Be Merry and Drink Perry

One of the most famous colonial Christmas “incidents” occurred here in Salem on Christmas night, 1679: the so-called (by Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas) “Salem Wassail”. In the old English wassailing tradition, but quite contrary to the prevalent Puritan culture of Salem, four young men from Salem Village burst into the remote home of 72-year-old John Rowden and began singing before his hearth in an effort to entice him to offer them some of his (apparently renown) pear wine, or perry. Rowden and his family tried to get the intruders to leave, but they responded that “it was Christmas Day at night and they came to be merry and drink perry, which was not to be had anywhere else but here, and perry they would have before they went.”  The Rowdens were steadfast (after all Christmas revelry was actually illegal in the colony from 1659-1681), but wavered a bit when the young men offered them some money for the wine, “coins” which turned out to be pieces of lead. More pleading, a request for directions to Marblehead  (apparently not as dry as Salem), and then the young men stoned the Rowden homestead in demand of perry. Desperate times call for desperate measures, and as we all know, the holidays can promote rather disorderly behavior. The seventeenth-century “war on Christmas”, provoked by Puritans who saw no scriptural basis for the holiday and associated it with paganism (they were right) and popery, was largely over in Old England at the time of the “Salem Wassail” and it would soon end in New England as well.

Here and now, I have stocked up for my Christmas visitors with perry ( a traditional local version from Russell Orchards in Ipswich and a more festive sparkling variety–see below) as well as other spirits: I don’t want to get stoned.




Bonny Doon Vineyards Sparkling Perry label (there’s also quite a few artisanal pear CIDERS on the market now–not sure if they are the same as perry; Russell Orchards makes both); two tracts from the war on Christmas in the 17th century: The Vindication of Christmas (1653) and Merry Boys of Christmas, or The Milk-Maids New Years-Gift (1660).

5 responses to “Be Merry and Drink Perry

  • particle_person

    Have you read John Taylor’s “The Complaint of Christmas and the Teares of Twelfetide” (1631)? It’s pretty funny and it’s packed with details about Christmas customs in the 17th century. There seems to have been a popular tendency to anthropomorphize Christmas as a character in the 17th C. for humorous purposes, judging by Taylor and the first tract above. (I’ve seen a few other examples also.)

    • particle_person

      (It’s in EEBO, if you want to check it out.)

      • daseger

        Thanks–I saw Taylor years ago and don’t know why I didn’t think of him for this post–perfect. I’m going to it up now: one of the things I am most grateful for at my university is the EEBO database!

  • Alastair Savage

    How funny that your perry comes from Ipswich because the original Ipswich in England is in the heart of orchard country in the UK, and its a massive centre of apple production.
    I guess the most famous form of perry that most people would have tried is that 1970s staple, Babycham, although maybe that never made it across the pond?

  • cecilia

    What an excellent story, naughty boys, and now I must investigate this Perry, maybe I can make some! c

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