Puritans to Christmas: Bah Humbug!

We know the Puritans celebrated Thanksgiving, but when it came to Christmas, they weren't feeling very merry.

For most of us, Christmas represents family, feasts, togetherness, the exchanging of gifts — gestures that bring people closer together. All over the Island, you can see decorations in storefronts, on sidewalks and in people's yards. It's not an exaggeration to say that Martha's Vineyard gets into the spirit of Christmas in a big way.

However, this very public spirit of merriment wasn't always so. As anyone who's ever had to sit through a class in American history will attest, the Puritans (who came here to escape the religious persecution in England) weren't the most open and welcoming people, and the extent of their religious extremism was impressive.

The Puritans may have celebrated Thanksgiving, but when it came to Christmas, they apparently felt they had better things to do then fritter the day away celebrating.

So what did they do on their first Christmas in their new settlement? (Hint: the same thing they did every other day.)

The reasons for this are twofold: because the Bible does not specifically mention that Christmas should be lavishly celebrated, and also because the Puritans knew of the holiday's origins as the Roman festival of Saturnalia — and there was no way they would have anything to do with a festival that had its roots in hedonistic Roman culture.

Startlingly, however, there were several occasions in the early days of the Plymouth Colony in which non-Puritian colonists — perhaps a bit too caught up in the holiday excitement — did attempt to make merry. Predictably, they were subsequently censured by the colony's governor, William Bradford.

Imagine being in an environment where you were condemned for having fun. This state of affairs persisted all the way to the 1870's, when December 25 was formally made a holiday, and it at last took the form that we know now so well today.

So if it seems like you're low on things to be thankful for this holiday season, you can always take comfort in the fact that we are free to celebrate together, eat together and spend time together in whatever way we fancy. Take that, Puritans!


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