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 time of feasting, gambling,
drinking, dancing, sex, and social inversion. One raucous tradition
that Nissenbaum describes is wassailing, in
which “roving bands of youthful males” from the lower classes came
to the homes of the wealthy demanding beer and other refreshments
in exchange for goodwill. “The wassail usually possessed an
aggressive edge—often an explicit threat—concerning the unpleasant
consequences to follow if the beggars’ demands were not met,”
Nissenbaum writes. He illustrates that edge with a quote from
a wassailers’ carol: “We’ve come here to claim our right…/And
if you don’t open your door/We will lay you flat upon the
 Trick or treat.

That was the other reason the holiday was too pagan for the
Puritans: It was filled with the sort of revelry they despised. In
1713, three decades after Christmas was legalized, the Rev. Cotton
Mather—Increase’s son—denounced the “Abominable Things” that the
“vainer Young People” did during their “Christmas-revels.”
Nissenbaum reports that this mostly meant sex, and he supplies some
demographic data that suggest that Mather might not have been
imagining things. There was a spurt in premarital pregnancies in
this period of New England history, and Nissenbaum sees a seasonal
pattern to them: “a ‘bulge’ in the number of births in the months
of September and October—meaning that sexual activity peaked during
the Christmas season.”

But there was an significant difference between Cotton Mather’s
attitude towards Xmas and his father’s. In a 1712 sermon, the
younger Mather denounced the rambunctious Christmas festivities but
was more tolerant of Christmas itself. “For Increase Mather,” the
historian writes, “the licentious fashion in which Christmas was
commonly practiced was just an intrinsic expression of its
non-Christian origins as a seasonal celebration; the holiday was
‘riotous’ at its very core.” A generation later, by contrast, “the
essence of the holiday could be distinguished, at least in
principle, from its historical origins and the ordinary manner of
its celebration….Cotton Mather’s concession, small as it was,
left little room to contest the legitimacy of any movement that
managed to purify Christmas of its seasonal excesses.”

It was the beginning of the holiday’s march toward
respectability, a story that takes up the remainder of Nissenbaum’s
book. By the end of the story, Americans intent on preserving the
Christian content of the holiday were still fending off a
subversive force; it’s just that now the enemy wasn’t Saturn but
Santa. Christmas’ secular side evolved from a rowdy public
celebration to a child-centered day at home trading presents with
your family. This shift was more or less completed in the 19th
century, as the collection of tales and traditions that make up our
modern notion of “Santa Claus” was assembled (though these have
their own pagan
). The public rowdiness didn’t disappear so much as it
settled on December 31 rather than December 25. On the seventh day
of Christmas, my true love gave to me: a wild drunken New Year’s

As for the religious side of the season, I’ll just note that
when conservative pundits complain that a new War
on Christmas
is transpiring, they tend to focus on the fact
that retailers sometimes wish their customers “Happy Holidays”
instead of “Merry Christmas” when selling the gifts to be presented
in Santa’s name. When you’re reduced to fighting for lip service,
the larger battle was lost long ago.