The day was December 25, 1621, and the storied “Pilgrims” of Plimoth Plantation were headed out to work.
Sometime that fall—we don’t know exactly when—the fifty passengers of the Mayflower who had survived their first winter in New England had joined ninety or more Wampanoag Indians in a harvest celebration we remember as “the First Thanksgiving.” We tend to lose interest in their story at that point, unfortunately, although we know much more about the aftermath of the First Thanksgiving than we do about the celebration itself.
One of the things we know is that the Pilgrims’ struggle for survival continued for at least another two years. This was partly due to the criminal mismanagement of the London financiers who bankrolled the Pilgrims’ voyage. The “Merchant Adventurers,” as they were known, had sent another boatload of colonists for Plymouth that fall. Only weeks after their 1621 harvest celebration, the Pilgrims were surprised by the arrival of the ship Fortune. The thirty-five new settlers on board, including family and friends from the Pilgrim congregation in Leiden, would nearly double the colony’s depleted ranks, and the Pilgrims were initially elated.
Their joy was tempered when they discovered that the London merchants had again insisted on adding numerous strangers to the passenger list, “many of them wild enough,” in Governor William Bradford’s words. What was worse, they had arrived with few clothes, no bedding or pots or pans, and “not so much as biscuit cake or any other victuals,” as Bradford bitterly recalled. Indeed, the London merchants had not even provisioned the ship’s crew with sufficient food for the trip home.
The result was that, rather than having “good plenty” for the winter, the Pilgrims, who had to provide food for the Fortune’s return voyage and feed an additional thirty-five mouths throughout the winter, once again faced the prospect of starvation. Fearing that the newcomers would “bring famine upon us,” the governor immediately reduced the weekly food allowance by half. In the following months hunger “pinch[ed] them sore.”
To compound their adversity, not long after the First Thanksgiving, the Pilgrims received a message from the nearby Narragansett Indians threatening war. Fearing for their safety, the depleted band began a frenzied construction of a log palisade around their tiny settlement. (By the end of February they would complete a wall of logs eight feet high and twenty-seven hundred feet long!) We tend to close the book on the Pilgrims’ story with the small band feasting around the Thanksgiving table. It was actually but the briefest of interludes to a year of almost unimaginable hardships, and as the year drew to a close, the Pilgrims not one but two imminent threats: hunger and the Narragansett, starvation and war.
But that is not why they were headed out to work on Christmas Day.
They were headed out to work because Christmas Day was no different from any other day, in their estimation. The Pilgrims understood the concept of holidays literally. The word holiday in modern parlance is simply the elision of the two-word phrase “holy day.” As they read their Bibles, the Pilgrims concluded that God alone could command that a day be set apart as holy unto the Lord, and nowhere in the Scripture could they find any commandment to celebrate the birth of Christ. As the Pilgrims’ pastor in Holland had remarked to them, nowhere in the Bible are we even told that December 25th was Jesus’ birthday. At the time that the Pilgrims fled England for Holland, the Church of England recognized twenty-seven holy days annually (down from ninety-five at the time that Henry VIII broke with Rome). The survival of so many holidays on the Anglican calendar was evidence, in the minds of English Puritans, of the degree to which the Church of England still suffered from “the gross darkness of popery.” Holidays like Christmas (and even Easter) were “papist inventions” that primarily served as a pretext for pagan celebrations.
The “strangers” recently arrived on the Fortune didn’t see it that way, however. In his famous history Of Plymouth Plantation, Governor William Bradford concluded his review of the events of 1621 with a humorous story of what happened that Christmas:
On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used [i.e., as was customary]. But the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game similar to cricket] and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.
A colleague of mine at the University of Washington once used the paragraph above as the text for his Christmas cards. An Englishman and a historian of colonial America, he sent the cards primarily for laughs, to tweak his American friends. There are also more substantive reasons to remember this story at Christmas time. Bradford’s anecdote reminds us of history’s greatest value: the gift of allowing us to see our own moment in time from the vantage point of another.
Although we are historical creatures, none of us naturally thinks historically. We come into the world taking for granted that the way things are now is the way that they have always been. As we gradually come to discover otherwise, we then gravitate to a worse historical error, the assumption that the way things are now—though different from the past—is both inevitable and superior to what came before. The result is that we are freed from thinking deeply about the values we hold. Indeed, to the degree that we see them as inevitable or “natural,” we may not even be self-conscious about them at all.
Bradford’s anecdote reminds us that Christians—even in our part of the world—have not always thought of Christmas as we do. When the English Puritans briefly controlled Parliament in the middle of the seventeenth century, they actually enacted a national law prohibiting observance of the day. On this side of the water, Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England. Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659. The ordinance below continued on the books of the Massachusetts government until 1681:
It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof 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 any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.
Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence. Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century. Certainly, as late as the Civil War, the South was much more supportive of Christmas than was the North, where the anniversary of the Pilgrims’ landing on December 22nd was the more commonly observed December celebration.
Like most of you, I imagine, my family has developed over time an assortment of Christmas traditions that we remember fondly and look forward to unapologetically. None of us need follow William Bradford’s example by prohibiting celebrations this Sunday. But it wouldn’t hurt us to think about why we do what we do. In its essence, that is the practice that Bradford was modeling for us. We don’t have to arrive at his exact conclusions to take his reminder to heart.
In England and the United States, at least, most of the Christmas traditions we now think of as timeless emerged during the latter half of the 1800s. Many of these are surely wonderful—I know I’m thankful for Christmas carols, Christmas trees, Christmas cookies, and Christmas Eve candlelight services. Some are not so positive. The most obvious is the orgy of buying now so central to the holiday. But even more pernicious—because less blatant—is the way that, even within our churches, we have narrowed the theological significance of the Incarnation to a sentimental story about a baby in a manger, emphasizing the love of God while severing the miracle of the Incarnation from the human need for Atonement and the divine promise of an already/not yet Kingdom.
For unto us a Child is born, Unto us a Son is given; And the government will be upon His shoulder. And His name will be called Wonderful, Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of His government and peace There will be no end, Upon the throne of David and over His kingdom, To order it and establish it with judgment and justice From that time forward, even forever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this. (Isaiah 9:6-7)
Merry Christmas one and all!