In 1685, a tolerant wind blew briefly through England when James II ascended to the throne. He ordered greater freedom for Roman Catholics and people of other faiths. In his colonies, he ordered the reform of discriminatory laws. Massachusetts legalized Christmas
Samuel Sewall was not pleased.
Samuel Sewall — Puritan, judge, businessman, printer — left voluminous diaries that document his undying dislike of the Christmas celebration. Puritans viewed the celebration as obnoxious and sacrilegious.
Massachusetts complied with the king’s wishes for liberal reform by annulling two laws on the books. The first was a death penalty statute for Quakers returning to the colony after banishment. The second outlawed the “keeping of Christmas.”
Further rubbing salt in the wound, Samuel Sewall had to oversee printing of the new laws. After Massachusetts legalized Christmas, Sewall happily noted in his diary that the holiday in 1685 was less popular than ever despite the new laws.
Massachusetts Legalized Christmas, but…
Dec. 25. Friday. Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual. Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the Body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it. A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.
Several days later, Samuel Sewall wrote his cousin agreed with him: [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.
Twelve years later, Sewall continued his anti-Christmas crusade. On Dec. 25, 1697, he wrote: Snowy day: Shops are open, and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood … as formerly, save what abatement may be allowed on account of the weather. This morning we read in course the 14, 15, and 16 Psalms . . . I took occasion to dehort mine from Christmas-keeping, and charged them to forbear.
Sewall’s Grinch-like view of Christmas did cost him politically. In 1698, Samuel Sewall noted the lieutenant governor invited most of the legislature to his home for dinner on Christmas. However, he “knew nothing of it,” uninvited most likely because he so hated the celebration.
In 1722, Samuel Sewall hinted he might soften his position. He had changed his mind before, having years earlier apologized for his role in the Salem witch trials. He accepted both “blame and shame” for serving as one of the judges at the trials.
In the end, Samuel Sewall held fast on Christmas. His diary tells of his tug-of-war with Shute and the General Court over whether the body should adjourn for a Christmas holiday:
Dec. 19. His Excellency took me aside to the Southeast Window of the Council Chamber, to speak to me about adjourning the General Court to Monday next because of Christmas. I told his Excellency I would consider of it.
Put It to a Vote
Dec. 20. I invited Dr. [Cotton] Mather to Dine with me, not knowing that he preached. After Diner I consulted with him about the Adjournment of the Court. We agreed, that it would be expedient to take a vote of the Council and Representatives for it.
So Samuel Sewall made the suggestion to the governor.
Friday, Dec 21. The Governor took me to the window again looking eastward, next Mrs. Phillips’s, and spoke to me again about adjourning the Court to next Wednesday. I spoke against it; and propounded that the Governor would take a Vote for it; that he would hold the Balance even between the Church and us. His Excellency went to the Board again, and said much for this adjourning; All kept Christmas but we; I suggested King James I to Mr. Dudley, how he boasted what a pure church he had; and they did not keep Yule nor Pasch (Easter).
Mr. Dudley asked if the Scots kept Christmas. His Excellency protested, he believed they did not. Governor said they adjourned for the Commencement and Artillery. But then it is by agreement. Col. Taylor spoke so loud and boisterously for adjourning that it was hard for any to put in a word; Col. Townsend seconded me, and Col. Partridge; because this would prolong the Sessions.
The Debate Rages Even After Massachusetts Legalized Christmas
Sewall argued that the Puritans had come a long way for their freedom to worship, and now the Church of England had its freedom. But, he argued, the Anglicans insisted on putting down the Puritans.
Mr. Davenport stood up and gave it as his opinion that it would not be convenient for the Governor to be present in Court that day; and therefore was for adjourning. But the Governor is often absent; and yet the Council and Representatives go on. Now the Governor has told us, that he would go away for a week; and then returned and if he liked what we had done, He would Consent to it. The Governor mentioned how it would appear to have votes passed on December 25. But his Excellency need not have been present nor signed any bill that day. I said the dissenters came a great way for their Liberties and now the church had theirs, yet they could not be contented, except they might tread all others down…
Saturday Dec. 22. About a quarter of an hour before 12 the Governor adjourned the Court to Wednesday morning at 10 o’clock and sent Mr. Secretary into the House of Deputies to do it there.
Victory in Defeat
Sewall had lost the battle over the General Court, but he happily noted in his diary on the 25th that many people didn’t keep Christmas:
Tuesday, Dec. 25 …. The Shops were open, and carts came to town with wood, hoop-poles, hay, etc. as at other Times. Being a pleasant day, the street was filled with carts and horses.
This story about Samuel Sewall and Christmas was updated in 2022.