December 25, 2015

"When the Puritans of New England famously made Christmas illegal during their first decades on this side of the Atlantic, it was not because they were killjoys..."

"... or at least, not only because they were killjoys."
Christmas was an existential threat to orderly society, a shorthand for the spiritual risks they encountered every day in the New World. The era’s leading preacher, Cotton Mather, even continued to rail against the “heathen feast” after the laws prohibiting Christmas were repealed.

“Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honoured,” he wrote, “by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn, or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam?”

24 comments:

traditionalguy said...

Cotton was a show off.

Skeptical Voter said...

I'll Tahoe your comments under advisement Reveend Mather.

Gusty Winds said...

Cotton Mather seemed to miss the point on a lot of things. Christ's first miracle at the Feast of Cana, turning water into wine, showed understood the need for a good celebration.

Ann Althouse said...

You never see any pictures of Jesus where he looks fat.

rehajm said...

Our family will have all those checked off by 10:30am.

Clearly we've been celebrating the wrong dude.

ddh said...

Where's the photo of your giving Santa the fish eye? I thought that its posting was a part of your Christmas traditions.

Bob Boyd said...

I've seen pictures where his ass looked big.
But in others it looks like the poor beast can barely carry him.

Bruce Hayden said...

Depicting Jesus was a big no-no with the Pilgrims, and, indeed, most of the Puritans. It was Papist idolatry, which violates the Protestant and Jewish 10 Commandments. Part of the reason that many came here, esp. at that time, and esp. to New England, was to escape religious persecution back in the UK, where the Church of England ruled, and was considered to be still much too close to Roman Rite for comfort. Many of the descendants of those Puritan churches practice this to this day - there are no human depictions in the sanctuary of the church I was raised in and still belong to. Rather, the only human depictions in the church are photos of retired church ministers relegated to the room where we have coffee after services.

traditionalguy said...

Jesus just celebrated his 2,115th birthday. And His Kingdom is still here in the hearts of his chosen ones through the Holyness Spirit living within them.

Bruce Hayden said...

Sorry, my last post wasn't aimed at Cotton Mather, but rather Ann's comment that: You never see any pictures of Jesus where he looks fat. That quote accidentally got erased. But, the point stands - Puritans mostly didn't depict humans, and esp. not Jesus, because it was believed to be idolatry, and, in particular, Papist idolatry. And, they had come here to get away from that sort of religion, which was still practiced by the Church of England. And, yes, many of the descendants of Puritans believe this to this day (I count myself in that group, esp. on my mother's side). Their name "Puritan" comes from their attempt to purify their Christianity from the ill effects of esp. Roman Catholicism. And, notably, they came here not that long after the British throne had bloodily switched back and forth between Roman Catholic and Protestantism.

Char Char Binks said...

We wish you a drunken Xmas...

Quaestor said...

The Puritans of Olde England also banned Christmas, for some of the reasons listed by Cotton Mather several decades later. Puritan antipathy to Christmas (and to Easter, saints feast days, and celebration in general) derived mainly from its association with Catholicism and classical paganism, which in Puritan eyes were virtually indistinguishable. When the return of the Stuarts ended the Puritan parliamentarians' reign of tedium Christmas came roaring back with plenty of drunken revelry and occasional rioting. On more than one occasion whole villages were razed to cinders when Yule bonfires ran wild. Our tradition of caroling started as a kind of trick or treat assault by young men and their dubious female companions on prosperous country houses. Groups of well-pickled blades and buxom ladies of the town would show up at ones door in the middle of the night demanding drink. To make themselves obnoxious the revelers would sing, shout, and occasionally throw rocks. A wise home owner would have plenty of wassail ready to placate the carolers before they did real damage. Usually satisfied with a show of hospitality the yuletide revelers would weave their merry way to the next house, or else collapse in the snow and freeze. In those days Christmas wasn't for children. The celebrations became so disorderly and dangerous to public safety that Christmas was banned in England several times.

Some scholars are convinced that Charles Dickens helped invent our modern Christmas by popularizing the idea of a family celebration centered on the children. Since English Christmas traditions were tied up with the celtic Yule celebrations of light, it was necessary to import some December traditions from the Continent to shift the focus from alcohol and bonfires to children's delight, which is where Santa Claus come into the picture.

Santa derives from St. Nicholas whose feast day is December 6 (nothing to do with Xmas, btw). Nicholas was never a popular saint in England and before the Reformation his day when by with little notice by the commons, though it was a very popular sporting day among the nobility -- hunt the boar by day and feast on his carcass by night. William of Orange, being a Hollander, helped to introduce Dutch St. Nicholas traditions to England, however, it was England's New World colonies (i.e. us) who really pioneered the modern Christmas for the Anglophone world. From the Dutch vernacular Sinterklass it's easy to see the origin of the name, however, the Dutch settlers of New York did not import the tradition intact, somehow Black Peter, Krampus, and other malicious companions missed the boat. Consequently the American Santa Claus became a figure of universal benevolence rather than the dreadful justiciar the saintly forebear was.

Quaestor said...

You never see any pictures of Jesus where he looks fat.

Until the 20th century there weren't any pictures of Jesus smiling. Even the infant Christ wore a pretty severe look.

It's obvious why there are no chubby Christs. Before this age of abundance being fat was the outward sign of the mortal sin of gastrimargia, i.e.gluttony. Dogma holds that Jesus was perfect and sinless in his conception and life. The depiction of a fat Jesus would be literally blasphemous.

Ann Althouse said...

"It's obvious why there are no chubby Christs. Before this age of abundance being fat was the outward sign of the mortal sin of gastrimargia, i.e.gluttony. Dogma holds that Jesus was perfect and sinless in his conception and life. The depiction of a fat Jesus would be literally blasphemous."

My "fat" comment was a response to Gusty's "Cotton Mather seemed to miss the point on a lot of things. Christ's first miracle at the Feast of Cana, turning water into wine, showed understood the need for a good celebration."

There's a debate point here. Have at it.

Quaestor said...

Gusty says the wine-to-water thing shows that Jesus understood the need for a good celebration. As Althouse says, that's debatable. Firstly, the scriptures tell us that it was his mother who demanded the wine miracle. If it hadn't been for Mary's spilling the beans, at it were, there's no evidence from the canon to suggest that Jesus would not have let the wine-depived party go on without his intervention. I contend that the water-to-wine thing was much more an act of filial piety than an endorsement of having a good time. Secondly, the only other time the career of Jesus intersects a celebration, the Passover, a joyous feast which contrasts with the solemnity of the Day of Atonement, what does the "good celebration" saviour do? He causes a riot.

Somehow a jolly Jesus seems improbable.

traditionalguy said...

You can thank the CocaCola Company for fat Santa. Selling flavored soda water in the winter takes a real good mass advertising campaign.

Roughcoat said...

There's a debate point here. Have at it.

I don't think so. I prefer to celebrate Christmas in a manner befitting the joyous holy day it is. But by all means, you go have your debate.

traditionalguy said...

The Pharasees accused Jesus of being a glutton and a drinker. He in turn accused them of being whitewashed tombs and a brood of vipers. Jesus could reacrt like Trump when facing slander coming from a guilt based priesthood business.

Michelle Dulak Thomson said...

Quaestor,

You are right about the filial-piety thing: Mary asks for a miracle, Jesus demurs, Mary basically says "You will do this right now," and Jesus sighs and says, "OK, Mom."

But you're missing the point I love about the Wedding at Cana. The usual way at such feasts was to put out the good wine first, so that by the time the guests hit the cheaper stuff they were generally too sloshed to notice. In this case, though, guests were amazed at what Mary brought out after Jesus transformed it: "Thou hast kept back the best until now."

Quaestor said...

You can thank the CocaCola Company for fat Santa.

Balderdash.

While a 9th century image of St. Nicholas shows a lean and severe old man in Byzantine clerical vestments, it must be pointed out that nobody in Byzantine art is other than lean and severe looking.

If you must look for somebody to blame for a fat Santa you must start with an American who died 23 years before the founding of the Coca-Cola Company.

The stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath.
He had a broad face and a little round belly,
That shook when he laughed, like a bowlful of jelly!

He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf,
And I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself!
A wink of his eye and a twist of his head,
Soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread.

- Clement Clarke Moore, 1823

Thomas Nast,1881

There are many other examples I am too bored with the subject to cite. Needless to say the Principle of Causality strongly mitigates against traditionalguy's indictment.

Quaestor said...

Here's a bit of St. Nicholas lore that at least partly accounts for his association with Xmas gift-giving. According to tradition there lived in the ancient city of Myra a poor but worthy Christian man who had three daughters. Because of his poverty the daughters had no respectable dowries to bring, and consequently were unwed. Nicholas, the bishop of Myra, learned of their plight through the confessional, and not wanting to break the bond of secrecy sought a way to give the daughters dowries anonymously.

Nicholas pawned his goods and divided the money equally into three bags, which he tossed into the daughters' windows by night.

Somehow the pawnbroker learned of the gift and was so moved by the bishop's generosity he returned the pawned goods free and clear. Nicholas in turn blessed the pawnbroker as the real beneficiary of the poor daughters. To this day Nicholas remains the patron saint of pawnbrokers, and pawnbrokers use the symbol of the three bags of gold as their badge.

Sebastian said...

“Can you in your Conscience think, that our Holy Savior is honoured,” he wrote, “by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Revelling; by a Mass fit for none but a Saturn, or a Bacchus, or the Night of a Mahometan Ramadam?” No. But then again, even Christians didn't want to focus on honoring their Savior all the time. Honoring time seems to have contracted a bit further since Mather's day.

The Cracker Emcee said...

Good Lord, is there any group in history more deliberately misunderstood than the Puritans? Work your way through The Valley of Vision and then tell me what a grim, unpoetic, hypocritical pack of scolds they were.

rcocean said...

No one give a damn about the "Puritans" because their descendants proved themselves to be the original "cockservatives".

A bunch of self-righteous, money grubbing narcissists that have been shown by history to be the biggest losers ever, ever. Even the Slave holding Southern boys had the excuse of short-sighted self-interest.

The Puritans - the NE WASPS - were just losers.