Last week when I wrote about the creation of an American Hanukkah holiday, I mentioned that, like the Jewish festival of lights, Christmas wasn’t always widely celebrated in America.
“Idolatrie in a crust,” Puritans fulminated – or at least their satirists said they did – against the traditional Christmas food of mincemeat pie, and that pretty much captures their attitude to the holiday in general.
How could these committed Christians not like Christmas? The holiday marks the birth of Jesus, to believers the messiah (or Christ, Greek for anointed) whose coming is foretold by the Old Testament. Trouble is, nothing in Scripture identifies Christmas Day – December 25 – as Jesus’s birthday. The Gospel of Luke does tell a story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth, without giving a date for the holy infant’s arrival. So how did we end up celebrating this world-changing event on December 25? In the fourth century, the Church pragmatically decided on that date since it fell around the winter solstice, an event that was widely celebrated. With their decision, Church leaders sought to Christianize the popular winter festival. The flip side was – as Puritans would later point out – that pagan solstice traditions that looked forward to the fertile growing season and long days of light were absorbed into a Christian observance. Hence today, following our ancestors’ use of greenery and fire to mark the solstice, we put up evergreen trees trimmed with lights to mark Christmas.
Besides the pagan roots of Christmas, Puritans had another objection to the holiday. It was just too raucous. Now, when I say raucous, you may think I mean jolly Englishmen were eating (mincemeat pies), drinking, burping, and singing loudly in the village tavern. Since the Puritans were serious-minded folk, they wouldn’t like that sort of frivolity, would they?
The Puritans’ compatriots were eating and drinking to excess (and presumably therefore also burping.) Ministers like Cotton Mather frowned upon the “long Eating” and “hard Drinking,” not to mention the gaming and fornicating that often went along with them. But it was the singing, or rather the culture around it, that the godly really objected to, historian Stephen Nissenbaum tells us.
Christmastime, with the harvest and slaughter over, was a season when those lower on the social scale could vent the tensions and pressures that had built up over the year. During this short season of plenty and leisure, they escaped their customary roles by dressing like their betters and taunting their social superiors to boot. But beyond that, the lowly insisted on being treated decently, like they really were somebodies. At Christmas, rowdy packs of young men had the right, you better know it, to visit their masters’ homes for food, drink, and even gifts of money. In turn, the youthful visitors regaled their hosts with songs, some with cheery wishes for “a merry New Year” and others with less charming lyrics that promised “if you don’t open up your door/We will lay you flat upon the floor.” Indulgence of all kind, disorder, indiscipline. These were what the Puritans – with their quest for an orderly, godly society – disliked and what Christmas represented to them. And therefore in the Massachusetts Bay colony, the holiday was, from 1659 to 1681, illegal. (Much the same was true in Dutch New Amsterdam. The Quakers, once one of the largest denominations in America, also opposed Christmas.)
And what of the mincemeat pie? Made with minced meat, dried fruits such as raisins and currants, scant sugar (until the 1700s), and spices such as ginger, mace, and cinnamon, the pies were long eaten at Christmastime, though not as a dessert. Puritans, however, associated the spices in the pie with the lavish gifts given by the three wise men to baby Jesus and therefore with the Catholic Church they saw as opulent and superstitious. No mincemeat pie for them. Later, though, when the Puritans’ descendants embraced Christmas, the pie found its rightful place on the holiday table, with Sarah Hale suggesting a version made with Madeira for either Christmas or Thanksgiving.
A true mincemeat pie sound intriguing to you? Our foodie friends at the Washington Post featured a recipe adapted from an early American recipe a couple years ago. Enjoy!