Christmas gets a cheeky defense
Published December 29, 2022
By John Hood
One of the ironies of the holiday calendar is that Christmas follows closely after Thanksgiving. Many of the Pilgrims and Puritans who helped make Thanksgiving an American tradition were appalled by and opposed to the celebration of Christmas.
One of my ancestors, the pioneering Connecticut publisher John Tully, made a big stink about the issue back in the 1680s. Tully’s defense of Christmas came not from an outsider, however, but from someone with strong marital ties to the Puritan aristocracy.
The tale begins not with Tully but with the Puritan settler Nicholas Danforth, who arrived in Massachusetts in the early 1630s. A surveyor by trade, Danforth was a major landowner in Cambridge, an original member of its church, and in 1635 served as its representative to the Massachusetts legislature. Nicholas Danforth, who was my 10th great-grandfather, also served on the panel that created what would soon be known as Harvard College. The Danforth family was to play a significant role at Harvard, and in the public life of Massachusetts, for generations.
America’s first printing press arrived at Harvard in 1639. Shortly thereafter, Nicholas Danforth’s son Samuel enrolled at Harvard College. Among his academic interests was astronomy, which perhaps explains why Samuel Danforth began using the Harvard press to publish his annual almanac in 1646. His four editions — 1646 through 1649 — constitute the oldest-surviving run of American periodicals.
Meanwhile, Nicholas’s daughter Lydia Danforth married a Connecticut Puritan named William Beaumont. It was their daughter Mary Beaumont who brought my 8th-great grandfather John Tully into the picture by marrying him in 1671.
Tully, who had immigrated to Connecticut from England, began publishing his Tully’s New England Almanac in 1681. It was one of the most-read journals in the English colonies. I don’t know if Tully had received assistance or inspiration for his publishing venture from his wife’s uncle Samuel Danforth at Harvard, but it wouldn’t surprise me a bit.
Tully published his almanac until his death in 1701. Actually, the last issue appeared posthumously in 1702. His main claim to fame was stylistic. According to an 1897 New York Times account, John Tully was the first American to give almanacs “a humorous tone, and his witty remarks and anecdotes were widely read.” Tully’s 1698 almanac also featured the first print illustration ever published in America.
You can see John Tully’s humor at work in one of his most famous causes: challenging the Puritans’ edict against Christmas. During the early decades of the New England colonies, Puritan authorities forbade the celebration of Christmas – and discouraged even mentioning the holiday in public or in print. But in the late 1680s, John Tully decided to challenge the Puritan aversion to Christmas in the pages of his almanac.
In his 1687 edition, Tully printed CHRISTMAS-DAY in big, bold letters on the page for December 25. He also printed the names of other Anglican holy days that Puritan governments had attempted to suppress. The following year, Tully went even further to tweak his critics. At the end of his 1688 almanac, he included a series of satirical predictions for each month. The December prediction made poetic references to the holiday:
This month the Cooks do early rise
To roast their meat & make their Christmas pies…
Poor men at rich men’s tables their guts forage
With roast beef, mince-pies, pudding & plum porridge.
A silly verse, yes, but Tully’s purpose was a serious one — to challenge the misuse of government authority to regulate the gatherings and traditions of free people.
He followed up his poem with more provocation. “This month,” he wrote, “Money and Rum will be in great request; and he that hath the first shall not fear wanting the latter.” Tully concluded one of his predictions with this suggestion: if it didn’t come true, he wrote, readers should “light tobacco, or make bum-fodder with our Observations.” In other words, John Tully was inviting any critical readers to use his almanac for toilet paper.
John Hood is a John Locke Foundation board member. His latest books, Mountain Folk and Forest Folk, combine epic fantasy with early American history.