The Merry Boys of Christmas

The following post was written by History Professor Donna Seger of Salem State University. The article is taken from her blog, streetsofsalem.com

One of the most dramatic examples of raucous Christmas revelry happened in Salem Village on Christmas Day, 1679 when four youths barged into the home of John Rowden and started singing loudly before the fire. After a few off-key tunes, they demanded compensation in the form of spirits: perry, in particular, as Rowden maintained a profitable pear orchard and was known to make a pleasing pear cider. According to the record of the subsequent trial: it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and to drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went”.Rowden and his wife were not pleased with the songs, or the demands, so they sent the young men away, but they quickly returned with a scrap of lead which they tried to pass off as coin to pay for their perry. The Rowdens rebuffed them again, and then all hell broke loose. According to Mr. Rowden’s testimony, The threw stones, bones, and other things against the house. They beat down much of the daubing in several places and continued to throw stones for an hour and a half with little intermission. They also broke down about a pole and a half of fence, being stone wall, and a cellar, without the house, distant about four or five rods, was broken open through the door, and five or six pecks of apples were stolen.” This was a case of Christmas wassailing gone bad, very bad, recounted by Stephen Nissenbaum in his wonderful book The Battle for Christmas as “The Salem Wassail” and a great example of why Puritans on both side of the Atlantic abhorred Christmas. Their power in both Parliament and the Massachusetts Bay Colony resulted in the great Christmas ban of the mid-17th century: from 1651 to 1660 in England and 1659 to 1681 in Massachusetts.

THE VINDICATION OF CHRISTMAS, 1652, LAMENTING THE PROHIBITION OF ITS “KEEPING” IN ENGLAND DURING THE INTERREGNUM.

There were three major reasons why the Puritans hated Christmas. Their insistence on scriptural authority cast doubt on its date, as nowhere in the Bible does it say that the Nativity occurred on December 25th. They could only conclude, very reasonably, that some ancient winter festival, the Roman Saturnalia or the Winter Solstice, had determined this date, and that the Christian Church had merely adopted and assimilated it: consequently Christmas was perceived as a pagan holiday with a Christian gloss. Given their mandate to purify the Church of all its non-scriptural “traditions” and Popish trappings, it became a conspicuous target. The third reason was primarily social: the Christmas that the Puritans targeted was “Old Christmas”, or “Merry Christmas”, which they saw principally as a prolonged season–Christmastide, which could stretch beyond the twelve days of Christmas to encompass all of December and January–of disorder, misrule, and excess. In Cotton Mather’s words, the “Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spend 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…..”.  By the time Matherwrote this, “Old Christmas” had returned to England with the Restoration of the Stuart monarchy. Salem seems a little behind the times in 1679 when those young men wassailed the Rowdens so crudely; indeed in that same year the government of Charles II begin requesting that the Massachusetts General Court repeal its anti-Christmas law. If the Rowden revelers had been a bit less rude (and much better singers) one wonders if they would have been let off as mere “merry boys of Christmas”, the subjects of a popular British ballad who cast off all constraints in their keeping of Christmas: these Holidays we’l briskly drink, all mirth we will devise, No Treason we will speak or think, then bring us brave mine’d Pies: Roast Beef and brave Plum-Porridge, our Loyal hearts to chear: Then prithee make no more ado, but bring us Christmas Beer!

Keeping “Old” Christmas and the “Merry Boys of Christmas” broadside woodcut illustrations from 1680s; Christmas Carols return to Old England at about this time, but New England will have to wait a bit longer.

Dedicated to my friends at the Salem Historical Society and Creative Salem, big supporters of history AND revelry.