Are you celebrating Christmas today?
Spread ‘em, pal. You’re under arrest.
At least, you might have been if you were an early New Englander.
The celebration of Christmas has gone through many phases throughout its history. The low spot - at least in terms of merriment, jollity and wassail - came during the Puritan era, both in England and America.
“Pagan mockery.” With those words, Plymouth Colony Gov. William Bradford established the Massachusetts attitude toward Christmas.
Drop that Yule log and raise your hands, Jedediah. In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritan’s Court outlawed the observance of Christmas. Violators were fined five shillings.
“No Christmas!” Town criers in Puritan Massachusetts were instructed to shout those words on Dec. 25.
Do you have a concealed pudding on your person? The baking and eating of plum puddings and mince pies were outlawed in early Massachusetts, since they were considered part of the heathen celebration.
These historical snippets, taken from the book “Holiday Folklore, Phobias and Fun” by Donald E. Dossey, show just how far the Christmas pendulum had swung during those strict and dour days.
It seems odd that devout Christian Puritans would be so dead set against a celebration of Jesus’ birth, but they had their reasons. Mainly, they thought that Christmas was inextricably tangled up with pagan traditions and rituals.
The truth is, they were absolutely correct.
Pope Gregory I, in the early centuries of the church, looked benignly on the idea of combining the pagan and Christian traditions.
For instance, in the year 596 he gave St. Augustine instructions to allow his new British converts to carry on with their ancient celebrations, while at the same time advising Augustine to “infuse (the celebrations) with Christian significance to propagate the faith.”
It worked. The newly converted people were allowed to continue with such traditions as decking the halls with boughs of holly. But now, it was part of a spiritual celebration of Christ’s birth. Thus, the customs of many winter solstice celebrations - the Saturnalia, the Festival of the Unconquered Sun - were incorporated into Christian celebrations.
Many purely Christian touches were added during the Middle Ages, such as the Nativity scene. St. Francis of Assisi invented that concept in 1223 when he staged a life-size Nativity scene, complete with live farm animals.
Christmas had become by that time a huge feast day, at least for the aristocracy who could afford it. In 1252, King Henry III of England staged a Christmas feast that required the roasting of 600 oxen. These feasts, according to Dossey, lasted all the way from Dec. 25 to Epiphany on Jan. 6.
Maybe it was these kinds of excesses that led the Puritans to turn against the entire idea of celebrating Christmas. In 1647 and again in 1652, the English Parliament under Oliver Cromwell passed acts forbidding the observance of Christmas.
Even after King Charles II restored the celebration of Christmas soon after, some Puritans persisted in calling it “Fooltide” instead of yuletide. They refused to have anything to do with it.
That feeling persisted in Massachusetts even into the 1800s.
“The practice was, you could lose your job if you were caught celebrating Christmas on Dec. 25,” said author Helen Ellerbe, whose book “The Dark Side of Christian History” touched on this subject. “Factory work hours on Dec. 25 were moved up to 5 a.m., and those who were late could be fired.”
It wasn’t until 1856 that Massachusetts finally removed the Christmas ban from its books. Apparently, the descendants of the Puritans saw how much fun the Irish and German immigrants were having at Christmastime. They decided they might as well join in after all.
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