SALEM — The only Christmas giving in Massachusetts in 1668, the year The House of the Seven Gables was built, were 5 shilling fines payable to the colony’s coffers. Fears of debauchery, like the kind witnessed in England back then, prompted a colony-wide ban on Christmas that wasn’t lifted until 1681. As far as the Massachusetts Puritans were concerned, December 25 was just another a workday. And despite the ban’s repeal, the disdain for Christmas persisted well into the 19th century.
Over time, of course, things changed. And The House of the Seven Gables, now 351 years old, is poised to elaborate. From Friday, November 29, through Tuesday, December 31, the usual tours of the historic Turner-Ingersoll mansion (also known as The House of the Seven Gables) will be replaced with “Four Centuries of Christmas” house tours. As visitors pass through the rooms of the grand old mansion they will pass through decades and traditions, too. By the time the tour is concluded, the house — with help from The Gables’ professional tour guides — will have demonstrated first-hand how Christmas acquired its hold on America.
“As the tour progresses through the house, we see how things began to change,” says Dan Marshall, historian and manager of visitor services at The Gables. The biggest changes, and the most exuberant embrace of the holiday, are revealed in the parlor. A photograph that the Uptons, residents at The Gables in the late nineteenth century, took of their Christmas tree helped today’s stewards see how holidays were celebrated 200 years after the ban.
“The holiday tour,” says Marshall, “helps tell the story of how the celebration of Christmas changed over four centuries. The Puritans who settled in Massachusetts had strong arguments against the celebration. From a religious standpoint,” he says, “the date of the birth of Jesus was not in the Bible. The Puritans saw the English holiday as a time when there was a lot of eating, drinking and general chaos. They didn’t want to invite what they saw as pagan-inspired rituals into their own customs.”
But customs did evolve, as those taking the holiday tour will see for themselves. Marshall says the 19th century German traditions Queen Victoria brought to England were adopted. Christmas trees and legends about Santa Claus followed. By the early 20th century, there was no eradicating Christmas from American culture.