Worship but also all the other legislation of the period 1642-60 was declared null and void and swept away, and both the religious and the secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas could once again be celebrated openly, in public and with renewed exuberance and wide popular support. The attack on Christmas had failed.

JMS said...

Jon - thanks for the post, although I saw it first at John Fea's site.

What Christmas Means to Me:

I grew up where George Washington led the Continental army across the Delaware River and surprised the Hessian garrison at Trenton, NJ on Christmas day 1776. One of my earliest childhood memories (age 3) was my parents bundling me up on Christmas morning to watch a historical reenactment (they do it every year – weather permitting). This sparked my interest and passion for the history of the Colonial and Revolutionary eras ever since. My current research is a community study of Morristown, New Jersey during the American Revolution.

George Washington wishes a fellow officer a merry Christmas

George Washington to William Heath, December 24, 1781

"I am glad to hear you are so well supplied with provisions and I hope the Troops are by this time getting on some of their new Cloathing. I may on these accounts venture to hope that you will spend a happy and merry Christmas [uppercase], a thing that has not happened for some years past. I am &c."

I am visting family in the Baltimore-Annapolis area, and had the good fortune to go to the Maryland state house and view George Washington’s personal copy of his speech of resignation as commander-in-chief of the Continental Army. The speech is displayed in the Old Senate Chamber of the State House where Washington resigned his commission to return to private life on December 23, 1783, at the end of the Revolutionary War.

Here’s a concise account written two days later (James Tilton wrote to Gunning Bedford, from Annapolis, on Christmas day, 1783).

But what I find most affecting is the reference to Washington’s hasty departure from Annapolis “intent on eating his christmas [the original is lowercase] dinner at home.”

“He then delivered his speech, and at the close of it drew his commission from his bosem and handed it to the president. The president replied in a set speech, the General bowed again to Congress, they uncovered and the General retired. After a little pause until the company withdrew, Congress adjourned. The General then steped into the room again, bid every member farewell and rode off from the door, intent upon eating his christmas dinner at home. Many of the spectators, particularly the fair ones shed tears, on this solemn and affecting occasion.”

Tom Van Dyke said...

I grew up where George Washington led the Continental army across the Delaware River and surprised the Hessian garrison at Trenton, NJ on Christmas day 1776.

Rowe and I grew up there too. Fea not too far from there. ;-)

Jonathan Rowe said...

I had bad timing with Dr. Fea. He did a residency at the David Library before I "discovered" him. I did see him speak there, though.

Sometime blog interlocutor D.G. Hart is from Levittown.

Something magical about that place, Bucks County, PA.

John Fea said...

Grew up in North Jersey, but lived in Langhorne, Bucks County for four years. Did do a stint at the David Library in 2007 or 2008 (can't remember). JMS: I am very interested in your Morristown project.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Ah, my bad. I was recalling your post on the famous "Trenton Makes, The World Takes" bridge

or as we called it on the Pennsy side, The World Refuses, Trenton Uses.

Jonathan Rowe said...

As I tell my local students, just because those factory jobs disappear doesn't necessarily mean the buildings have to remain abandoned. My older middle bro lives in a nice condo called "Wire-Works" in Old City. It's an old wire factory.

Trenton really needs to reinvigorate.

A few years ago movie producers were thinking of using those old abandoned buildings for movie studies. Didn't happen though.