December 22, 2021

In 1692, Invisible Witches Danced in Boston on Christmas Day

Christmas fast approaches, bringing with it Santa Claus, presents, eggnog and... dancing witches? 

As I mentioned in a recent post, the Puritans who colonized New England really hated Christmas. They believed it had no basis in the Bible, and disapproved of how it was celebrated with drunken carousing and public disorder. In 1659, the Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony even enacted a law called "Penalty for Keeping Christmas," which fined anyone who celebrated the holiday. 

The law was repealed in 1681 under pressure from the British king, but the Puritans still did not embrace Christmas. They thought it was a holiday for heretics (like Catholics and Anglicans) and for witches, who apparently, liked to celebrate Christmas with dancing. 

We know this fact about witches from A Brand Pluck'd Out of the Burning (1693), the Reverend Cotton Mather's account of the torments of Mercy Short. Short was an orphaned Boston serving girl who became tormented by invisible witches after mocking Sarah Good, an accused Salem witch being held in Boston's jail. After seeing Sarah Good and making fun of her, Short was stabbed by invisible pins, burned by unseen flames, and at times made deaf and blind. She also shouted profanities and claimed to see the Devil and witches hovering around her. Her torments lasted for many months. 

Merry Christmas?

Reverend Mather treated Short's afflictions with prayer and Bible readings, with mixed results. Groups of people would often join Mather in Short's room to witness her torments and to pray over her. No one except Short ever saw the spectral witches that allegedly assaulted her, but on Christmas Day, 1692, the following occurred:

On the twenty-fifth of December it was, that Mercy said, They (the invisible witches) were going to have a Dance; and immediately those that were attending her, most plainly Heard and Felt a Dance, as of Barefooted People, upon the Floor; whereof they are willing to make oath before any Lawful Authority. 

If I should now venture to suppose, That the Witches do sometimes come in person to do their Mischiefs, and yet have the horrible skill of clothing themselves with Invisbilities, it would seem Romantic. And yet I am inclinable to think it...

It probably seems strange to a modern reader that anyone believed evil invisible witches danced around an afflicted teenaged girl on Christmas Day, but this incident just demonstrates how much the Puritans hated Christmas. In their minds, it was literally a Satanic holiday. 

Some details about Mercy Short's life can provide more context. Prior to living in Boston, Short had lived in New Hampshire with her parents and siblings. In 1690 their family was attacked by indigenous Wabanki warriors. Short's parents and several siblings died in the raid, and Short was sold into captivity in Quebec. She was eventually freed and made her way to Boston, where she found work as a servant. 

Significantly, Mercy Short claimed the Devil looked much like a Wabanaki man. Modern psychologists who have studied her case suspect she suffered from Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD), which was caused by seeing her family killed. Concepts like PTSD didn't exist in 17th century Massachusetts, so she processed her anguish using the concepts she did have: Puritan theology, witchcraft, and the Devil. 

I don't want to end this on a grim note, since it's almost Christmas. So here are the positive aspects of Mercy Short's alleged witchcraft affliction. First, although she claimed some neighbors were among the invisible witches, no one was formally accused of witchcraft and no one was executed. Cotton Mather thought demons could easily impersonate a living person and therefore felt neither he nor Short could be sure if any neighbors really were afflicting her. 

Second, Short said a radiant bright spirit told her that her torments would end on March 16, 1693. And you know what? They did. Her afflictions ended as suddenly as they began. She was free from pain.

Finally, it is socially acceptable to celebrate Christmas here in New England. So take off your shoes and dance like a barefoot witch on December 25 if you want!

December 13, 2021

Folklore Books (and Weird Fiction) for Christmas

Drinking eggnog. Wrapping gifts. Hallmark Christmas movies. These are all perfectly fine ways to get in the holiday mood, but sometimes I find myself wanting something different. Maybe something that will connect me to New England's historic roots, or evokes the increasing December darkness. Or maybe a folktale about murderous Christmas elves, or a tale about a snowy Massachusetts seaport with unholy secrets...

I've published this list before, but here it is again: those books that really put me in the Yuletide mood. I reread some of these every year. What are your favorite holiday folklore books or strange Christmas tales?

The Dark Is Rising
Susan Cooper

This novel is aimed at young readers and I loved it when it came out way back in the 1970s. Many other people have loved it since. The Dark Is Rising tells the story of an eleven-year old boy who becomes involved in a battle between the ancient forces of light and darkness during the Christmas season. I’ve re-read the book as an adult, and the first chapters still wonderfully evoke the excitement of the holiday season and the uncanny dread of the oncoming darkness. The Dark Is Rising is set in England and full of British folklore, but author Susan Cooper has lived in Massachusetts for many years and was partially inspired to write the book by the marshy landscapes of the South Shore.

The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of 
Our Most Cherished Holiday
Stephen Nissenbaum

Ever wonder why Americans celebrate Christmas the way we do? Nissenbaum’s book traces the development of our modern child-focused and gift-focused holiday from the raucous holidays of the past. Several chapters in The Battle for Christmas focus specifically on early New England, looking at why the Puritans hated Christmas, which people celebrated Christmas despite it being banned, and how capitalism shaped the holiday. Christmas used to be a multi-week drunken orgy when the lower classes extorted food and liquor from the  wealthy. Nissenbaum explains how it became a holiday where we sit peacefully around Christmas trees and exchange presents. 

A Visit from St. Nicholas
Clement Clarke Moore

Do you exchange presents at Christmas time? Do you incorporate Santa Claus into you celebrations? Do you spend the holiday with your family? If you answered yes to any of these questions, you can thank Clement Clarke Moore. Moore was a prominent New York City clergyman who was annoyed at the drunken Christmas celebrations that kept disrupting his family’s peaceful home. Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas’ in 1823 to encourage a gentler, sober and more familial holiday. And it worked! Moore’s poem permanently shaped the way Americans and much of the world celebrate Christmas.

The Festival
H.P. Lovecraft


A man returns to his family’s ancestral Massachusetts home for their traditional Yuletide festivities. Since this is an H.P. Lovecraft story, tradition doesn’t mean candy canes and stockings hung by the fire. Moldering grave yards, strange subterranean realms, and sinister cultists all play a role in the festivities, as does that famous book of forbidden knowledge The Necronomicon. If you think your family's holiday celebrations are weird, read “The Festival." It will help put things in perspective. Although the story is set in Kingsport, a seaside town “maggoty” with subterraneous evil, Lovecraft based the setting on Marblehead, a town whose Colonial-era architecture he loved.  

Christmas in New England
Amy Whorf McGuiggan

Although McGuiggan’s book touches on Christmas’s troubled history in Puritan New England, it’s real focus is on how people have celebrated the holiday here for the last two centuries. Christmas in New England touches on all the region’s Yuletide greats: the many carols composed here, how lighthouse keepers marked the holiday, and the guy from Maine who invented earmuffs. A book to read when you want to feel good about the world.

Sir Gawain and the Green Knight
Late 14th Century

There’s zero connection to New England in this 14th century poem, but it’s still fantastic reading for the holiday season. Sir Gawain beheads a gigantic Green Knight who has interrupted King Arthur's New Year’s party. The Green Knight picks up his severed head and exits the hall, telling Sir Gawain to come visit him in one year so he can in turn chop off Gawain’s head. Yikes. Being an honorable knight, Gawain departs Camelot the following year to find the unkillable Green Knight’s distant abode, but gets delayed at the castle of Sir Bertilak and his lovely young wife, where a multi-day Christmas celebration is happening. The Bertilaks play strange and erotic mind-games with Gawain, and a twist ending changes our perception of the entire poem. A good movie based on this poem was released this summer (The Green Knight, starring Dev Patel), but to me the original poem can't be surpassed.

Hildur, Queen of the Elves and Other Stories: Icelandic Folk Tales
J.M. Bedell

Again, no connection to New England, but lots of dark folk stories from Iceland. Many of them are set at Christmas time. The elves in these tales are not cute and whimsical, but instead are strange, dangerous, and often murderous. As are the trolls, witches, and lustful ghosts with shattered skulls who appear. Merry Christmas? This book is holiday reading for those of you who wish every holiday was like Halloween. 

December 05, 2021

Meeting the Devil on Christmas Day

Ho ho ho! It's December, and Christmas madness is once again upon us. We just decorated our tree, I've had my first glass of eggnog, and I made fruitcake yesterday. Bring on the holidays. 

Christmas is so widely celebrated in modern New England that you might not believe it was once viewed as a dangerous and possibly even Satanic holiday. But it's true! The following post (which I first published in 2017) explains more...


In 1662, Rebecca Greensmith of Hartford, Connecticut was arrested and charged with witchcraft. She confessed to meeting the Devil, but she denied having signed a contract with him. Well, at least she hadn't signed one at the time of her arrest. Rebecca and the Devil were waiting for a special day to sign it: Christmas.

The Reverend John Whiting of Hartford wrote the following in a letter:
But that the devil told her, that at Christmas they would have a merry meeting, and then the covenant should be drawn and subscribed. ... Mr. Stone (being then in court) with much weight and earnestness laid forth the exceeding heinousness and hazard of that dreadful sin, and therewith solemnly took notice (upon the occasion given) of the devil's loving Christmas. (quoted in David Hall's Witch-Hunting in Seventeenth-Century New England.)
That sounds a little strange to modern readers. Why would the Devil love Christmas? Isn't it a holiday about hope, love and charity?

Merry Christmas?

Four-hundred years ago, Christmas was a very different holiday than it is today. It wasn't focused on family, gift-giving, and children. Instead, it was characterized by heavy drinking and public rituals that inverted the social order. Europe and its colonies were agricultural societies then, and food and alcohol were most plentiful during the late autumn and early winter. Crops had been harvested, herd animals slaughtered, and beer brewed. There was no more farm-work to be done.

In short, it was a great time to have a huge party. Wealthy people would feast themselves and their friends at home. People from the lower social classes, usually groups of young men, roamed around at night in disguise. The young men (called mummers) would usually target the homes of the wealthy, where they would perform a skit or song in return for food or beer. This is the origin of the wandering Christmas carolers so often portrayed in Christmas stories or movies. If they were denied entry or not given gifts for their performance, the mummers would retaliate with violence or by vandalizing property.


Some hints of this older-style Christmas can still be heard in the lyrics of Christmas carols. For example, "The  Gloucestershire Wassail" describes men threatening a butler to give them good strong beer and demanding entry to a wealthy person's home:
Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all. 
Be here any maids? I suppose here be some;
Sure they will not let young men stand on the cold stone!
Sing hey O, maids! come trole back the pin,
And the fairest maid in the house let us all in.
The lyrics of "We Wish You A Merry Christmas" describe something similar:
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding;
Oh, bring us a figgy pudding and a cup of good cheer
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some;
We won't go until we get some, so bring some out here
Christmas was raucous, drunken, socially disruptive, and occasionally violent. The Puritans valued order, sobriety, and hard work. They didn't want anything to do with Christmas.

During their brief tenure ruling old England the Puritans tried to suppress Christmas celebrations. The Puritans who colonized New England did the same. It was even illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. Anyone found doing so could be fined five shillings.

Puritan ministers in New England wrote sermons against Christmas. The Reverend Increase Mather wrote the following, equating Christmas with pagan deities and Satan:
The Feast of Christ's nativity is attended with such profaneness, as that it deserve the name of Saturn's Mass, or of Bacchus his Mass, or if you will, the Devil's Mass, rather than have the holy name of Christ put upon it. (A Testimony Against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New-England, 1687).
Mather mentions Saturn for a very specific reason. The Bible doesn't provide a date for Christ's birth, and the early Christian church fathers decided to place it on December 25 to coincide with pagan Roman winter holidays like Saturnalia, which venerated the harvest god Saturn. This compromise between Christianity and paganism was another argument the Puritans used for hating Christmas. 

So there you have it. That's why the Puritans thought the Devil loved Christmas. Their efforts to suppress Christmas were modestly successful. Christmas wasn't widely celebrated in New England until the mid-nineteenth century. Christmas is now the biggest holiday in the United States. The Puritans would have blamed Satan, but I think it's just because people like to have fun.


My favorite source for information about Puritans and Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaums's fantastic book The Battle for Christmas. It's great for anyone who wants to really understand the weird history of Christmas in America.

If you want to read more about witches, check out my new book Witches and Warlocks of Massachusetts, which is available wherever you buy books online.