With its “story book” downtown, Ipswich would seem like the natural setting for a colonial-era Christmas, but here in Massachusetts, the Puritans shunned Christmas for its pagan roots. In this raw frontier they dedicated themselves to their labors and God, allowing only Thanksgiving as a time for feasting.
In 1659, a law was passed by the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony, imposing a five-shilling fine on any persons found “observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.”
After the death of Puritan Oliver Cromwell, the British monarchy and the Church of England were restored and King Charles II made the celebration of Christmas legal again in England. His successor King James II revoked the charter of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, imposed Sir Edmond Andros as governor and revoked the Christmas ban in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, giving irate colonists yet another reason not to celebrate the day.
Massachusetts Puritans continued to boycott Christmas into the 18th Century. In 1712 Cotton Mather told his Boston congregation that “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!”
Indeed, European settlers in many of the American colonies celebrated not only the day but most of the month of December with revelry. Virginia settlers celebrated the harvest and opened their homes to all Yuletide visitors. In Boston the upper and middle class would have none of it, but groups of working men derided as “Anticks” would don disguises and go door-to-door demanding money to perform crude skits, all the while drinking the unfortunate hosts’ wassail and beer. In Britain and Ireland they were called “mummers.” It was trick or treat at Christmas, and it was best to give them some money and suffer through the “performance.”
Eighteenth century Unitarians attempted to restore Christmas but resentment after the American Revolution prolonged hostility to this “English celebration.” Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem,“The Night Before Christmas” was instrumental in transforming it to a day for giving presents, creating an economic incentive for local merchants.
British Unitarian Charles Dickens’ “The Christmas Carol” was a clear indictment of 19th century industrial capitalism while portraying Christmas as a season of festivity worthy of all.
Alabama made Christmas a legal holiday in 1836, followed by Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838, with Massachusetts finally coming around in 1856. In 1870 President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law a bill formally declaring Christmas to be a Federal holiday.
Most of the old historic neighborhoods in Ipswich look much as they did two or three centuries ago (except better-kept and much better painted) and they always beckon me for a walk on a wintry December day.
I start from Meeting House Green, about which James Appleton Morgan wrote: I love to think of old Ipswich town. I continue past the salt box houses that line County Street and Summer Street, many built in the early 1700’s. On High Street, the Thomas Lord house (1658), Philip Call house(1659), Waldo Caldwell house (1660), and the Kingsbury Lord house (1660) with their massive stone hearths for winter comfort are but a few of the picturesque First Period homes that attest to the Puritan work ethic of the town’s settlers. On North Main Street, the Day-Dodge House (1737) and the meticulous interior woodwork of the Captain Richard Rogers House (1727) hint at the growing affluence of the 18th century community, confirmed by beautifully preserved Italianate and Victorian era homes near the church. Tasteful wreaths on doors and candles in the windows suggest that our community, now 380 years old, is at peace with Christmas.