A Treasury of Christmas Carols

Christmas Dissolved

Part 2. American Puritanism

Early in the 17th century some Puritan groups separated from the Church of England. Among these were the Pilgrims, [1] who in 1620 founded Plymouth Colony. Christopher Jones, the master of the Mayflower, wrote in the ship’s log:

"At anchor in Plymouth harbor; Christmas Day, but not observed by these colonists, they being opposed to all saints’ days….A large party went ashore this morning to fell timber and begin building. They began to erect the first house about twenty feet square for their common use, to receive them and their goods….No man rested all that day."

It was reported that the colonists had some beer that evening. [2]

On Christmas Day, 1621, Governor William Bradford [3] encountered a group of people who were taking the day off from work:

"And herewith I shall end this year [1621]. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of waight. One ye day called Christmas-day, ye Govr [William Bradford] caled them out to worke, (as was used,) but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on yt day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; somepitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and shuch like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been atempted that way, at least openly." [4]

In 1628, under the auspices of the Massachusetts Bay Company, the next major Puritan migration to New England took place. These Puritans were not Separatists (as were the Pilgrims at Plymouth), although their colony, established at the present site of Boston, was established as a religious and political sanctuary.

In Puritan New England, Christmas remains a working day, the violation of which was punishable by fine or dismissal. In 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans declared the observation of Christmas to be a criminal offense by passed the Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Law:

Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing 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.

A second five shilling fine could be imposed upon anyone who was found gambling with cards or dice. [5] The laws were repealed in 1681 when it became clear that London might revoke the charter of the Colony.

In 1687, the Rev. Increase Mather of Boston wrote:

The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after a holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revelling, in excess of wine, in mad Mirth…. [6] 

A child missing school on Christmas Day in Boston public schools as recently as 1870 would be punished and possibly dismissed. Workmen missing work could also be penalized or dismissed. [7] The Five-Shilling Law was repealed in 1681, under pressure from London.

The Puritans brought strong religious impulses to bear in all colonies north of Virginia, but New England was their stronghold, and the Congregationalist churches established there were able to perpetuate their viewpoint about a Christian society for more than 200 years. In New England, Congregationalist churches worked so closely with civil governments in every colony except Rhode Island [8] that no other type of church was allowed in the area until 1690, when English authorities forced them to tolerate other religious groups. This relationship is often called theocracy, a situation in which ministers interpreted biblical laws related to general human conduct and town officials enforced them through police power. State government support for Congregationalist churches did not end until 1818 in Connecticut and not until 1834 in Massachusetts.

Fortunately, other groups of immigrants kept the Christmas spirit alive. The Dutch settled New Amsterdam in 1626 (later New York), and kept alive many Christmas traditions from their homelands; they weren’t alone -- . by 1646 the population also included French, Danes, Norwegians, Swedes, English, Scots, Irish, Germans, Poles, Bohemians, Portuguese and Italians. William Penn’s Quakers dominated in Philadelphia, which also included Germans and Scots-Irish – both of whom settled widely on the eastern shores. The rich traditions of the Lutherans were brought to the new world by immigrants from Germany and the Scandinavian countries to Delaware, Pennsylvania, New York, Maryland, and the South. The founding of Williamsburg, Virginia in 1699, primarily by English and Scottish emigrants, provided a safe outpost for the celebration of Christmas. [9] The Moravians – closely linked to the Lutherans – beginning in 1735, founded churches in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina. [10] It was Moravian immigrants at Bethlehem, Pennsylvania in the 1740s introduce the celebration of Christmas with such German customs as the visit from Saint Nicholas (AKA "Santa Claus") and the Christmas Tree.

Although the New England colonies were established by Puritans opposed to Anglicanism, large numbers of Anglicans settled in the southern colonies (in Virginia in 1607), and the Church of England (known as the Episcopal Church after the American Revolution) became the established church in the Carolinas, Maryland, and Virginia. Maryland was also a refuge for Catholics. The Episcopal Church was also strong in Pennsylvania and Connecticut. The Methodists – an off-shoot of the Church of England – established their first church in Baltimore, Maryland, and rapidly spread throughout the Eastern seaboard of the United States, both north and south.

The Baptists founded their first congregation in Rhode Island in 1639. They spread rapidly in America, especially in the South, the Mid-west and the Far West, where they retain their strength today.


1. The Pilgrims were English Separatists who founded (1620) Plymouth Colony in New England. The Separatists were members of a radical religious movement that broke from the Church of England, and – unlike the Puritans – sought complete separation from the Church of England. In the first years of the 17th century, small numbers of English Puritans broke away from the Church of England because they felt that it had not completed the work of the Reformation. They committed themselves to a life based on the Bible. The Pilgrims were fleeing a repressive government and church in England. Upon their arrival, they founded the Congregationalist Church in America. Return

2. "Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry, so no man rested all that day. But towards night some, as they were at work, heard a noise of some Indians, which caused us all to go to our muskets, but we heard no further. So we came aboard again, and left some twenty to keep the court of guard. That night we had a sore storm of wind and rain.

"Monday, the 25th day, we went on shore, some to fell drink water aboard, but at night the master caused us to have some beer, and so on board we had divers times now and then some beer, but on shore none at all." Source: A RELATION OR JOURNAL OF THE PROCEEDINGS OF THE PLANTATION settled at Plymouth in NEW ENGLAND, also called Mourt's Relation: A Journal of the Pilgrims at Plymouth. (London, 1622). This journal, written by several Pilgrims--namely William Bradford and Edward Winslow--records events at Plymouth from the Mayflower's arrival in November 1620 through the First Thanksgiving in October 1621, and everything in-between. This is a separate document from William Bradford’s History of the Plymouth Plantation, published 1854. Return

3. William Bradford (1590-1657) was one of the leaders of the Pilgrims who established Plymouth Colony. When John Carver, Plymouth Colony's first governor, died suddenly in April 1621, Bradford was unanimously elected to replace him. He was reelected 30 times and served as governor for more than 30 years. The term Pilgrim is derived from his description of himself and his co-religionists as they left Holland (July 22, 1620) for Southampton, where they joined another group of English separatists on the Mayflower. His History of Plymouth Plantation, 1620-1647, first printed in full in 1854, is a minor classic, reflecting the unusual qualities of the man and the values of the small group of English separatists who became known as Pilgrims. Return

4. William Bradford and Christmas. Source: Pilgrim Hall Museum. These individuals were not Pilgrims, but other emigrants from England which arrived November 11, 1621 aboard The Fortune. Of the original 102 emigrants on The Mayflower, only 37 were true Pilgrims (Separatists); the rest (called the "Strangers") were hired help (among them Myles Standish, a professional soldier, and John Alden, a cooper), or other colonists who were to be taken along at the insistence of the London businessmen who were helping to finance the expedition. Return

5. Five shillings was also the penalty exacted upon spectators of stage plays after the Puritans outlawed plays in 1647 Puritan. Return

6. Nissenbaum, pages 6-7. Things hadn’t improved by 1712 when Rev. Cotton Mather – son of Increase – wrote that "The Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spend in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in Licentious Liberty…by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling….". But, by that time, the Puritans no longer ruled, although their influence persisted. Return

7. Nissenbaum, pages 3 and following. Return

8. Rhode Island was first settled by three groups of Puritan dissenters – two of whom had been expelled from Massachusetts. Roger Williams and 12 others founded Providence in January, 1636. Anne Hutchinson and her supporters, including William Coddington, founded Portsmouth in March, 1636. Samuel Gorton and his supporters founded Warwick in 1638. The patent of Rhode Island was obtained in 1644; the first legislative session in 1647 confirmed that complete religious freedom was a cornerstone of the founding of the colony, which was later confirmed by a royal charter from Charles II in 1663. Return

9. For a description of a Williamsburg Christmas dinner, see Letha Booth, ed.., The Williamsburg Cookbook (Williamsburg, VA: The Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, 1975). For other Williamsburg celebrations and decorations, see Tina C. Jeffrey, Williamsburg Christmas Decorations (1968).  Return

10. Augustus Gottlieb Spangenberg, b. Prussia, July 15, 1704, d. Sept. 18, 1792, a bishop (1744-90) of the Moravian Church and its leader from 1762, founded the first Moravian settlements in North America. Sent from his native Germany, Spangenberg conducted missionary work in Georgia (1735), worked in Pennsylvania (1736-39), establishing a communal society at Bethlehem, and directed mission work in North Carolina in the 1750s. In 1762, Spangenberg returned to Germany to lead the denomination following the death of his predecessor, Graf von Zinzendorf. Return

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The Hymns and Carols of Christmas
Douglas D. Anderson

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