Father Christmas, Get Thee Hence!
Why We Have No Christmas at Plimoth Plantation
Each Thanksgiving, national attention turns to the Pilgrims and Plimoth Plantation basks in the warm glow of celebrity. However, the moment must be caught quickly, for scarcely has the Thanksgiving dinner been cleared away before the Christmas season roars in, sweeping away all thoughts of the Pilgrim festival—and the Plantation.
We are sometimes asked if Plimoth Plantation could latch onto the Christmas holiday magic as well. Christmas provides a popular—and lucrative—opportunity for many museums. Michigan’s Greenfield Village has an enormous indoor Christmas tree, sleigh rides and other Christmas observations. Colonial Williamsburg spruces itself up with “colonial” decorations, parades, and other events for what is one of the most profitable seasons of the museum’s year.
The insurmountable objection to Christmas at Plimoth Plantation—or for that matter, at any museum of early New England life—is that Christmas simply wasn’t a part of the New England history. At Plymouth in December, 1620, a rainy Christmas day was spent building the new houses. Aboard the Mayflower, Master Jones passed around a special ration of beer, but for those ashore, there was no observation of the day. The most famous Christmas in Plymouth Colony occurred in 1621. When the colonists were called to work as usual, the new immigrants who had arrived aboard the Fortune two weeks earlier objected to working on the holiday. The Mayflower men went to work in the woods and fields as usual, but when they returned at dinner time, they found the new comers playing at stool-ball, pitching the bar and so forth. Governor Bradford took away their toys and told them that they should not revel in the streets while others worked, and noted that “since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.”
This set the tone for Christmas in New England. The Separatists and Puritans, finding no warrant for Christmas in the Bible, simply rejected the day as one of the nefarious human interventions of which they sought to rid the church. The holiday was made illegal between 1659 and 1681, following English Puritan precedent. When the Restoration of 1660 led to the revival of Christmas in England, New England remained unimpressed and Christmas-less. Christmas was simply another workday for most people in New England until well into the 19th century. Some Episcopalian families and a few others observed the holiday but the majority continued in the New England tradition.
It was only in the 1830s and 1840s that Christmas became popular in New England, and when this happened, it happened quite rapidly. By the turn of the century, intelligent writers such as Elizabeth Cady Stanton felt no hesitation about inventing tales about “Christmas on the Mayflower.” (St. Nicholas Magazine, Dec. 1900) for young readers. Both the Pilgrims and their religious scruples had long since departed. As Plymouth historian W. T. Davis observed for Christmas’ belated arrival here, “I am inclined to think that its observance has found its way through its appeal to the aesthetic rather than the religious sense of the people.” Neither Christmas’ aesthetic or religious element held any appeal for the Pilgrims, and there is no Christmas plum pudding at Plimoth Planatation.