On May 11, 1659, the Massachusetts Puritans banned Christmas and ordered anyone caught celebrating to pay a fine of five shillings. That meant no mincemeat pie during what used to be the Yuletide season.
Of all the ways to celebrate Christmas, mincemeat pie held a special place. Myth and superstition had grown up around the holiday treat, and the Puritans would have none of it. They called the mincemeat pie “idolatrie in a crust.”
Mincemeat pie also carried political overtones in a time of deep partisan animosity. Eating mincemeat pie during the holidays showed you sided with the monarchy rather than the Puritan recusants. For a time, the mincemeat pie had the same effect on a Puritan that a MAGA hat had on an NPR devotee.
So how did mincemeat pie become so controversial?
The Pagan Roots of Mincemeat Pie
The Puritans, for starters, hated Christmas. Back in the 17th century the holiday bore little resemblance to the cozy family celebration of modern times. It was more an echo of Saturnalia, when Romans indulged in unrestrained revelry, boozing, gambling and letting their libidos go. They also made sweet meat pies an essential part of Saturnalia.
At Christmastime in England, young men continued the Saturnalia tradition. They roamed the streets, barged into homes and demanded booze, money and figgy pudding. They did it, too, in colonial New England towns.
In Boston, Increase Mather denounced Christmas celebrants as “consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in Mad Mirth.”
Mincemeat Pie: The Myth and the Lore
Mincemeat is a Middle Eastern method of cooking meat with fruit and spices. The Crusaders may have brought it back from their crusades. At least they brought back the spices.
Medieval English cooks made mincemeat with meat, any kind of meat: mutton, goose, beef tongue, even lamb testicles. They added suet, apples, citrus and spices. Later, the pies grew sweeter because the the West Indies sugar plantations made sugar cheap and available.
The sugar used in mincemeat had the advantage of preserving the meat. The fruit and spices may also have disguised meat that had gotten a little too old. Because the meat was shredded or minced, the pie was called “mince” or “shred.”
Myth and superstition then grew up around it.
Three spices in the pie – nutmeg, cloves and cinnamon — were said to represent the gifts brought by the three Magi to the Christ Child. Cooks also made the pies with 13 ingredients, to represent Christ and his apostles.
Eventually they began putting a pastry star on top of the mincemeat pies to indicate the Star of Bethlehem followed by the Magi.
Sometimes the pies were as small as tarts, and they came in many shapes. One recipe said they should be oblong, in imitation of the manger that held the baby Jesus. That’s why they’re sometimes called “Crib cakes.” Eventually cooks made the smaller pies in all kinds of shapes.
Mincemeat pie was such a Christmas favorite that people called it Christmas Pie. Every family made one, “a most learned mixture of neat’s tongues, chicken, eggs, sugar, raisins, &c.,” the 19th century antiquarian John Timbs observed.
Family cooks often made mincemeat pie on stir-up Sunday, the last Sunday before Advent. They believed they should only stir it clockwise, because stirring it the other way would bring bad luck.
For good luck, each member of the family stirred the mixture while making a wish. Another superstition held that a mincemeat pie should be eaten every day during the Twelve Days of Christmas for health and happines in the new year.
A variation on the mincemeat pie could be found in Coventry, noted Timbs. Called God-cakes, they were triangular, an inch thick and filled with a kind of mincemeat. The people of Coventry ate them on New Year’s Day.
The poet Robert Herrick wrote that it was once the tradition to guard the Christmas pie – from thievery, not the Puritan authorities.
COME guard this night the Christmas-Pie,
That the thief, though ne’er so sly,
With his flesh-hooks, don’t come nigh
To catch it
From him, who all alone sits there,
Having his eyes still in his ear,
And a deal of nightly fear
To watch it.
Oliver Cromwell Takes Over
When the Puritans overthrew King Charles in 1641, they did their best to discourage Christmas celebrations. They viewed it as pagan, popish, a time to pretend “the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights.”
In 1647, Parliament made the celebration of Christmas a punishable offence. They tried to force shopkeepers to stay open and banned special religious observances on Christmas, Easter and Whitsun (the seventh Sunday after Easter).
Town criers went through London shouting, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” Soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets and seize any items, like mincemeat pie, used to celebrate the holiday. One writer mocked the Puritan hatred of mincemeat with the lines, “Treason’s in a December pie, and death within the pot.”
George Thomason collected a ballad lamenting the disappearance of mincemeat, or shred, pie:
Likewise then did die,
Rost beef and shred pie.
Pro-Christmas riots broke out, but they didn’t bring back Christmas. Not until Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660 did Christmas Pie return to the English table.
The Massachusetts Puritans
Like their English counterparts, the Massachusetts Puritans had no truck with Christmas or Christmas Pie. Puritan leader Increase Mather denounced the holiday, saying people celebrated it not because of the birth date of Christ. They did it, he wrote, because the “Heathens Saturnalia was at the time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian [ones].” He was correct.
The Puritans did their best to stamp out Christmas through social pressure. However, some still observed “such festivals as were superstitously kept in outher countries, to the great dishonour of God and offence of others.”
So in 1659, the year before Christmas returned to England, the Massachusetts General Court banned the holiday.
The court ordered, “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 such accounts as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shillings.”
Feasting, of course, meant mincemeat pie.
And, like their counterparts across the Atlantic, the Massachusetts Puritans had no qualms about seizing items used to celebrate Christmas.
The ban remained until 1681. Christmas didn’t become a legal holiday in Massachusetts until 1856, and children went to school on Christmas Day as late as 1870.
More About Mincemeat Pie
In 1796, Hartford cookbook writer Amelia Simmons published American Cookery, the first U.S. cookbook. She included a recipe for mincemeat pie:
Four pounds boiled beef, chopped fine, and salted, six pound of raw apple chopped also, one pound beef suet, one quart of Wine or rich sweet cyder, one ounce mace, and cinnamon, a nutmeg, two pounds raisins, bake in past No. 3, three fourths of an hour.
In rural Maine, people still make mincemeat during hunting season if they killed a deer or otherwise get access to venison.
However, in most places mince comes in a jar with a label – without meat.
Images: Mince pie By Beck – originally posted to Flickr as Mince Pies, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10381760. Plate of mincemeat pies By christmasstockimages.com – http://christmasstockimages.com/free/food-dining/slides/mince_pie_plate.htm, CC BY 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=97503821. Adoration of the Magi By Justus van Gent – This file was donated to Wikimedia Commons as part of a project by the Metropolitan Museum of Art. See the Image and Data Resources Open Access Policy, CC0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=57669996. This story updated in 2022.