When Boston Banned Christmas

There are, annually, 11 public Federal holidays in the United States, in which federal employees are given the day off. One of these is December 25th, or Christmas Day, which was designated as a federal holiday in 1870 by Ulysses S. Grant. Alabama became the first state to make it a legal holiday 34 years earlier, in 1836, and it is now a state holiday in every state. But for a while, Christmas was not only not an official holiday in the Boston area, but celebrating it was explicitly forbidden.

Boston was founded in 1630 by Puritan settlers from England, as part of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. The colony existed until 1692, when it joined with neighboring colonies to form the Province of Massachusetts Bay, which would later become the state of Massachusetts. But during the first six decades of the area, Puritan religious views dominated the culture, including the legal system. And, according to American Heritage magazine, on May 11, 1659, the legislature of the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed the celebration of Christmas:

For preventing disorders arising in severall places within this jurisdiceon, by reason of some still observing such ffestivalls as were superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonnor of God & offence of others, it is therefore ordered … that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labour, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.

In short: Celebrating anything Christmas-y would result in a five shilling penalty — accounting for inflation, that would be worth sixty pounds ($100) as of 2012 — per offense. As The Day (New London, CT) recounted in 1971, the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans took offense to the use of sacred names for such “festive occasions,” buttressing American Heritage‘s claim that the Puritans “regarded [Christmas] as pagan revelry.”

The ban lasted until 1681, for reasons unclear; American Heritage claims that it was done in deference to the King Charles II, who wished the colonies to have the same laws as England; The Day asserts that a Puritan commission decided in 1665 to strike the penalty, but it remained (for reasons left unexplained) for another 16 years. Regardless, the holiday was not immediately popular in the area; Massachusetts was one of the last states to make Christmas a legal holiday, only doing so in 1856 — twenty years after Alabama became the first.

Bonus fact: If you click on The Day article linked above, you’ll see another headline — “Two Women Join All-Male Postal Service.” On December 15, 1971, Jane W. Currier of Texas and Janene E. Gordon of California became the first two female members of the Postal Inspection Service, despite the organization’s 234 year history to that date. Both women (and the 22 men in their graduating class) were trained to use both karate and firearms during a 12-week course.

From the Archives: Two Christmas customs Boston (and others) are probably better off without: Krampus and the Caganer.

RelatedCoal, straight from the North Pole. (Okay, not really; as one curmudgeonly Amazon reviewer notes, “I don’t think there is a land mass under the North Pole. Its all ice, and floats. Therefore there can’t be any coal ‘from the North Pole’.”) Regardless, this is the perfect gift to have on the ready in case a 1650s Puritan comes over for the holidays.

Image above, the Christmas tree at Boston Common from 2009, originally by Lizard10979 on Flickr and used under a Creative Commons license.

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