Samuel Sewall: The Puritan Judge Who Hated Christmas Dec 22, 2019 19:15:03 GMT -5 julia likes this
Post by Graveyardbride on Dec 22, 2019 19:15:03 GMT -5
Samuel Sewall: The Puritan Judge Who Hated Christmas
No one shall keep Christmas or any saint day, read common prayer, make mince pies, dance, play cards or play any instrument of music except the drum, trumpet and jew’s harp.
This was one of the many laws enacted by New England’s 17th-century Puritans, who abhorred Christmas, a holiday they deemed both popish and pagan. The celebration and all things pertaining thereto were condemned as “one of the earliest apostacies and superstitions of the primitive times” and staunch Puritans would actually hold their noses when Christmas was mentioned, declaring it a “stench to Puritan nostrils.” The settlers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony also denounced wedding rings, funerals, the theater, and men with long hair.
By 1659, all recognition of the birth of Christ had been banned and anyone found guilty of celebrating the holiday faced time in the public stocks or bilboes (iron shackles usually placed on the ankles), had his ears clips, or in some cases, was even excommunication from the church. Even the foods associated with the Christmas celebration were forbidden and official snoopers were appointed to walk about villages sniffing out Yuletide fare such as mince pie, plum pudding or other dishes the Puritans considered “dangerous to the soul.” Those caught were alienated by the community, becoming social outcasts heaped in same category as cheats and swindlers.
Many today consider this extreme attitude harsh, but to be fair, the Christmas celebration in England had degenerated into what was little more than debauched revelry, wherein miracle plays and pageants had been turned into vulgar routs, losing all spiritual significance. Local rabble-rousers elected a Lord of Misrule, who frolicked about in a fancy green and yellow costume with bells tied to his ankles. He and his bawdy gang danced through churchyards and into the church itself to the accompaniment of skirling pipes and rattling drums. On many occasions, the priest was routed from his pulpit, the altar itself desecrated by drinking and gambling, and the measured music of the solemn mass was drowned out by the merrymakers’ shouts of “Yule, Yule, Yule. Three puddings in a pule ....” Clergymen and parishioners who attempted to halt the irreverent rabble were ridiculed, physically removed from the church and forced to donate money to the King of Misrule. Those who balked at such treatment were sometimes ridden on a rail and dunked – head-first – into the nearest water trough or pond.
God-fearing Puritans all loathed the Christmas celebration, but none more than Judge Samuel Sewall (born March 28, 1652) of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, best-known for presiding over the infamous Salem with trials. In addition to his position as judge, Sewall was a successful businessman and printer and he kept meticulous records of what he considered important events. When he died, he left a voluminous set of diaries from which it becomes abundantly clear to anyone who reads them the judge absolutely despised Christmas.
Much to Sewall’s chagrin, in 1685, a tolerant, albeit brief, wind blew through England when King James II ascended the throne. The new monarch granted greater freedom to Roman Catholics as well as people of other faiths, and across the Atlantic, Judge Sewall was livid.
Nevertheless, Massachusetts complied with the king’s orders by annulling two laws on the books: The first was a rule that Quakers returning to the colony after banishment should be put to death, and the second was a law that made the “keeping of Christmas” illegal. Even worse, insofar as Sewall was concerned, was that he was charged with overseeing the printing of the unwelcome changes. But it wasn’t all bad: In his diary, the judge proudly noted that Christmas of 1885 was less popular than ever despite the new laws, writing:
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, he added that his cousin agreed with him: [there] was less Christmas-keeping than last year, fewer Shops Shut up.
On January 14, 1697, – a special day of atonement set aside by the Massachusetts legislature – Judge Sewall stood and faced the congregation of Boston’s Old South Church to express remorse for his role in condemning innocent men and women to the gallows during the Salem witch trials. Every year thereafter, he set aside a personal day of prayer and fasting to atone for his sins.
Nonetheless, when it came to Christmas-keeping, he was as unyielding as ever and on December 25th of that year, recorded the following:
Snowy day: Shops are open, and Carts and sleds come to Town with Wood and Fagots 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.
But the times they were a-changin’ and the following year, Sewall noted the lieutenant governor invited most of the legislature to his home for dinner on Christmas. However, he [Sewall] “knew nothing of it,” omitted from the guest list probably because everyone knew how much he disapproved of the celebration.
Sewall didn’t change his attitude toward Christmas even after Gov. Samuel Shute appointed him chief justice of the Superior Court of Judicature in 1717. His diary recounts his tug-of-war with Shute and the general court as to whether the body should adjourn for the Christmas holiday.
As late as 1722, Sewall was still waging a courageous, but hopeless, argument with Gov. Jonathan Belcher to prevent any official recognition of the Christmas holiday. On December 19, he recorded:
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.
Sewall consulted the Rev. Cotton Mather, who had, in 1712, proclaimed, “... the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking and in all licentious liberty ... by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!” But when the chief justice next spoke with Belcher, his argument fell on deaf ears, as evidenced by this journal entry:
... about a quarter of an hour before 12 the Govr adjourn’d the Court to Wednesday morn to a-clock, and sent Mr. Secretary into the House of Deputies to do it there.
Nevertheless, on Christmas day itself, Sewall gleefully noted:
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.
Samuel Sewall died January 1, 1730, and during his 78 years, never, so far as is known, did he ever celebrate Christmas.
Sources: The New England Historical Society; Katharine Van Etten Lyford, “Victory of the Christmas Keepers,” Mysterious New England; and The National Magazine, Vol. XVII, No. 1, November 1892.