J. L. BELL is a Massachusetts writer who specializes in (among other things) the start of the American Revolution in and around Boston. He is particularly interested in the experiences of children in 1765-75. He has published scholarly papers and popular articles for both children and adults. He was consultant for an episode of History Detectives, and contributed to a display at Minute Man National Historic Park.

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Monday, December 23, 2019

A “Publick Notice” about Christmas and Its Real Source

This image gets a lot of circulation this time of year, supposedly illustrating Puritan New England’s laws against celebrating Christmas. Often it’s attached to the year 1660.

It’s been featured on Mass Moments and other websites. And it’s always looked suspect to me, Donna Seger at Streets of Salem, Lee Wright at The History List, and other folks I’ve talked to.

To begin with, the typography is suspicious, indicating a modern compositor trying to replicate antique style without really knowing how. The long s is usually rendered as an f with the crossbar all the way across, but that long s is missing altogether in “similar.” There are no ligatures. The elevated C in the first line would be almost impossible to produce with hand type held in place by leading.

The “folds” are awfully conveniently placed so as not to really impede reading the message. We can see lines of text on the other side of the paper, which doesn’t usually happen in real seventeenth-century printing.

Furthermore, as Snopes found, that isn’t actually the text of the Massachusetts ban on Christmas. As enacted in 1651, Chapter 50, Section 2, of the colonial laws said:
For preventing disorders arising in several places within this Jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such Festivals, as were Superstitiously kept in other Countries, to the great dishonour of God and offence 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 labour, feasting, or any other way upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending, shall pay for every such offence five shillings as a fine to the county.
Here’s a reprint of the 1672 edition of Massachusetts’s laws. Taking off work and feasting were concerns for the Puritans, but “the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings” wasn’t yet the center of Christmas in America.

Snopes also discovered an item in the 2 Nov 1963 Freeport Journal-Standard crediting this exact text—including every out-of-place f—to “the Atlantic Monthly magazine.” The 27 Dec 1969 Baton Rouge Advocate was even more specific, citing “a subscription renewal advertisement” in the magazine.

Looking at Atlantic Monthly volumes on Google Books, I found the image above with the misused letters and the artificial folds in the magazine as early as 1969 and as late as 1982. Indeed, it was part of a subscription promotion. I suspect a more thorough search of printed volumes would pinpoint just when that ad started to run and thus when this visual myth entered American culture.

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