Years Without a Santa Claus

On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts General Court banned
Christmas. More specifically, it outlawed “observing any such
day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor,
feasting, or any other way.” Miscreants would be fined five
shillings. The law stayed in force until 1681, when the mother
country’s disapproval compelled the colony to repeal it. The local
authorities continued to denounce the December holiday long after
it became legal. “Christmas-keepers,” the Harvard rector Increase
Mather complained in 1687, were doing something “highly
dishonourable to the name of Christ.”

I read Mather’s comment in Stephen Nissenbaum’s
The Battle for Christmas
, a social history released to
well-deserved acclaim in 1996. At a time when the Puritans’ War on
Christmas sometimes seemed to have been reduced to a perennial
entry in those Wacky Laws articles (“In Grim Bumbershoot, Maine,
it’s illegal to feed a banana to a horse!”), Nissenbaum dug into
the record to explain the New Englanders’ hostility to the holiday.
Christmas, they believed, was too pagan.

I’m using the word pagan in two different senses. On a
more literal level, the Puritans pointed out that there wasn’t any
scriptural support for the idea that Jesus was born in December.
That date, they argued, had been selected not to honor God but to
annex pre-Christian winter celebrations for the Church. “Christmas
Holidays were at first invented and institute in compliance with
the Pagan Festivals,” Mather wrote,
pointing in particular to “the Heathens’ Saturnalia” celebrated in

The wild rituals of Saturnalia
and similar festivals had not been Christianized so much as they
were Christmasized: The formal rationale for the celebrations
may have changed, but winter remained a

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