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Puritans Viewed Christmas As Corrupt Religious Ritual
The Grinch would have come up empty- handed in Colonial Connecticut. There would have been no presents under the tree, let alone a tree to steal. Christmas was viewed by the Puritans of New England as a corrupt religious, if not a pagan, ritual and was not celebrated. Dec. 25 was a regular work day -- unless, of course, it happened to fall on the Sabbath.
These spiritual descendants of John Calvin fled England to escape what they considered impure religious practices: ornate church buildings, elaborate rituals, the veneration of saints, flamboyant dress of the ministers. They were just as adamant in their opposition to the secular excesses they had witnessed in their homeland on religious holidays.
The other American colonies, settled by Dutch or German or French immigrants, were far less inhibited. As the various cultures blended, the strictures of the early Puritans and their Congregationalist successors began to loosen. Saint Nicholas, a Dutch tradition, and Christmas trees, a German custom, found their way into many colonial households. But it wasn't until the mid-1800s that the rituals of Christmas that we know today were common in rural Connecticut.
The difficulties of keeping Christmas under control were faced by Gov. William Bradford in Plymouth a year after the Pilgrims had landed. Their first Christmas was spent building shelter against the harsh New England winter. But in 1621, several settlers more sympathetic to the Church of England (later the Episcopal Church) than the Calvinists were granted time off from their jobs by Gov. Bradford so they could worship at home. When he found these very same people playing games on the street Christmas Day instead of practicing their piety, the governor became incensed and ordered the men back to work.
Soon afterward, the Rev. Increase Mather denounced the pagan celebration. The Massachusetts General Court, in an effort to ``beate every spout of Episcopacie,'' in 1659 imposed a 5-shilling fine on anyone who was caught celebrating Christmas.
Although the ban was lifted in 1681, the Calvinists did not relent. The Rev. Cotton Mather, son of Increase, condemned the ``wonton Bacchanallian'' of Christmas in 1712. The day had ceased to be a Christian holiday, he said, and had become ``dominated by a lord of misrule, who did not hesitate to invade the churches in a time of service . . .''
The few Church of England congregations in New England ignored such condemnations, however, and celebrated Christmas openly from the early 1700s. By 1766, St. Peter's Episcopal Church was completed in Hebron. St. Luke's Episcopal Church was built in Glastonbury in 1813.
A few venturesome souls from other churches would join in the holiday festivities, but most people just watched from afar. Strict Congregationalists did not waver. The Rev. Henry Ward Beecher, who was born in Litchfield in 1813, recalled that as a child he watched Episcopalians carry evergreens into the church and dress them up for the Christmas service. His own family, headed by the Rev. Lyman Beecher, would have none of it.
``To me, Christmas was a foreign day, and I shall die so,'' he wrote in his biography. ``When I was a boy, I wondered what Christmas was . . . Brought up in the strictest State of New England, brought up in the most liberal style of worship, brought up where they would not read the Bible in church because the Episcopalians read it so much, I passed all my youth without any knowledge of Christmas . . .''
His sister, Harriet Beecher Stowe, was imbued with the same feelings. In her autobiographical 1878 novel ``Poganic People,'' the little girl Dolly asks the family's Episcopalian housekeeper, Nabby, about Christmas and is told how the church will be decorated with pine boughs and lit with candles. Dolly then asks Papa about celebrating Christmas. ``No, child,'' comes the harsh reply. ``Nobody knows when Christ was born, and there is nothing in the Bible to tell us when to keep Christmas.''
The strict Calvinist bonds had begun to loosen across most of the state by the late 1700s. The Congregational Church lost its standing as Connecticut's legally established church in 1818. Hartford's Brick Meeting House, or First Congregational Church, held its first Christmas service in 1823. The Courant endorsed the move, noting that, ``It has been the wish of many pious people among those whose form of worship differs from the Episcopal Church that the day which gave birth to the Saviour of the world should be generally commemorated by appropriate religious services.''
The secularization of Christmas, which the Puritans had fought against for so long, was in evidence by then. The Courant ran its first Christmas shopping advertisement in 1816. Christmas trees and stockings appeared in more and more houses in the 1830s and 1840s. Christmas cards, which first appeared in London in 1843, were big business in the United States by mid-century. Also from England came the kind public debauchery described by Charles Dickens and other writers.
Connecticut's Puritan foundations had been swept aside.
David H. Rhinelander, a former medical and science writer and editorial writer for The Courant, retired in 1995. Since then, he has been able to indulge his love of history by joining the boards of directors of the Connecticut Historical Society and the Antiquarian and Landmarks Society.
First published Dec. 18, 1998.