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When Christians mindlessly harrumph about the supposed “war on Christmas” in swiftly secularizing American society, their understanding of U.S. history seems a bit thin.
In the first place, Christmas is not some seminal, sacrosanct and historically rooted national holiday in our supposedly “Christian nation,” like, perhaps, Thanksgiving. To be sure, Christmas wasn’t even a recognized holiday in any individual state until 1830, when Louisiana became the first state to so recognize it. Other states in the South followed over the next few years during and after the soul-crushing Civil War when more shared comfort rituals were apparently needed. But Puritan New England was slower to embrace the now-ubiquitous December 25th religious (and now extravagantly commercial) observance.
In fact, Christmas didn’t become an official national holiday in America until President Ulysses S. Grant deemed it so in 1870.
It’s no surprise that Massachusetts, the Puritan center of New England’s colonial heartland and having long officially disdained Christmas celebrations, was among the last states to adapt it as a formal holiday (in 1856). The colonial Massachusetts Bay Colony legislature first officially banned Christmas in the colony on May 11, 1659, levying a fine against any scofflaws. According to the website Historyofmassachusetts.org, the official anti-Christmas decree read:
“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 dishonor of God & offense of others, it is therefore ordered … that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by for-bearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shillings, as a fine to the county” (Charters and General Laws of the Colony 119; Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay 366).
The up-tight, doctrinaire Puritans, with their virulently anti-Catholic pedigree in Britain, viewed quasi-biblical Catholicism’s Christmas observances as “papist” (Catholic) corruptions of the Bible, which itself promotes no such celebration. Even though Puritan authorities eventually allowed Christmas nearly two centuries later, they never liked it. Catholics were reviled amongst the American colonies’ Protestant majority, and for long after, and it wasn’t until 1960 that Americans first elected a Catholic president: John F. Kennedy.
The website History.com grimly characterized the colonial Puritan view of Christmas:
“Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides,” wrote 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer. Christmas in the 1600s was hardly a silent night, let alone a holy one. More befitting a rowdy spring break than a sacred occasion, Christmas revelers used the holiday as an excuse to feast, drink, gamble on dice and card games and engage in licentious behavior.
Colonial Massachusetts’ Christmas prohibition survived 22 years, until 1681, when a new surge of European immigrants demanded official recognition of the holiday and an end to the punitive ordinance — and local Puritan authorities caved to public pressure. But allowing something under pressure is not the same as embracing it.
Christmas, in that context, can be viewed as only tenuously American in an embryonic, traditional sense. Certainly not as a sacred element of our colonial past.
Not that it isn’t deliriously celebrated today with religious and shopping fervor, not to mention — as the Puritans loathed — the zealous imbibing of temporal “spirits” (booze) followed by inevitably unleashed social inhibitions.
But in the beginning, Christmas just wasn’t an inherent part of the American experience, as was, say, Independence Day after the Declaration of Independence and ensuing Revolutionary War.
But because it was associated with the birthday of Jesus Christ, if somewhat imprecisely (who knows exactly when, or if, Jesus was born), the day was still widely observed in the American colonies in ad hoc fashion, even by Puritans. But the above-all-God-fearing Puritans commemorated the occasion “by praying, reflecting on sin and working instead of resting,” the History of Massachusetts site notes.
The Puritans certainly didn’t partake in the bawdier traditional activities of the holy day, which coincided historically with a season of thankful celebration after a long year of hard labor — when there was “plenty of freshly fermented beer or wine and lots of freshly slaughtered meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled.”
And the Puritans especially didn’t cotton to the season’s “wassailing” custom, in which high-spirited, cross-dressing young people in trick-or-treat fashion traveled door-to-door singing carols in exchange for gifts of food or strong liquid refreshment. Sometimes, unsurprisingly, things got out of hand.
“On some occasions the carolers would become rowdy and invade wealthy homes demanding food and drink and would vandalize the home if the owner refused,” the Massachusetts history website explains.
This was the kind of thing the starched Puritans tut-tutted and sniffed about, and which led to their prohibition of Christmas revelry altogether.
But Puritans were also very put off by the day’s ties to heathen or heretical paganism. Historyofmassachusetts.com explains:
Although Christmas was widely celebrated in Europe as a Christian holiday marking the birth of Jesus Christ, puritans saw it as a false holiday with stronger ties to paganism than Christianity, and they were correct, according to the book The Battle for Christmas:
“It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. The puritans were correct when they pointed out – and they pointed it out often – that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer. The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston, for example, accurately observed in 1687 that the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so ‘thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.’”
Even as late as 1856, Massachusetts remained relatively lukewarm, about the holiday. That year, the American epic poet and novelist Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882) referenced a fading apathy:
“We are in a transition state about Christmas here in New England. The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.”
Later in the year, the Massachusetts legislature finally codified Christmas as an official holiday throughout the state.
We know how this played out in the coming decades. Christmas became one of modern America’s most beloved national and state holidays each year. Not, as we’ve seen, because the observance was originally baked into the American culture, but because it gradually over many years assumed its current status in one of the world’s most ethnically and religiously diverse populations.
Christmas is a contemporary American icon not because, until now, we have been a nation of majority Christians, but despite our diversity. It was the result of an organic, whole-population evolution over centuries, not a sudden Christian epiphany at birth.