Tuesday, December 18, 2012


Christians from different traditions celebrate Christmas in countless different ways, but do you know how the Pilgrims celebrated Christmas in the 1620s? Considering how devoutly religious they were, you may be surprised to know that the Pilgrims did not observe Christmas. The holiday was not found in the Bible, and therefore was not authorized by God. This was the Puritan view, which was therefore inherited by the English Separatists, including the Plymouth Pilgrims.

What did they have against Christmas? Remember that the Puritan movement (from which the Pilgrims were an offshoot) was a religious reform movement. In their view, the Church of England was far too saturated with the remnants of Catholic ritual, and Christmas would be counted among such practices. To "purify" the church, they encouraged leaving behind anything that smelled of "popery" (Catholic influence).

Christmas day is mentioned in William Bradford's journals, and the above insight helps explain the way they treated that particular day in December. The first mention of it is shortly after the search party found a suitable place to settle in mid-December of 1620. Over a week later, on December 25th, Bradford says they "began to erect the first house for common use to receive them and their goods." One could argue that there was far too much to do to take a rest on a religious holiday, but just a few sentences above, Bradford makes a point of documenting how the search party rested on the Christian "Sabbath" (Sunday) before going back to the Mayflower to tell the others they found a place to build.

To the Pilgrims, December 25th was just an ordinary day. If the Catholics and other churches were to celebrate the pagan-derived custom (with it's roots in pagan Winter Solstice observance), they would be all the more determined to let the day pass by with no fanfare whatsoever.

But of course, the settlers in Plymouth were not all cut from the same religious cloth. There were also the "strangers" – those English settlers who still identified with the Church of England. And there were even more settlers sent over one year after the Mayflower landed. To them Christmas was a deep-rooted cultural and religious custom, which was cause for conflict in 1621.

Bradford remembers that, "On the day called Christmas day, the Governor called them out to work, (as usual), but the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed."

So the Pilgrim settlers went out to work on that morning, leaving the unenlightened strangers to their pagan customs. However, when Bradford and the others returned for lunch, they were appalled at what they saw. "He found them in the street at play – openly. Some were pitching the bar and some at stoolball [now called "cricket"], and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that it was against his conscience that they should play as others work. If they made the keeping of [Christmas] a matter of devotion, let them observe it in their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since that time, nothing has been attempted that way, at least openly."

The story above makes one wonder if William Bradford may have been Dr. Seuss' original inspiration for the Grinch.

The Christmas holiday was indeed banned for many years in several Puritan-dominated New England communities. I find this all even more interesting in light of the arguments (and court rulings) over the public observance of the holiday today.

Merry Christmas, everyone! (Just don't tell Governor Bradford I said that.)

No comments:

Post a Comment