A Bewitching of Christmas Past (I)

The Puritans may have had a hand in inventing Thanksgiving (although like other iconic moments of American history it took the re-imagining by Abraham Lincoln to give it place in our historical canon), but the Puritans certainly had nothing to do with Christmas. They not only waged the first war on Christmas, they argued not celebrating it was central to their religious freedom, itself a principal reason for their settling America.

Increase Mather painted by John van der Spriett in 1688.

Increase Mather, the original New World Puritan intellectual and divine, lists the observance of Christmas third in his enumeration of profane practices (below drinking to another’s health, and playing dice) in his Testimony Against several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practised by some in New-England (London: 1687). His reasons were fundamentalist (the early Christians did not celebrate it and there is no mention of it in the Acts of the Apostles), scholarly (or at least anti-Scholastic: he rebuts the reasoning of the medieval sophists who picked the date and observes: “It is not probable that the Shepherds would be abroad watching their Flocks in the Depth of Winter. … Nor is it likely that Augustus should enjoin all his Subjects throughout the whole Roman World to travel into their own cities in the midst of Winter, as he did at the Time when Christ was born.”), and historical (the feast in fact is based on the pagan Saturnalian Festival in December, which also involved gift-giving and worse customs borrowed by papists).  Another reason was particularly Puritanical. Those jealous of the Reformation should steer clear of papal superstition: “Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? i.e., Christ and Antichrist.” It was, he suspected another Jesuit trick to have people “keep up their old terms and names, such as Priest, Altar, Christ-mass, Candlemass, and the like, hoping that by means thereof in time the things would follow the Names whereby their memory is preserved.”

But there was a practical objection as well. Celebrants usually debauched themselves. “The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that Festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparatively that spend those Holidays (as they are called) after an Holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth; Will Christ the holy Son of God be pleased with such Services?” And the merriment lasted for 12 long days and longer nights. “Men dishonour Christ more in the 12 Days of Christmas, than in all the 12 Months besides.”

Christmas had only recently become an issue in the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Originally there were so few non-Puritans that they never failed to confirm on this point. But by 1659 the  colony had become distressingly diverse to those who believed Massachusetts was supposed to be the New Jerusalem. Quakers, whose egalitarianism became increasingly suspect, despite Cromwell’s tolerance, during the Commonwealth and certainly afterward, were regarded in Massachusetts as the major threat to Puritan society. Criminal laws were designed to discourage or expel the heterodox. Among the lesser restrictions was the ban on Christmas celebrations. But eventually the monarchy returned and Charles II was not inclined to allow any disabilities on Church of England members or even Quakers. So Attorney General Geoffrey Palmer wrote demanding revocation of the laws burdening non-Puritans. After a commission studied (and delayed) the matter for as long as they thought prudent, in 1685 the General Court repealed the ban on Christmas, as well as other more serious laws, such as capital punishment for the return of banished Quakers.

That winter there was not much change. On Christmas Day 1685 Samuel Sewall, who would soon enter history as one of the magistrates who condemned the Salem witches, noted in his diary his satisfaction that few observed the day (Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th series, vol 5 (1878), p 114):

“Friday. Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual. Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe that the Body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compell them to keep it. A great Snow fell last night so this day and night very cold.”

Sewall’s odd delight in that the day is profaned is so very Puritan. And chilling in its context. The day before Sewall buried his son, “Little Henry.” Governor Bradstreet and the Magistrates of the County attended, as well as eight ministers and “Several Persons of note.” He described the funeral process until finally the babe in “its Chesnut Coffin ’twas set into a Grave (The Tomb full of water) between 4 and 5.” The 21st Psalm was sung. The baby had just been baptized on the 13th. It died the past Tuesday morning after Sewall had been at prayer.

“By that time had done, could hear little Breathing, and so about Sun-rise, or little after, he fell asleep, I hope in Jesus, and that a Mansion was ready for him in the Father’s House. Died in Nurse Hill’s Lap. Nurse Hill washes and layes him out: because our private Meeting hath a day of Prayer tomorrow, Thorsday Mr. Willard’s Lecture, and the Child dying after Sunrise (wether cloudy), have determined to bury on Thorsday after Lecture.” (p 113.)

On Christmas eve, after the funeral, he mused: “The Lord humble me kindly in respect of all my Enmity against Him, and let his breaking my Image in my Son be a means of it. Considerable snow this night.”

No, it was not possible for a people like the Puritans to abide a celebration full of the kind of sentimentality associated with Christmas. That wasn’t what life was about for them.

Years later, after England dissolved the charter and sent a governor appointed by the Crown, after the second Indian war, after the trials and executions of the witches, after he confessed his regret for his role, indeed, after he had become a respectable modern liberal who even wrote an anti-slavery book, Sewall could not bring himself to endorse the celebration. In December 1722 he had a conference with Royal Governor Samuel Shute, himself a descendant of Puritans, but now of the Church of England. The governor wanted the General Court not to sit on Christmas because he would be taking communion. Sewall, now chief justice of the colony, said: “the Dissenters came a great way for their Liberties and now the Church had theirs, yet they could not be contented, except they might Tread all others down.” (Collections of the Massachusetts Historical Society, 5th series, vol 7 (1882), p 315). When Christmas came, he took delight in noting: “The Shops were open, and Carts came to Town with Wood, Hoop-poles, Hay &c. as at other Times; Being a pleasant day, the ‘street was fill’d with Carts and Horses.” (p 316.)

In the great year of the witches, 1692, Sewall was solidly among the most orthodox Puritans. God had certainly tried the elect, but it was no more than one tries silver or gold. And so they survived the first Indian war. They had also survived the rule of the English after their charter was dissolved and the execrable Edmund Andros presided over them. God and the good Puritans arrested and dispatched him back to England soon after news of the Glorious Revolution arrived in New England. There was, it was true, another Indian war going on in 1692. It did not begin with the kind of stunning brutality nor spread the kind of terror as the one against the Wampanoag confederacy two decades before. But this time, the French were behind the Abenaki and Pennacook, and the French were intent on driving the English from what they saw as Canada by whatever means available.

Cotton Mather. Engraving based on portrait by Peter Pelham. (American Antiquarian Society.)

Then it all began. Not long after Twelfth Night (which Puritans no more celebrated than they did Christmas) 1692 (1691 old style), the daughter of the Salem minister and her friend began acting just like Martha Goodwin (and later two brothers and one sister) four years earlier. What happened in 1688 was a severe and very perplexing trial of faith for the Saints. Legally, it resulted in the trial, conviction and execution of Goody Glover who refused the ministrations of Cotton Mather and his exhortations that she confess her sins to the Lord. Because she refused to deny her consort with Satan, there was nothing the magistrates could do for her except sentence her to hang. But even after the witch’s death, Martha’s (and her siblings’) affliction did not abate. So Cotton Mather took her in to study her behavior, to pray over her, to try to win back her soul, but as importantly to discover what could be learned from this view into the realm of the damned.

Cotton Mather brought to bear on these mysteries a more analytical, a more learned intellect than even that of his father, Increase Mather. He knew that there would not be a simple solution. The damned, of course, were never interested in teaching us lessons for our salvation, and in this case, whatever they were about, the “condemned prisoners of our Atmosphere have not really sent Letters of Thanks from Hell, to those that are on Earth, promoting of their Interest …” Even so, whether they wanted to or not, they would be required to “confess that Jesus was the Holy one of God.” But that would persuade no one who was not amenable to persuasion: “should one of those hideous Wights appear visibly with fiery chains upon him, and utter audibly his roarings and his warnings in one of our Congregations, it would not produce new Hearts in those whom the Scriptures handled in our Ministry do not affect.” But it behooved all minister of the Lord to use whatever was at his disposal to reclaim souls, and it was for that reason that Cotton Mather published his observations in the case of Martha Goodwin: Memorable Providences, Relating to Witchcrafts and Possessions (Boston: R[ichard] P[ierce] 1689).

[In this and all other references to contemporaneously published accounts of the witchcraft epidemic in Salem, I use the texts contained in Narratives of the Witchcraft Cases 1648-1706, ed. George Lincoln Burr (NY: Charles Scribner’s Sons: 1914).]

Mather was only 25 when he took on the Goodwin case, but there was never a question of his competence. Three years before he became a full pastor at his father’s church, North Church in Boston. He was about to join issue with Andros, tyrant and enemy of New Jerusalem. The battle for little Martha Goodwin’s soul was just another assignment.

The case began in summer when Martha questioned the washerwoman about a wash that she was taking away. Martha thought that the woman was stealing the family linen. Unfortunately, the laundress had a mother of singular repute; her late husband claimed she was a witch and said it would be proved after his death. It was this old woman who said the words in defense of her daughter that sent Martha into seizures beyond anything epilepsy produced. Soon one of her sisters and two of her brothers were seized with the same fits. For weeks their bodies would be contorted violently, and they would assume positions that seemed impossible without broken bones. The parents refused superstitious remedies, relying on prayer only, but it did not help.

Glover was arrested. She failed to deny witchcraft and was imprisoned. While she was in custody another boy in Town was striken. The authorities searched her house and found dolls of children stuffed with goat hair. At trial when she stroked one, one of the Goodwin children fell down in fits. Glover only spoke Irish during the trial. Her behavior was so bizarre that the magistrates had her evaluated by doctors. They observed her minutely. During the examination they found that she could recite the pater noster in Latin, although she couldn’t do it in English when first arrested. The doctors found her mentally competent, so she was sentenced to death.

Mather met with the witch in prison where she hinted to him of her meetings with her Prince, who Mather knew was Satan. She refused prayer. On her way to the gallows she told Mather the fits would not stop with her death because others were involved.

The children continued in their torment—not only with seizures, but also with attempts at self-destruction by drowning or burning or strangulation. When any religious matter was discussed or the Bible read, they suffered extreme misery and tried to stop their ears or drown out the sound. Mather tried to get Martha to read the Bible but she couldn’t. She was, however, able to read a Quakers Book (except for the names Jesus and God). She could also read a popish book, but nothing by Mather’s father. She could read the Book of Common Prayer (one of the innovations in the English Church that triggered the Puritan revolt) but her eyes avoided the parts that contained the Lord’s Prayer. She would go into agony when someone in the room read the bible silently, even in Greek or Hebrew. (The demons that tormented her, however, seemed not sensible to certain inferior languages.)

As time went on the fits came less and less frequently. There was a time that she demonstrated “sauciness”—free-spirited impertinence that was not even a small part of the Puritan world view. When Christmas arrived that year a remarkable thing happened. Martha at Mather’s house and a sister at her own house got drunk (without ingesting anything, of course). She said: “O they say they will have me to keep Christmas with them! They will disgrace me when they can do nothing else!” And she then began acting the drunk until she passed out.

Soon the fits passed. She had one last one that all who witnessed it thought would kill her. She recovered and never had another attack at Mather’s house.

The children again were attacked not long after, but not with as much virulence. Eventually it stopped. Mather believed the “strange death” of another hag was partly responsible for their deliverance. But also prayer was effective.

When Mather’s book was printed it included the introductory remarks of four puritan ministers. They concluded that materialism , that “old Heresy of the sensual Sadduccees,” was insufficient to explain the phenomena related by Mather. To disprove the power of pure materialistic explanations was one reason that God is pleased “to suffer Devils sometimes to do such things in the world as shall stop the mouth of gainsayers, and extort a Confession from them.” As for deep metaphysical truths, they are of course beyond us. “The Secrets also of God’s Providence, in permitting Satan and his Instruments to molest His children, not in their Estates only, but  their Persons and their Posterity too, are part of His Judgments that are unsearchable, and His Wayes that are past finding out; only this we have good Assurances for, that they are among the All things that work together for their good.”

The volume, though frightening in its details of Satan’s attacks on young children, ended quite neatly. The death of the witches ended Satan’s torment. Prayer had worked. God had not yet abandoned his chosen people.

When 1692 came around, the resolution would not be so neat. The witches were not as complaisant to their captors; the accusing children not quite so innocent. The magistrates had choices to make, and not everyone believed they made the right ones. And the witches were not only old demented hags also but included men, even a pastor. But Cotton Mather was there again assuring all that demons did exist and that witchcraft was a clear and present danger, even if it could not be seen or felt. And again Mather took in a tormented girl to study. She was not a girl of devout, godly parents who tried to save her with their prayers. But that is for a later part of this story. (Part II is found here.)

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