by Dan Marshall
Manager of Visitor Services
This holiday season we will once again be offering our Christmas tour of The House of the Seven Gables. The Turner-Ingersoll Mansion is a good fit for telling the story of Christmas in Massachusetts, having witnessed the changing nature of the holiday over the last 350 years. However, we will focus on the point of Christmas history that is most shocking to our guests. When the house was built in 1668 Christmas was illegal in the colony.
The 1658 General Laws of the Massachusetts Colony state “that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing labour, feasting, or any other way…shall pay…five shillings as a fine.” The Puritan establishment had strong religious arguments against observing Christmas, but the secular dislike of the holiday boiled down to the fear of the disorder and debauchery that so often accompanied theholiday in England. In fact, the overall purpose of the law is explained in its first four words “For preventing disorders arising…”
While a few cases were brought to the Essex County Quarterly Courts, the conviction rate was spotty. In July 1662, William Hoare was presented for “suffering tippling in his house.” Basically, he allowed people to get drunk in his home on Christmas, but there is no record of the five shilling fine. In April 1673 at Salisbury, Robert Downer, Henry Ambross, Joseph True and Joseph Severans were all fined “for taking cider to the house of Ben. Collins on Dec. 25 last…causing much disorder.” And finally, in 1679, John Rowden’s household endured hours of taunts, insults and repeated demands for pear wine, or perry, from four men. When Rowden would not relent, they destroyed fences and stole six pecks of apples. Despite all of this, none of the men were fined.
So, did this ban on Christmas prevent even more incidents from happening or did it merely give the Puritan leaders a sense of control over a time of year when labor was lost and sins abounded? Regardless of the reasoning, in 1681 the law was repealed under pressure from the royal authorities. Even though the Puritan hold on political power in Massachusetts diminished over time, the ban did leave a lasting legacy and a general disregard for Christmas that lasted well into the 19th century.