December 17, 2022

Christmas Chaos: Puritans, Saturnalia, and Lords of Misrule

On December 25, 1621, some young men in Plymouth, Massachusetts wanted to celebrate Christmas. Their celebration sounds pretty meager by modern standards – just playing a few ball games in the street. However, when William Bradford, Plymouth’s governor, saw what was happening he shut their little party down. He told them they shouldn't be celebrating Christmas, but he was willing to let them observe the day by praying piously indoors. They could not have any fun, however, particularly not in public.

A still from Kranky Klaus (2003), a film by Cameron Jamie.

This sounds like a Grinchy move, and it was. Unlike Governor Bradford and many other Plymouth colonists, the game-players weren’t Puritans. They hadn’t realized how strongly the Puritans hated and feared Christmas. In 1659, the Massachusetts legislature even passed a bill banning Christmas - that's how much they hated the holiday. The bill was repealed in 1681 by Sir Edmund Andros, a much-despised governor appointed by the English king, but Christmas was still not widely celebrated in Massachusetts, or New England in general, until the mid-19th century. Schools and business remained open, and churches did not hold religious services on Christmas. A few  people on the margins of New England society celebrated Christmas, but most didn't.

Puritans hated Christmas for two reasons. First, they thought it was just a pagan holiday that had become thinly Christianized. There’s probably some truth in that. The Bible does not indicate the date of Christ’s birth, so the early Church fathers decided it should be celebrated on December 25, a time when people across the Roman Empire were already celebrating various winter holidays like the Saturnalia and the birthday of Sol Invictus, the sun god. It made good political sense for the new religion to piggyback on already popular holidays.

Saturnalia by Antoine Callet

Puritans also hated Christmas because it was celebrated very differently in the 17th century than it is now. Christmas was a raucous and chaotic holiday that featured lots of drunken public revelry and social disorder. There is still some heavy drinking at Christmas these days, but in the 17th century Christmas was associated with large, drunken, disorderly mobs roaming through the streets and countryside. This can be traced back to the Roman Saturnalia, which celebrated the god Saturn, who had supposedly ruled over Earth’s Golden Age. During Saturn’s reign, everyone had been equal. There were no slaves and no masters, no kings and no subjects, no bosses and no employees. It was blissful and idyllic anarchy, with the Earth providing bountiful food so no one needed to work. These beliefs about the Golden Age were reflected in the Saturnalian celebrations holiday, with masters waiting on their slaves, men dressing as women, and much public drinking and ribaldry. All boundaries were dissolved. 

Saturnalia was a season of misrule, a time when society’s rules were temporarily inverted or suspended. It was a release valve, a way for the lower classes to temporarily let off some steam and a way for the upper classes to buy some good will. After the Roman Empire collapsed, this pattern continued in Europe through the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance, but Christmas became the holiday of misrule, not Saturnalia. In many European towns and cities, prominent lower class men were appointed the Lord of Misrule by their fellows to preside over the holiday debauchery, leading crowds that mocked priests, noblemen, and the wealthy with impudence. Carolers, often drunk and in costume, demanded food and drink at wealthy homes. Once the celebrations ended, the Lord of Misrule stepped down and the old hierarchical relationships reasserted themselves until Christmas came around again. 

Illustration from Masks of Misrule (1996) by Nigel Aldcroft Jackson

The misrule of Christmas was antithetical to the Puritan values of hard-work, moderation, and self-control, but some modern Americans have recently have shown interest in bringing back a little of the old Christmas chaos. Some contemporary witches and occultists acknowledge a Lord of Misrule in their winter solstice rituals, and the Krampus, a monstrous Yule creature associated with misrule from northern Europe, has become increasingly popular, appearing on t-shirts, tree ornaments, and in movies. Krampus celebrations are a long-standing tradition in Germany and Austria, and some Americans are trying to bring it here.

Idyllic holiday anarchy sounds like fun, but there was definitely a dark side to Christmas misrule. The threat of violence lurked beneath the surface, and vandalism sometimes occurred, even in Puritan New England. For example, a group of young men in Salem, Massachusetts harassed 72-year-old John Rowden on Christmas night in 1679. The men forcibly entered Rowden's home, caroled, and then demanded wine as payment for their performance. Rowden refused, and in retaliation the young men pelted his house with stones and branches for 90 minutes, knocked down a stone wall, and stole six pecks of apple from his cellar. Something similar happened in Deerfield, Massachusetts in 1794, when shopkeeper John Birge was awoken at 2:00 am on December 22 by a group of drunken men demanding entrance to his home. He refused, and the men broke his windows.

Perhaps if Rowden and Birge had played along, their property wouldn't have been damaged. Much like Halloween's trick-or-treat, if you gave out food, liquor or money at Christmas you and your home would escape unharmed. The threat of violent retaliation was an integral part of the holiday.

A still from Kranky Klaus (2003), a film by Cameron Jamie.

Back in 2007, I saw a short documentary by Cameron Jamie called Kranky Klaus, which follows a group of Krampuses as they roam around an Austrian town in a pre-Christmas celebration. The movie is unsettling. The Krampuses are aggressive and violent. They try to break into a pizza shop, and when a female employee stops them they push her into a snow bank. They enter a nightclub, where they knock over tables, wrestle patrons to the floor, and whip people. The Krampuses terrify a group of children, and then shove snow into pedestrians' faces in the street. No one stops them because it's a holiday tradition, but a lot of folks seem unhappy and terrified. You can watch Kranky Klaus on YouTube for yourself. What are your thoughts? Misrule and Christmas chaos sound like fun on paper, but the reality looks pretty scary.

I love weird old traditions, but I'm happy with the tamer, milder Christmas we now celebrate. The Puritan's anti-Christmas attitude wasn't defeated by misrule, but by 19th-century capitalism and a kinder, gentle approach to raising children. The prospect of happy children opening presents under a tree won out over the Puritan's "bah humbug" attitude, and over Christmas misrule as well. Feel free to celebrate Christmas (or not) as you see fit, but I'll be sitting by the tree, drinking eggnog, and listening to Mariah Carey, trying to find that happy medium between grumpy Puritan and kranky Krampus. 


My favorite book about the history of Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday. I got much of this post's information from it. 


Robert Mathiesen said...

Most of the early Plymouth colonist weren't Puritans, but Separatists--a rather different type of 17th-century Protestant. Puritans wanted to reform (purify) the Church of England from within. Separatists had given up on the Church of England entirely, and were seeking to build a new ("true") church apart from it. On the whole, this incident notwithstanding, Separatists were more tolerant than Puritans. Probably the young men who were playing ball on Christmas were some of the not-particularly-religious laborers who had been forced on the Separatists by their financial backers in England. These laborers were a not insignificant part of the early colonists at Plymouth, and they seem to have been viewed as a real problem for the Separatist leadership of the colony.

Peter Muise said...

Hi Robert! Happy New Year! Yes, I think the young men celebrating Christmas were "Strangers" and not "Saints." Nathaniel Philbrick's book MAYFLOWER has a nice account of this incident and who was involved.

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