Posted by: Harold Knight | 12/25/2009

Let’s Celebrate Christmas in the Old-fashioned Way, or, Scrooge Had Nothing on Increase Mather



I believe we should celebrate Christmas in the way the Christians—and God—who came to the New World and founded the British colonies for the purpose of religious freedom intended. 

In my PhD dissertation, I document a celebration of Christmas in the early 19th Century. It was about 1825, as I recall—I have a copy of my dissertation somewhere; I really must find it some day—the title is The Life and Musical Influence of Henry Kemble Oliver, 1800-1885. It is from the University of Iowa School of Music, 1988. What follows is based on my memory of what’s in my dissertation. Some of the specific facts may be a little off, but the basic premise is absolutely true. My dissertation is the only place you will find most of this information.  

Back to the celebration of Christmas in Salem, Massachusetts. On December 25, let’s say 1825—it was a Sunday—the men of the Mozart Association of Salem (founded and directed by Henry Kemble Oliver) traveled all the way over to Marblehead (a distance of about ten miles from town center to town center) to present a concert at St. Michael’s Episcopal Church (in the same building in which the St. Michael’s congregation still worships). It was snowing that day (to no one’s surprise), and the Salem gentlemen had some difficulty getting over to Marblehead; they did, however, and they sang their concert.  

December 25. Henry Kemble Oliver’s diary for the day (which I have transcribed as part of my dissertation) does not mention that it was Christmas Day. As a matter of fact, I believe it is true that he mentions Christmas not once in his diaries spanning most of his lifetime—and he was a church organist and choir director for about fifty years.  

The printed program for the St. Michael’s concert includes not one Christmas work. The men of the Salem Mozart Association (all of whose records are intact at the Essex Institute Library in Salem) were members of the important churches in Salem. Oliver directed the music at the First Church in Salem, which in the 20th century merged with the North Church in Salem—originally one of the five churches that split off from the First Church. The only one of the five that is extant today is the Tabernacle Church, the only one of the six that remained Congregational (Puritan) when all of the others became Unitarian.  

That’s more information than anyone wanted, I’m sure. The point is, Oliver was a church musician who directed a concert of choral music on a Christmas day ten miles from his church in an Episcopal Church and did not, in his journal or in the program from the concert, mention that it was Christmas, and none of the concert was Christmas music.  

Christmas in Salem


How could they ignore Christmas completely? That’s very simple. The Puritans, those poor benighted, put upon and abused Christians who came to the shores of the New World for “religious freedom” had absolutely no interest in religious freedom. They were looking for oligarchy, plain and simple. Those Episcopalians and other such popish folk need not apply. St. Michael’s—out there on Marblehead Neck where it could do no harm—was not founded until 1714, and founded by rough and tumble worldly sea captains who were hardly respectable New Englanders.  

So the poor oppressed Puritans immediately began making laws to ban any and every practice of which their puritanical minds did not approve. By their second Christmas in Massachusetts (1621), things came to a head:  

[Governor William] Bradford recorded that on the morning of the 25th, he had called everyone out to work, but some men from the newly arrived ship “Fortune” told him it was against their conscience to work on Christmas. He responded he would spare them “until they were better informed.” But when he returned at noon, he found them playing games in the street. His response, as noted in his writings was: “If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but there should be no gameing or revelling in the streets.” (1) 

Within forty years the supremacy of the religious-freedom-loving Puritans had been so thoroughly challenged, that they decided they must make their understanding of religious observances the law of the land in order to prevent religious freedom from running rampant (literally) in the streets:  

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county. From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659. (1)  

So much for Christmas and religious freedom. The royal governor revoked the ban in 1681. However, in his treatise of 1687 titled “Testimony Against Prophane Customs,” Increase Mather (father of Cotton Mather) said,   

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 an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth …(2)   

Celebrating Christmas was not against the law after 1681, but celebration was so frowned upon by the Puritan establishment that few people dared to observe the day openly—for decades to come. And even an upstanding community, educated at Harvard and Dartmouth (horrors! Unitarian by then)  leader like Henry Kemble Oliver was not about to go against religious convention, even though he was in charge of the music at the second-oldest church in America, which by this time had left the Puritan fold.   

So I suggest that, since this nation was established to maintain religious freedom, we should go back to the practices of the founders who came to the New World to practice their religion freely: in the spirit of the founders, we must forbid anyone whose religion dictates celebrating such “holidays” as Christmas from exercising their freedom of conscience.

First Church without Christmas


(1) Danko, C. “When Christmas Was Banned in Boston.” Massachusetts Travel Journal: Boston to the Berkshires, July 4, 2009.

(2) Shea, Lisa. “The History of Christmas in Massachusetts.” Boston Massachusetts Information., (2002). 


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