We here in Massachusetts are often given a bleak history when learning about the origins of the Christmas holiday as we know it. Early settlers were overwhelmingly Puritans and, we are told, banned it outright. It wasn’t until the days of Charles Dickens and Prince Albert’s Christmas tree that the old English traditions began to come over to America. As with most of these stories, the truth is somewhat muddier and varied from place to place.
While it is true that the early Massachusetts Bay colony frowned on the excesses of English Christmas, it was only banned for just over 20 years in the mid-17th century. Even so, there were plenty of dissenters who stayed under the radar and likely celebrated anyway. Those people who belongs to other sects, or who were Jewish, tended to eventually settle in Rhode Island where co-mingling of religions was better tolerated. Back up in Massachusetts, in the 18th century, most everyone viewed Christmas as a minor religious holiday, if they celebrated it at all. There were a number of squabbles over the years between ministers, weighing the merits of celebrating a religious event with a man-made date, so your congregation could very well influence your holiday spirit. Among the most damning evidence against celebrating Christmas on December 25th, according to Reverend John Barnard of Marblehead: not only did God not bother to put a date in the Bible for us to celebrate, but as we all know, Jesus couldn’t have been born in December, as it would have been too cold outside for the shepherds to be watching their flocks by night.
Regardless of which church you went to, however, there would have been hints of Christmas in the air, as newspapers often printed stories from other colonies where the holiday was celebrated more often, and adapted the festive spirit to pursue their own interests (some things never change). In the New York newspapers, you might see advertisements for “Christmas Pieces”, essentially early blank Christmas cards, printed with festive borders, which boys would fill in for their parents. In New England, you were more likely to see the occasional bit of religious poetry, but Isaiah Thomas, printer of the Massachusetts Spy newspaper, thought he could do better.
Thomas’s end-of-year message for 1771, written from the point of view of your humble local paperboy, hits all the right notes, starting with a Christmas wish, veering into political territory, and ending with a good, old-fashioned call for money:
The Carrier of
The Massachusetts Spy
Wishes all his kind Customers
A Merry Christmas
A Happy New Year
And presents the following, viz.
Hail happy day, important year!
Be more propitious than the last;
In thee let mighty truth appear,
And every tool and tyrant blast.
From this unbought, unfetter’d PRESS,
Which laws and constitutions show;
That it the happy land may bless,
With lessons which they ought to know.
Nor shall the frowns of low’ring skies,
Nor party rage of selfish men,
Forbid the boy who brings your SPYS,
To serve and pleasure you again.
But Sirs, since your indulgent hands
Are yearly wont my heart to chear,
Some pence will rivet your commands
And fix my wishes for the year.
Boston, January 1, 1772
-Sarah McDonough, Program Manager
Featuring the voices of Lexington Historical Society permanent staff and occasional guest authors.