By Nathan Tarr, PhD
In 1659, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony canceled Christmas. The purpose of this brief essay is to explore why they did so and what we—rightly looking forward to enjoying our Christmas traditions—can learn from their decision. We can work toward a helpful understanding of Puritan opposition to Christmas by reminding ourselves who the Puritans were, what they were like, and what was happening at the Christmas revelries to which they were opposed.
The term “Puritan” covered a motley crew of men and women, in both England and America, from the mid-16th to the mid-17th centuries. It was perhaps not quite as broad as a term like “evangelical” is today, but it often carried a similar (and ironical) imprecision. Some Puritans, for example, focused almost entirely on political debates of the day. Others took church government as their primary area of concern. Still others were known for their intentional pursuit of piety. To say that “the Puritans” did any one thing—including canceling Christmas—is a bit like squaring the circle. It is hard to find a formula where everybody fits. We are focusing in this essay on the theological reservations that animated the Puritan discouragement of Christmas celebrations.
Some of us may not see a need to ask why the Puritans would take the step of canceling Christmas. Christmas is bright, and colorful, and filled with joy. Puritans being Puritans, of course, they opposed it for just these reasons. Were they not the well-known antagonists of delight, festivity, and fun? In a word, the answer is no. Scholars like Bruce Daniels, Leland Ryken and, more recently, Michael Reeves have done important work rehabilitating our imagination where the character of the Puritans is concerned. And more work is needed! The Puritans, in actual fact, took robust delight in colorful clothing, food and drink, art and instruments (if not in church), natural beauty, sport (though not on the Lord’s day), and marital sex. Their enjoyment of these and other of God’s good gifts resounds from their journals, letters, sermons, and even the accusations of their enemies. What was it, then, that they found so onerous about Christmas?
We begin to get an idea of their concern when, already in 1621, Governor William Bradford censured newcomers to the Plymouth Colony for taking Christmas day off from work. Nevertheless, Bradford wrote in his log, “If they made the keeping of [Christmas] a matter of devotion, then let them keep [it in] their houses, but there should be no gambling or reveling in the streets.” Taking Bradford at his word here, he is admitting a legitimate way to celebrate Christmas—in our homes, as a matter of religious devotion. He is also identifying the issue at the root of his resistance to the holiday, namely, a spiritually crass and socially disruptive celebration disconnected from the reason for the season.
Perhaps you are beginning to wonder at this point whether “Christmas” was something altogether different in 17th-century England (and New England) than it is in our experience today. That question comes from a good instinct! We should get the past clear before we critique it. So, if Puritans were not canceling carols, ginger bread houses, hot chocolate, and puppies, what kind of celebration did Puritan leaders believe we would be better without? We should imagine a scene less like setting up a manger and more like Mardi Gras. Known as “Foolstide,” cross-dressing, heavy-drinking crowds would parade the streets singing bawdy songs and demanding entrance to upper-class residences. Those houses not sufficiently quick to open the door and provide the meat and drink demanded would be vandalized before the crowd moved on. Presided over by a Lord of Misrule, the street festival often took special delight in interrupting church services. It was a night neither silent nor holy. As Hugh Latimer wrote in the early half of the 16th century, “men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides.”
Here was the heart of the Puritan aversion to Christmas as it was celebrated in their time. The social order was disrupted. Townspeople reveled in an excuse to “do what they lust and follow what vanity they will.” The devotion of true religion was ignored or antagonized outright. As a political minority, the Puritans resisted these expectations for decades, but to little cultural effect. Their convictions did not change when they found themselves in a position to influence policy. And so, in the colonies of the New World as in Oliver Cromwell’s Protectorate, the Puritans exercised their political power to cancel or curtail the irreligious celebration of Christmas.
In his The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum has argued that the traditions marking our holiday season are relatively new and thus very different from those combatted by Governor Bradford’s prohibition on “reveling in the streets.” Even so, there is a caution in the Puritan stance that is worthy of our consideration. The most basic service that the Puritan example can perform is to (re)call our attention to the dual nature of our Christmas celebration. We enjoy this month both a cultural and a religious holiday. They happen at the same time, and are called by many of the same names, but they are very different. The cultural holiday is full of parties and candy, presents and decorations on everything from clothing to cookies. The religious holiday revolves around the myriad ways we consider afresh the news that God has come as our humble Savior and will soon return as our victorious King. The first celebration awakens the ache of acquisition. The second awakens the ache of advent.
Keeping these two holidays distinct in our hearts and minds is not easy, especially with mangers in front of malls and advent wreaths arriving from Amazon. But the Puritans thought it a safer course to cancel Christmas altogether than to risk confusing the holy truth of our Savior’s birth with self-focused, God-less frivolity. So how can we take steps to give both Christmases—the cultural and the spiritual—their proper emphasis in our lives? We should drink our eggnog, decorate our houses, and buy our presents, yes. But what would it look like in our families, and in our churches, to celebrate in a manner that makes it clear that Christmas, ultimately, is a “matter of devotion”? How does the way we engage the public holiday reflect the tempering of Advent’s truth? Each of us will, no doubt, answer these questions of priority and emphasis a bit differently from one another. The Puritans, as is often the case with examples from church history, do not give us the answer. But they do raise the question of Christian devotion. And being prompted to wrestle with such an important question is itself a gift.
Nathan Tarr (PhD, The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Pastoral Theology & the Doctor of Ministry Program Director at Phoenix Seminary. He has enjoyed many years of pastoral experience, first as the founding pastor of Christ Church in Knoxville, Tenn. (2005-2018), and then as the associate pastor of discipleship and missions at Christ Baptist Church in Raleigh, N.C. (2018-2020).