Thursday, December 09, 2010

The Pilgrims and Christmas

The Pilgrims set foot on Plymouth Rock in November, 1620.

Can you imagine moving to a “New World”?

Can you imagine moving anywhere for that matter right before the rush of the Christmas season?

I can’t.

Maybe it’s just a woman thing, but I know what would have been on my mind had I been on the Mayflower. I would be thinking.......Here it is nearly the first of December, I have no home, and Christmas is just around the corner. I have shopping to do, the decorations need to be up (hope I remembered where I packed them), and then I have all the cooking to do. How am I going to fit 30 various parties, dinners, and gatherings into four weeks? When are the greeting cards going to get addressed? does one ship gifts back home from the “New World”?

By December, 1620 many of the Pilgrims were sick with scurvy and many more were suffering from wild coughing fits   They hardly felt like celebrating, but the fact of the matter is any Pilgrims well enough spent their first December 25th in the New World by sending out scouting parties, building their first structures, and all of the other necessary tasks to build “New Plymouth”

The Pilgrims didn’t ignore Christmas because they had bigger fish to fry like securing shelter and gathering food. It was much more than that.

They didn’t celebrate Christmas….

… all.

Not a Christmas carol, a Christmas tree, or a Christmas meal. Nothing. Not even Santa.

The Grinch would have loved New Plymouth.

The Pilgrims were a very no nonsense, no frills type of people. If the Bible didn’t direct it, they didn’t do it. This means they didn’t buy into any additions made to Christianity especially church traditions.

Since Christmas was not mentioned in the Bible the Pilgrims ignored the holiday. They disapproved of the way their fellow Englishmen celebrated the day with parties, feasting, drinking, and bawdy behavior in some instances.

One year after the Pilgrims arrived in the New World on December 25, 1621, Governor William Bradford discovered a few recent arrivals to New Plymouth didn’t want to work on what the Pilgrims considered just another day. He made a notation in Of Plymouth Plantation:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, 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 till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.”

When the working party returned they found the men who had a conscience decided not only to refrain from working in recognition of the day they also decided to play games and shockingly they were having ……..FUN. The governor ordered them to stop making an exhibition in the streets for all to see. The men were told if they wanted to act like that to go to the privacy of their homes.

The Puritans who differed from the Pilgrims  regarding the Anglican Church merely wanted to change certain practices of the church while the Pilgrims totally separated themselves from it, however they were on the same page regarding celebrating Christmas. They knew there was absolutely no Biblical proof regarding December as the birth month for Christ, and they knew history. They realized Christmas had roots in the pagan winter solstice festivals like the Roman Saturnalia. The argued the early Roman Catholic Church had taken a pagan holiday and merged it with Christian beliefs.

In the book The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum sums it up this way:

“The Puritan knew what subsequent generations would forget; that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the church paid a high price. Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observance of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period period of leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior’s birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been. From the beginning, the Church’s hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always.people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult day to Christianize. Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble.”

For sure – the Puritans didn’t trouble themselves. They just outlawed the holiday.

In fact, by Christmas, 1659 the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law was enacted by the General Court of Massachusetts. The law stated:

Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forebearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.

Boston actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681.

Even after the law was set aside in 1681, New Englanders were slow to accept Christmas. The customs of gift giving and parties and even decorations were considered to be pagan customs. My research indicates even as late as 1870 Boston schools held classes on Christmas Day.

It’s interesting to note that today we still have the Christmas tug-of-war. The church is still fighing the masses over the Christmas issue. Christians fuss and fume because it seems everyone celebrates the holiday even if they don’t actually believe in the reason for the season. Folks are in it for the parties, the drinking, the gifts, the decorations, the food, the general falderal whether they believe in the divinity of Christ or not.

Heck, even Christians enjoy the falderal. I do.

I’m just glad I can celebrate how I wish, believe what I want to, and I don’t have to pay fine while doing it.

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