The Time New England Banned Christmas

For 22 years, Bostonians who wished a fellow colonist so much as a "Merry Christmas" would have to shell out five shillings for flaunting their Yuletide spirit. On May 11, 1659, Puritanical theocrats brought the hammer down on Christmas celebrations, enacting a political ban on the holiday and charging fines to Christmas sympathizers. The records of the Massachusetts Bay Colony's general court shed some light on just how the Puritans managed to shutter holiday celebrations, stating:

...It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.

The ban, enacted to put the kibosh on general holiday rowdiness—Reverend Increase Mather (pictured above), a New Englander and father of Salem Witch Trials figurehead Cotton Mather, denounced the holiday season as "consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in Mad Mirth"—held steady through 1681.

Christmas customs prior to the ban were a little more unruly than hanging wreaths and caroling. One popular tradition, called wassailing, involved lower class colonists demanding food and drink from citizens of wealthier stature in exchange for toasting their good health. If denied, proceedings often got violent.

Though Christmas wasn't officially banned until 1659, journals from the Puritans' first Christmas in the colony illustrate that the number of settlers who celebrated Christmas was split. By the second Christmas—after a sickness-plagued year—the holiday was already unofficially prohibited.

Puritan rule, which banned seasonal delicacies like mince pies and pudding, decreed working on Christmas as mandatory and dispatched town criers on Christmas Eve to shout "No Christmas, No Christmas" through the streets of Boston. The outlawing of Christmas was also a regional, purely Puritanian restriction—farther south, Jamestown settler John Smith reported that Christmas was "enjoyed by all and passed without incident."

Christmas returned to the Massachusetts Colony in 1681—sort of. When newly appointed royal governor Sir Edmund Andros (who also turned back a Puritan ban on Saturday night activities) sponsored and attended Christmas services in 1686, he was heavily guarded by a regiment of redcoats. 

Bostonian judge Samuel Sewall kept a chronicle of how Christmas was celebrated in his native colony, noting that celebrations remained sparse. Wrote Sewall in a 1685 diary entry: "Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual." Working was no longer a necessity on Christmas Day, but had become a staple after a 22-year lack of Yuletide traditions. 

Celebrating Christmas in Boston stayed out of vogue through the mid-1800s; public school students caught skipping class on Christmas Day in 1869, the year before Ulysses S. Grant named Christmas a national holiday, still risked expulsion. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow put a poetic spin on Boston's Christmas cold spell in 1858, acknowledging the Puritanical footprint left on New England's holiday spirit.

We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.

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The Arlington National Cemetery Just Opened Its Time Capsule from 1915—See What’s Inside

That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
That red ribbon is the literal "red tape" that we now use as an idiom to describe bureaucratic processes.
Arlington National Cemetery, YouTube

In the decades following the Civil War, thousands of people assembled in Arlington National Cemetery’s James R. Tanner Amphitheater to honor the fallen soldiers each May on Decoration Day (which we now call Memorial Day). By the early 20th century, the event had grown so popular that Congress agreed to build a new, larger arena in its place: the Memorial Amphitheater.

When President Woodrow Wilson laid the cornerstone on October 13, 1915, it contained a copper box with documents and mementos that captured the spirit of the era. Though the contents weren’t kept a secret, you can now actually see them for yourself—on May 15, 2020, Arlington National Cemetery celebrated the centennial of the amphitheater’s dedication ceremony by opening the time capsule and displaying them in a virtual exhibit.

Inside the box was one of each coin used in 1915; uncirculated stamps bearing images of George Washington and Benjamin Franklin; an autographed photo of Wilson; a Bible signed by amphitheater architect Thomas Hastings; the dedication ceremony program; directories of both Congress and Washington D.C. residents; Civil War veterans’ pamphlets; four issues of local newspapers, including The Washington Post and The Washington Times; copies of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution; an American flag; and a map of Pierre Charles L’Enfant’s blueprints for building the city.

As Smithsonian.com reports, a few of those documents became outdated soon after being sealed in the box. The 1915 version of the Constitution had 17 amendments, but two new ones had been passed by the end of 1920: the 18th, prohibiting alcohol, and the 19th, giving women the right to vote. The American flag, on the other hand, was already inaccurate when it went into the time capsule. Though Arizona and New Mexico had both been annexed in 1912, bringing the state total to 48, the flag only included 46 stars.

Some of the items were wrapped in red tape, a seemingly insignificant detail that Archivist of the United States David S. Ferriero found especially exciting.

“All of the records in the National Archives, when they were moved into that building, were carefully protected with wrappings that were held together with this red tape,” he said in a statement. “This is where the saying comes (from) about cutting through the red tape. It is actually—literally—the red tape.”

For the last few decades, the copper box shared its hollow cornerstone abode with another, less official time capsule: A Peter Pan-brand peanut butter jar, stuffed with business cards and other notes. The box had been relocated to the National Archives while the amphitheater underwent repairs in 1974, and the workers snuck the jar into the hollow when replacing it during the 1990s.

“It was sort of a rush job,” conservator Caitlin Smith told The Washington Post. “But you can understand the impulse to add your name to history.”

You can learn more about the history of the Memorial Amphitheater and discover more about the exhibit here.

[h/t Smithsonian.com]