Thursday, December 13, 2007

Were The Puritans Right? Or, How to Save Christmas from the Marketplace

"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

I've been known to say "The Puritans were right," after being overwhelmed by the commercial demands of Christmas. Of course, the Massachusetts court wasn't complaining about commercialization. Any gift-giving would occur at New Year's. I learned the reasons for the Massachusetts ban here. What the Puritans didn't like was excessive drinking, merrymaking, and wassailing. The wassail--a sort of adult trick-or-treating, in which people would go from house to house and demand food and drink--could become violent if the wassailers did not get what they wanted. A familiar wassail song echoes this:

Come master, give us a bowl of the best,
And we hope that your soul in heaven may rest.
But if you do give us a bowl of the small,
Then down will come wass'lers, bowl and all.

The ban, which lasted only 22 years, really had nothing to do with Christmas as it is celebrated today. While I may still say "Bah, humbug" occasionally, my wife did things to make Christmas more meaningful--if just within our family.

She reminded us that the month leading up to Christmas is not the true Christmas season, but Advent--a time of hope and expectation. We light Advent candles at dinner, and sing a vese of "O Come Emanuel."

When the children were young, they would put their shoes outside the door on the eve of St. Nicholas Day, December 6, and we'd fill them with candy. St. Nicholas, Bishop of Myra, was known for gift-giving. A legend about him says that he anonymously gave three bags of gold to three girls in a poor family, so that they would have dowries for marraige and not be forced into prostitiution.

On December 13, St. Lucia's Day, we adopted the Swedish traditon of baking the braided St. Lucia bread. And for a while, our daughter Sarah presented it wearing a wreath of lighted candles. Anne made the bread last night--it's different from the one on the link, but it's very good.

And on Epiphany, January 6, Kathleen would make the Spanish Three Kings Bread. You had to be careful with it, as there was a bean (for good luck), a penny (for wealth), and a ring (for love and friendship) baked into it.

This was, I'll have to admit, a lot of work (mainly for Kathleen), but it did help put Christmas into context as a religious holiday in contrast to the commercial extravagnza that it has become.


virtual nexus said...

Fascinating, Steve; what a lovely way to celebrate; and all the best as your family gear up for the wedding.

We will have sons around for a few days over Christmas. The rest of time we go into survival mode with heavy traffic and crowded shops.

I'd always assumed we put much more emphasis on Christmas than you do in the States, but I'm not sure that's the case on the basis of what I've seen on the Internet.

Tea N. Crumpet said...

We do St. Nikolai's Day as well and put candy in shoes and celebrate Advent! I feel so discombobulated this year with school and everything and forgot Advent. Argh! I think I have kept a somber mood going and now that I did my last final (hopefully with a chance to retake it) I will lighten up.

That is fascinating about the Wassailers-- this will be fun to bring up later at the dinner table!

steve on the slow train said...

Julie--I'm afraid we overdo Christmas almost as much as the British. Of course, we got a lot of our Christmas celebration from you, by way of Germany and Prince Albert. But then it was Clement Clark Moore of New York who confused St. Nicholas with Father Christmas.

Tea n.--It's been a long time since I had to worry about finals. I did a post a year or so ago on how the student riots of 1970 got me through Bonehead Math at the University of Iowa. I hope you'll be able to get out of that final-exam mood.

SzélsőFa said...

It's interesting to see how the seemingly Christian world celebrates Jesus's birthday with shopping, eating and having fun, instead of something more appropriate, isn't it?

We keep 6 December, when Mikulás comes (this is Saint Nicholaus).
We call the season before Christmas 'Advent'.

We do give presents yes, but in our family, it is not only about presents and surprises.

I might write another entry on Christmas customs, but I've already done it in 2006.
I don't know what else can I add to that...?

Jessica said...

Amen and amen! Thanks for pointing that out. I never knew that about the Massachusetts Bay Colony, but yeah, I'm inclined to think there's something to that. I get so fed up with the commercialism and the refusal to acknowledge Christmas for what it is. I rather think that there would be riots of unprecedented proporations if the annual shopping frenzy were taken away from our culture. Some other holiday would probably be created in its place to allow for such extravagance as we're accustomed to. It makes me sad.

Charles Gramlich said...

It's interesting to think about various kinds of Christmas tradition. Just today I was lamenting the horrors of Holiday traffic and vowing to stay home throughout the holidays. That's my new tradition and I'm sticking to it.

Sustenance Scout said...

I think Charles hit it on the head, which is why I do so much shopping on-line now. MUCH more relaxing than all those manic stores. Presents remain a fun part of our traditions, but Advent and the anticipation of the day add so much. I love Kathleen's ideas and am so glad you give her so much credit for all that work, Steve! Though I'm sure she enjoyed it, too. Love the image of your daughter with her special crown. What wonderful holiday memories you and Kathleen have given your children. K.

Unknown said...

Well, this posts reminds me to the Roman Republic- Roman Empire comparism.

steve on the slow train said...

Szelsofa--Thank you for commenting and for mentioning that you did a post on Christmas customs in Hungary. When I have time I'll check your archive.

Jessica--Welcome. I suspect that a lot of Americans don't realize that the Twelve Days of Christmas run from Christmas to Epiphany. And that's the time that the commercialization dies down. I'm afraid we can't escape the marketing of Christmas. But we can do things in our own homes to celebrate the coming of Christ to the world.

Charles--That's one holiday tradition I'd like to begin keeping. I'll be working Christmas Day (the trains have to run and I don't have the seniority to get the day off), and then driving back to Indiana on St. Stephen's Day (Boxing Day in the UK).

Karen--I'm sure your children will have fond memories of your Christmas traditions. By the way, i enjoued seeing the picture of your daughter on your blog recently. She's very cute.

Ropi--An intersting comparison. It reminds me that I want to do a post sometime about how America's Founding Fathers saw themselves as creating a new Roman Republic. Alexander Hamilton called Aaron Burr "Catiline" and Burr challenged him to what would become the most famous duel in U.S. history.

Lisa said...

You and Kathleen have found meaningful traditions for your family to enjoy. I sincerely admire that.

Sustenance Scout said...

Thanks, Steve! I think she's cute, too. :) She loved that Global Girlfriend open house! K.

virtual nexus said...

Steve, I've just added a few railway links to my sidebar under Virtual Tour - a few steam ones which we've visited over the years. Thought you might like a look if you're passing.
I know a chap who used to be heavily involved with the London Underground Society.

Gledwood said...

The puritans weren't "right" though they seem to be (and have been) exceedingly selfrighteous (check the American "religous right" - their views aren't based on Biblical stuff at all, though they kid themselves it is)... People like that are just professional miseryguts. They seem to think they're holy yet break the commandments of God as written in the Bible! I think their goal is just to bring down to their level as many of their fellow humankind as possible!!

Have a merry pagan tide if you are doing it!

And a happy new year!

And don't mind me I'm just a hopless heroin junkie


Patry Francis said...

If for no other reason, economic realities are causing most of us to cut back on the commercial excesses of holidays past.

My best holiday memories don't have anything to do with the gifts. It's the music, the talk that flows from room to room, the flickering lights illuminating so many happy and belove faces.

Peace and love to you and Kathleen and your family.

steve on the slow train said...

Julie--Thanks for the link. I looked at the North York Moors site and will check out the other rail sites later. Noticed that the train went to Whitby. Is there any remnant of the famous synod there, where the English decided to adopt the Roman, rather than the Celtic version of Christianity?

All the best to you and your family this Christmas.

Lisa-Thank you. Looking forward to our marathon writing challenge. Christmas and New Year's greetings to you and Scott.

Karen--Global Girlfriend looks like something my girls would have loved as well. Best wishes for the holidays to you and your family!

Gledwood--Unforunately a lot of Christians forget the Two Commandments--love your God with all your heard and all your soul and all your mind, and love your neighbor as yourself. Jesus put these above the Ten.

I'm too committed to Christianity to do pagantide, but I won't try to ban its celebration. I'm a firm believer in the First Amendment.
Happy New Year to you!

Patry, you put it beautifully. And all the best to you, Ted, and your family for Christmas and the New Year.

virtual nexus said...

Steve -

Offhand I don't know; there's a fair bit in Wikip on it; the person to ask might be the history writer Carla Nayland - see my links - she's a Brit.