Monday, December 8, 2014

How did the Scots Irish celebrate Christmas?

Why was it that the Scots Irish settlers at Londonderry, New Hampshire spent all night celebrating weddings, but ignored Christmas?  They would dance and drink at celebrations of weddings, funerals, births, so we know they knew how to throw a good party.  What did they have against Christmas?

The Ulster Presbyterians were Calvinists.  This is why the Puritan government of Massachusetts allowed the first Scots Irish ministers to first come to their colony as pastors.  Men like the Presbyterian Reverends Thomas Craighead and William Homes were very close in religious sympathies with the Puritans. This was a big step for the Puritan government, to allow ministers of "other" religions to come to the colony of Massachusetts. But as Calvinists, they were considered acceptable.   For this reason they were invited to come from Scotland to Massachusetts as ministers, but sent to the outskirts of Cape Cod since they were not exactly English.

And did the Puritans celebrate Christmas?  Certainly not.  They celebrated no religious holidays whatsoever, and considered them very Catholic.  The only religious holidays they celebrated were Fast Days and Days of Thanksgiving.   The General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church in Scotland tried to abolish Christmas in 1638.  And in Puritan England there was no Christmas in 1643, and it was banned by June 1647.  Christmas was not restored until 1660, with the restoration of Charles II to the throne.

However, in the New World, where the Puritans still remained in power, Christmas took even longer to be restored.   In Massachusetts a law was enacted in October 1658 fining 5 shillings for Christmas celebrations.  You can find business transactions and even General Court records for New England colonies  for December 25th, and no mention of religious celebrations on that day. Churches were closed and businesses were open. 

For some great examples of the Scots Irish settlers of Londonderry “whooping it up” you can read the first two chapters of Horace Greeley’s book Recollections of a Busy Life, published in 1872.   He describes his childhood in New Hampshire, and gives a short history of the Nutfield settlement.  Pages 23 – 25 describe the wild celebrations of a wedding, and of a funeral wake.  He states “… there was more humor, more play, more fun, more merriment, in that Puritan community, than can be found anywhere…”.  

Apparently the Ulster Presbyterians learned about holding a good Irish wake during their few generations in Northern Ireland.  And the wild practice of “Shivaree” for a Scots Irish wedding night is well known.  Just because they ignored Christmas, it didn’t mean that they didn’t know how to have a good time!

For the truly curious:

“Christmas – a Sacrilege”, by Jo Ann Butler of the Rebel PuritAn blog

“Christmas in Puritan New England” at Wikipedia

The Autobiography of Horace Greeley: or, Recollections of a busy life   (read online or download from )

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Copyright © 2014, Heather Wilkinson Rojo


  1. Fascinating, Heather. Thanks! Now I can pass off my occasional Grinch-y moments as just hereditary!

  2. Somehow I'd missed learning this, Heather - thanks for posting and explaining the rationale. Makes great sense, actually. My experience of Christmas on the West Coast (read: wet coast) of Canada is that we had family mornings on Christmas Day, extended family for evening dinners, and we visited neighbours and friends on Boxing Day (a holiday as well).

  3. Thanks for your insight. I am of Scots-Irish descent and I've always felt indifferent to Christmas. Recently attended a funeral and it was actually a good time with laughs and hugs.

  4. It was only about 60 years ago that Scotland started holding Christmas. It was always and just the New Year which was held. The Free Presbyterian of Scotland still don't recognize Christmas.

  5. Okay, got to look up 'shivaree' now. I'm intrigued.