Some people say Christmas has changed. Like it came home from college and the family doesn’t even recognize it anymore.

What happened to those altruistic days of yore, when frigid nights were warmed by thoughts of free stuff? When your behavior transformed from “sassy-mouthed brat” to “tolerable in public” in an effort to improve the grandeur of your gifts? When your greatest holiday stress was ensuring your naughty deeds list (i.e., painting the dog) didn’t outweigh your good deeds list (i.e., washing said dog with a backyard hose and a full bottle of Pert)?

In hindsight, Christmas may have gotten a little out of control. The celebration of Jesus’ birth became a commercial boon. The commercial boon became an excuse to hand friends and relatives 20-point Christmas wish lists complete with size/color specifications and meticulously ordered from “Most wanted” to “Wanted today but I’ll never really use, appreciate or be seen with in public.”

It kind of makes you long for an old-fashioned Christmas, the kind where candles were lit on freshly cut firs and young women lingered under mistletoe waiting to be kissed. (Not that the kiss wasn’t a joy unto itself, but tradition held that it foretold good luck and future marriage, so long as the mistletoe was burned at the end of Christmas’ 12th night. If not, a spinster the lady would remain.)

In trying to replicate a classic Christmas, though, I wouldn’t shoot for a New England one circa 1659. That was the year the Massachusetts Bay Colony General Court banned Christmas:

“For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.”

Christmas had been banned over a decade earlier in England, on account of the Puritans in charge thinking the holiday led to drunkenness and disorderly conduct. According to some accounts, pro-Christmas rioting broke out in some English cities following the ban. I didn’t read of any rioting in New England, but I’d like to think folks put together covert tree-trimming operations and maybe hung holly on doorways under the cover of night, to the horror of their Puritan neighbors. Maybe they even — gasp — ate well on Christmas day (hiding the leftovers under the mattress, of course, lest they be fined).

The ban wasn’t so much Christmas’ fault as it was the tradition of flagrant revelry that the holiday inspired. Take wassailing, an old-timey salutation for wishing health to another person, as an example. The practice soon evolved into door-to-door caroling, after which the singers demanded food and drink. Home-dwellers provided wassail bowls for the occasion, which were filled with mulled wine or spiced ale and passed among the visiting carolers.

After a block of sing-for-a-drink bartering, most carolers were likely drunk with Christmas spirit. But mostly just drunk.

The English also practiced orchard wassails, where they’d sing to trees in apple orchards in hopes of a good harvest (while alternately shouting, banging pots and shooting into the trees).

Luckily for us modern-day celebrants, the Massachusetts Bay Colony law was repealed in 1681. But it’s still an out for Scrooges of today who can withhold their personal resentments and simply say, “I’m going to Christmas like it’s 1659.” Most people won’t have any idea what that means, and it’ll deter hostile exchanges over punch at the office holiday party.

The rest of us — who dig a bit of eggnog, a well-lit tree and the flurry of torn wrapping paper (not to mention a much-appreciated day off) — are free to drape our doors with holly without fear of monetary penalties.

We should probably wander to the neighbor’s house for some riotous caroling and a mug of mulled wine — you know, just to stick it to the Puritanical man. Because it’s Christmas.

Staff Writer Shannon Bryan can be contacted at 791-6333 or at:

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