Now, now the mirth comes…
-Robert Herrick (“Twelfth Night: Or, King and Queen,” 1648)
No matter if you celebrate it with latkes or fruitcake, we here at They Knew They Were Pilgrims Inc. hope you enjoyed your holiday season! For my part, I overindulged in Christmas cookies, cheesy potato casserole and pierogi (like I said, however you want to celebrate) but now that listening to “River” by Joni Mitchell on repeat takes up less of my time, I realize that we should probably check in on you dear readers to see if you survived last month’s onslaught.
And while we hope everything went holly jolly for you in the present, how did Christmas go in the 17th Century? (Because I know that’s the question that really kept you from sleeping on Christmas Eve, not the visions of Sugar Plums dancing in your head.) For people living in New Plimoth, the answer to that question actually is, well, not so well.
You see, there are a lot of things I do while working at the Plantation that horrify little children: showing them, literally, how sausage is made (Mom, I’m never eating hot dogs again!), having them help carry muck to my garden (Mom, that’s not in our compost is it?!) or letting them watch me take apart a fish head (Mom, is that how they make fish sticks?!). But for all the gross and smelly things children might encounter while at the Plantation there is one thing which horrifies them even more than discovering Pilgrims didn’t eat pizza: learning that for some of New Plimoth’s residents, there was no Christmas.
Does this mean it was as simple as New Plimoth needing a visit from a Cindy Lou-Who or a claymation reindeer to remind it to have some holiday cheer? Not quite (though I would watch that TV special).
I once had a history professor who joked that while it was false that Pilgrims only wore black, it was absolutely true that they never smiled. He was kidding (I think), but the idea that the Pilgrims were a bunch of buttoned up old prudes who didn’t know what fun was persists. Well, okay, fine, they didn’t know what “fun” was because it wasn’t a word until 1699:
But, semantics aside, the Pilgrims probably knew how to enjoy life more than we give them credit for: after all, Edward Winslow claims that when Massasoit and ninety men came for the First Thanksgiving “for three days we entertained and feasted,” and Emmanuel Altham describes Governor Bradford’s wedding in August of 1623 as having “such good cheer in such quantity that I could wish you some of our share.”
If it was not a case of learning to have fun at other times of the year, what then lead to the lack of Christmas cheer in New Plimoth? The simple answer: it was a case of conscience. William Bradford actually wrote a short vignette about the Christmas of 1621, and as you might have guessed, its not the heartwarming tale we’ve all come to expect when it comes to stories about The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Mister Bradford as it turns out, was a bit of a Grinch:
And herewith I shall end this year. Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth than of weight. On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. 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 matter of conscience, he would spare them till 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 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 it in their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.
The “new company” Bradford writes of is a group of mostly men who arrived the month before on the second ship to bring people to New Plimoth, the Fortune, and whose coming changed the dynamic of the fledgling town considerably. In fact, the Christmas of 1621 was the second Christmas the Pilgrims experienced in the New World – the first, in 1620, occurred about a month and a half after the arrival of the Mayflower when there were other pressing concerns. “Monday, the 25th day,” Edward Winslow says of that Christmas, “we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw, some to rive, and some to carry, so no man rested all that day.” Aside from beginning construction on their town, the Pilgrims also spent Christmas 1620 worrying of an Indian attack and enduring “a sore storm of wind and rain.”
But the passing of a year and the addition of more people threw into sharper relief the differences that existed amongst New Plimoth’s settlers – not all had come with the same religious beliefs, and while some maintained their Church of England faith, others were part of a sect that had now famously separated from said church. These Separatists didn’t celebrate any holidays – Christmas, Easter, and Saint’s Days included – because, according to William Bradford, they wished to live “according to the simplicity of the gospel, without the mixture of men’s inventions.” Translation: while there are stories of the Nativity in the Bible, it doesn’t explicitly say that the birth of Christ occurred on December 25th, nor does it say the day should be marked by, say, playing games in the street.
They say there’s nothing new under the sun, and “The War On Christmas” is no exception; different in its dimensions certainly, but even 400 years ago people couldn’t agree about how the 25th of December should be celebrated. Twenty years later this seemingly small disagreement over some games in New Plimoth would be played out in a large scale during the English Civil War, as a Puritan Parliament under Oliver Cromwell banned Christmas in 1644 (You can ask our Resident English Person, also known as my co-blogger Sally, but I think its safe to celebrate Christmas there now…right?). And throughout the period, those of the Puritan inclination tried to change the name of the day from Christmas to Christ-tide to further distance it from any vestige of Catholicism (so take that “Happy Holidays” debate!).
The moral of the story? If you know what fun is – have it, no matter if its on Christmas, the first (or second, or third, or…) night of Hanukkah, New Year’s Eve, or next Tuesday. There will always be something to argue about later on anyway (and you never know when the Governor might take away your “implements”).
And speaking of fun, technically Christmas isn’t over yet – tomorrow is Twelfth Night, and therefore the perfect opportunity to remind you to read this blog, about that time we recreated Jan Steen’s painting of the same name. If you want to send Christmas out the 17th Century way you can celebrate Twelfth Night by baking a cake with a bean in it, and letting whoever gets the piece with said bean be king or queen for the day. You can even, in the words of poet Robert Herrick, “Add sugar, nutmeg, and ginger/ With store of ale” to make a traditional drink called lamb’s wool if you’re so inclined. Or, if you’re less ambitious, you can rent a version of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night starring Helena Bonham Carter, Geoffrey Rush and every other British actor whose ever lived for $2.99 from iTunes. And because we appreciate all kinds of culture here on the blog, you could even watch that Amanda Bynes movie She’s The Man, because well, that’s actually based off Twelfth Night as far as I can tell.
So from our family to yours, wishing you good cheer in such quantity you’ll want to share, with days that are merry and bright throughout 2013.