December 11, 2016

A Sexy Puritan Christmas: Lewd Behavior at Yule in Old New England

The war over Christmas has been going on for centuries. Is the holiday too commercial? Is it too religious? People have been arguing those points for hundreds of years, but you don't hear a lot of people complaining these days that Christmas is too sexual.

Surprisingly, that was a complaint lodged against Christmas in the past. Before Christmas became focused on children, gift-giving, and cozy crafts, it was a raucous public holiday where the lower classes drank heavily and roamed through the streets. They traveled from house to house demanding food and drink from their wealthier neighbors, who themselves were drinking heavily and also feasting on the best foods from the recent late autumn harvests.

All that partying sometimes led to lascivious behavior, as illustrated by the following information from Stephen Nissenbaums' book The Battle for Christmas.

When the Puritans founded New England they banned the holiday outright. Puritan theologians did not believe there was any Biblical justification for celebrating Jesus's birth in December, and they also knew that Christmas was placed on December 25th by early Christians to co-opt the pagan Roman holiday of Saturnalia. They didn't view Christmas as a Christian holiday, but rather as a pagan survival that encouraged disorderly behavior.

Unfortunately for the Puritans, some people in New England continued to celebrate Christmas. These celebrants were originally people on the fringes of Puritan society: servants, the poor, and sailors and fishermen. To help quash the lingering Christmas festivities the leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony even passed a law in 1659 levying a five shilling fine against anyone found celebrating the holiday.

This law wasn't successful. People have always loved an excuse for a party, even in 17th century New England, and authors and diarists of the time often disapprovingly noted that their trashy neighbors were enjoying the holiday in the old-fashioned, drunken way. Much to the dismay of the Puritans, Christmas even briefly became legal during the short three-year governorship of the royally-appointed Sir Edmund Andros.

Yule-tide partying continued even after Andros was sent back to England in 1689. In fact, the problem seemed to be worsening. Cotton Mather, Boston's leading minister, wrote the following in his journal in December of 1711:

I hear of a number of young people of both sexes, belonging, many of them, to my flock, who have had on the Christmas-night, this last week, a Frolick, a reveling feast, and Ball...

Uh-oh. Not only were the marginal people celebrating Christmas, but now the children of good upstanding Puritans were too. Note how he is specifically concerned about "young people of both sexes."

Reverend Mather took action and preached against Christmas parties in 1712 and 1713. He preached the following:

The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in Licentious Liberty... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by Rude Reveling...

Mather also told his congregation that "Abominable Things" were done in the name of Christmas. What were these unnameable abominations? Pre-marital sex.

Mather wasn't just being alarmist. Historians have analyzed New England birth records from the early 18th century, and they've found that the largest number of children were born in September and October, roughly nine months after Christmas. Even more interesting, many of these children were born only seven months after their parents were married. In other words, they were conceived illegitimately during Christmas, and their parents only married once they realized a child was coming.

The lewd behavior associated with Christmas was finally tamed not by preaching, but by commercialism. In the 19th century the holiday became associated with gift-giving and Santa Claus, and those associations remain with us today. The battle against lascivious Christmas behavior was won, but not with Cotton Mather's weapons of choice.


I highly recommend Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas if you like strange Christmas lore and history. It's a fascinating book!


Mark B. said...

" their parents only married once they realized a child was coming."

Old news. It has long been known that there were many pre-marriage conceptions. What there weren't were single mothers - the man typically married the woman he got pregnant, and stayed married to her. Unlike today.

Adam Ness said...

I think the news is in positively correlating shotgun weddings to Christmastime celebrations, not in the fact that they occurred.