Non Fiction history

Christmas in Colonial New England


First Church Topsfield




To think about Christmas in Colonial New England, we first must remember that colonial New England encompasses a region over a very long time. The Plymouth Colony began in 1620, Salem, Massachusetts was settled in 1627, and Boston in the Massachusetts Bay Colony was settled in 1630. Colonialism ends with the beginnings of the American Revolution in 1775. That is one-hundred and fifty years, give or take a few. Nothing stays the same for seven generations, not even in New England.

In the seventeenth century the devout Protestants who settled these places, did not celebrate Christmas. There are a few reasons for this. For instance, Cotton Mather, one of Boston’s leading Puritan ministers of the time, expressed the opinion of most when he preached that Christ’s birth should be celebrated every day. But really these first ministers were worried and opposed to the dual pagan holidays of Yule and Saturnia. Yule being the Anglo-Saxon worship of the darkest days of the year, and the return to lengthening days and increasing light. In other words the winter solstice. Saturnalias were what we now associate with New Years, the loud raucous -drunken worship of the god Saturn; the end of one year and beginning of another.

So Christmas worship was frowned upon. In many places it was another work-day, in others it was a day of prayer and contemplation.

But Colonial New England extends over one-hundred years, and many things changed over a century and a half, among them Christmas celebrations. Yes change even happened among the most religious New Englanders. It happened slowly, with the Anglofication of New England, and quickly as new people with different and more light hearted ways of doing things moved in to the region.

It is well known that America was never more English than it was just at the time of the Revolution. Colonists had adopted many English customs as travel time lessened, and more English goods were available in the marketplace. Those customs began to include boughs of evergreen and holly in the house, Christmas parties and church services dedicated to the birth of the Christ child.

At the same time America was becoming more English, more Germans immigrated to America, making up the second largest immigrant group in colonial America. Although most settled in the mid-Atlantic region, many moved north and settled in New England towns. These newcomers brought many of the things we today associate with Christmas, such as candles in the windows, gingerbread houses and men, the work cookie, and eventually – in another one-hundred years, the Christmas tree. (The first of these was erected in 1832 in Lexington Massachusetts, so the story goes, by a Unitarian minister, a German named Charles Follen.)

So the quick answer to: how was Christmas celebrated in Colonial New England? Is that it wasn’t, and then it was.