Tuesday, January 5, 2010

How the Puritans Stole Christmas

It's Twelfth Night, which means it's time for Jay Anderson to post his delightful poem, "How the Puritans Stole Christmas".  Here's a taste:

Every High-Church Anglican and Catholic
Living in Jolly Olde England
Liked Christmas a lot...

But the Puritans,
Who were infected with Calvinism,
Did NOT!

The Puritans hated Christmas!
The whole Christmas season!
Now, please don't ask why. No one quite knows the reason.
It could be that their round heads weren't screwed on just right.
It could be, perhaps, their predestinarian arses were too tight.
But I think that the most likely reason of all
Was a distaste for mince pies - shaped like a manger-bed in a stall.

Be sure to read the whole thing here.  

Jay's poem details the distressing series of historical events whereby the Puritans successfully banned the celebration of Christmas in 17th century England and America.  The Puritans despised Christmas because of its perceived status as a Catholic vestige--and because of their own gnostic loathing of merriment.  Even long after statutory prohibitions were overturned, the Puritan hatred of Christmas persisted in America's New England states.  As recently as 1870, Boston public schools held classes on Christmas Day, and punishments were exacted on children who absented themselves to observe the holy day.


  1. The Puritans consisted of a wide range of individuals. At times they took Reformation principles too far. The Reformed tradition has a quite a diversity concerning the celebration of Advent and Christmas.

    I would only like to say that "Calvinism" is not really the reason for Puritan opposition to Christmas celebration/observation. John Calvin himself was moderate in his view of the same. Calvin addressed an overreaction to the Papists (the attempt by some Reformers to toally eliminate any Christmas observation) many times, one such instance is a written response to his friend Haller, a Reformed minister at Berne. His letter makes it very clear that he did not support that city council's decision to ban Christmas celebrations.

    "Since my recall [from Strasbourg] I have pursued the moderate course of keeping Christ's birthday as you are used to doing. [The Reformed churches of Berne, Strasbourg, and Zurich celebrated the five evangelical feasts.] There were even extraordinary days of prayer on other days; the shops were shut in the morning, and every one returned to his individual calling after dinner. There were, however, in the meanwhile, certain inflexible individuals who did not comply with the common custom from some perverse malice or other. . . . Let me say this, that if I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon. There is no reason why men should be so much provoked, if we use our liberty as the edification of the church demands."

    This, of course, is respectfully submitted in order to offer some perspective on the clever (but slanted) poem you reference.

    Of course, we Reformed folk NEVER slant anything ourselves.... :)

  2. Thanks for your comment, Tony. I don't think the poet was claiming that Calvin personally opposed the observation of Christmas. Rather, he was rightly identifying the Puritans as Calvinists and surmising that the Puritans' antipathy for Christmas was born of a larger attempt to model their societies after Calvin's Geneva, which is well-known to have been an awfully domineering, austere, and cheerless place.

    Not to say that Calvin and the Puritans didn't have some good points -- having fun just wasn't among them. That's why I conclude that even if Calvin observed Christmas, it's hard to imagine that he CELEBRATED it . . . or anything else, for that matter.

  3. "Calvin's Geneva, which is well-known to have been an awfully domineering, austere, and cheerless place."

    A bit of an overstatement, I'd say.

    I will say this- Rome certainly did know how to have "fun" more than the Puritans...Leo had lots of "fun"...not to mention many of the "fun-loving" Popes of Rome. But alas, I won't go there.

  4. I actually thought I was going easy on Calvin! My (non-Catholic) sources describe the situation in Calvin's Geneva as follows:

    "Men and women were examined as to their religious knowledge, their criticisms of ministers, their absences from sermons . . . their family quarrels, as well as to more serious offences . . . against a goldsmith for making a chalice . . . against a barber for tonsuring a priest; for declaring the pope to be a good man; making a noise during the sermon; laughing during preaching; criticising Geneva for putting a man to death on account of differences in religion . . or singing a song defamatory to Calvin. Of course these instances are illustrative of only the more curious part of the work. It had to do, much of the time, with offences which any age would deem serious; but they exhibit its minute and inquisitorial interference with the lives of the people of Geneva." (Walker & Wendel, as quoted by Armstrong)

    And yes, it's true, some of the Popes had much too much illicit "fun", but at least they didn't outlaw tonsuring priests . . . whatever that is! :)