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Christmas celebrations in New England were illegal during parts of the 17th century, and were culturally taboo or rare in former Puritan colonies from foundation until the mid-18th century. The Puritan community found no scriptural justification for celebrating Christmas, and associated such celebrations with paganism and idolatry. Indeed, Christmas celebrations in 17th-century England involved Carnival-like behavior including role inversion, heavy drinking, and sexual liberties.
The earliest years of the Plymouth Colony were troubled with non-Puritans attempting to make merry, and Governor William Bradford was forced to reprimand offenders. English laws suppressing the holiday were enacted in the English Interregnum, but repealed late in the 17th century. However, the Puritan view of Christmas and its celebration had gained cultural ascendancy in New England, and Christmas celebrations continued to be discouraged despite being legal. But by the mid-18th century, Christmas had become a mainstream celebration in New England, and by the beginning of the 19th century, ministers of Congregational churches, the church of the Puritans, actually called for formal observance of Christmas in the churches.
When Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870, late 19th century Americans widely fashioned the day into the Christmas of commercialism, spirituality, and nostalgia that most Americans recognize today.
In Puritans at Play (1995), Bruce Colin Daniels writes "Christmas occupied a special place in the ideological religious warfare of Reformation Europe." Most Anabaptists, Quakers, and Congregational and Presbyterian Puritans, he observes, regarded the day as an abomination while Anglicans, Lutherans, the Dutch Reformed, and other denominations celebrated the day as did Roman Catholics. When the Church of England promoted the Feast of the Nativity as a major religious holiday, the Puritans attacked it as "residual Papist idolatry".
Puritans heaped contempt on Christmas, Daniels writes, calling it 'Foolstide' and suppressing any attempts to celebrate it for several reasons. First, no holy days except the Sabbath were sanctioned in Scripture, second, the most egregious behaviors were exercised in its celebration (Cotton Mather railed against these behaviors), and third, December 25 was ahistorical. The Puritan argued that the selection of the date was an early Christian hijacking of a Roman festival, and to celebrate a December Christmas was to defile oneself by paying homage to a pagan custom. James Howard Barnett notes in The American Christmas (1984) that the Puritan view prevailed in New England for almost two centuries.
The Puritan calendar was one of the most leisure-less ever adopted by mankind, with approximately 300 working days compared to the 240 typical of cultures from Ancient Rome to modern America. Days of rest in the New England calendar were few, Innes writes, and restricted to Sabbath, election day, Harvard Commencement day, and periodic days of humiliation and thanksgiving. Non-Puritans in New England deplored the loss of the holidays enjoyed by the laboring classes in England.
The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620 when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World building their first structure in the New World – thus demonstrating their complete contempt for the day.
A year later on December 25, 1621, Governor William Bradford led a work detail into the forest and discovered some recent arrivals among the crew had scruples about working on the day. Bradford noted in his history of the colony, Of Plymouth Plantation:
On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it [a] matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.
When the Governor and his crew returned home at noon they discovered those left behind playing stool-ball, pitching the bar, and pursuing other sports. Bradford confiscated their implements, reprimanded them, forbade any further reveling in the streets, and told them their devotion for the day should be confined to their homes.
Christmas in the 17th century was celebrated in rowdy and aggressive ways:
The holiday they suppressed was not what we probably mean when we think of a 'traditional' Christmas... [I]t involved behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today — rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often combined with the threat of doing harm), even the boisterous invasion of wealthy homes.
Massachusetts and Connecticut followed the Plymouth Colony in refusing to condone any observance of the day. When the Puritans came to power in England following the execution of King Charles I of England, Parliament of England enacted a law in 1647 abolishing the observance of Christmas, Easter, and Whitsuntide. The Puritans of New England then passed a series of laws making any observance of Christmas illegal, thus banning Christmas celebrations for part of the 17th century. A Massachusetts law of 1659 punished offenders with a hefty five shilling fine.
Laws suppressing the celebration of Christmas were repealed in 1681, but staunch Puritans continued to regard the day as an abomination. Eighteenth century New Englanders viewed Christmas as the representation of royal officialdom, external interference in local affairs, dissolute behavior, and an impediment to their holy mission.
During Anglican Governor Sir Edmund Andros tenure (December 20, 1686 – April 18, 1689), for example, the royal government closed Boston shops on Christmas Day and drove the schoolmaster out of town for a forced holiday. Following Andros' overthrow, however, the Puritan view reasserted itself and shops remained open for business as usual on Christmas with goods such as hay and wood being brought into Boston as on any other work day.
With such an onus placed upon Christmas, non-Puritans in colonial New England made no attempt to celebrate the day. Many spent the day quietly at home. In 1771, Anna Winslow, an American schoolgirl visiting Boston noted in her diary, "I kept Christmas at home this year, and did a good day's work."
Although Christmas celebrations were legal after 1680, New England officials continued to frown upon gift giving and reveling. Evergreen decoration, associated with pagan custom, was expressly forbidden in Puritan meeting houses and discouraged in the New England home. Merrymakers were prosecuted for disturbing the peace.
Still, the Christmas traditions continued to "hover just beneath the surface of New England culture, emerging occasionally into plain sight." Multiple incidents of Christmas disorder are recorded from the late 17th and early 18th century.
Christmas began to become respectable in the 18th century. Even Cotton Mather's 1712 anti-Christmas sermon did argue against inappropriate behavior during Christmas, but he allowed for the possibility of celebrating it. By 1730s, there were sermons positively urging that Christmas was a joyful occasion. A few almanacs started mentioning Christmas in 1713, but by the 1760s, it became common. Starting in the 1760s, the Boston Anticks, groups of roving performers, would perform "bawdy skits" at wealthy people's houses and then demand money from them. Christmas poems were printed in New England newspapers on multiple occasions, both for adults and for children. Christmas music was printed starting in the 1760s.
The first public call by a Congregationalist for a church celebration of Christmas came in 1797. The Universalists started holding Christmas services in 1789, and the Unitarians started advocating for closing businesses on Christmas in 1817. From 1818 to the late 1820s, there was a short-lived movement to hold Christmas services in churches, and to close businesses. Yet the commercial side of Christmas was already beginning to take hold: by 1808, there were already advertisements for Christmas gifts, and the modern version of Christmas was being created:
In New England, as elsewhere, the next incarnation of Christmas was taking shape. That incarnation engaged powerful new forces that were coming to dominate much of American society in the years after 1820—a heady brew that mixed a rapidly commercializing economy with a culture of domesticity centered on the well-being of children. Both elements were present in a new Christmas poem that soon came to define the rituals of the season in middle-class households throughout the United States. This new poem, written in 1822, began to receive wide distribution in the newspaper press (including that of New England) five years later. The poem was written by the son of an Episcopal bishop—and ignored religion altogether. Although it was set on the night before Christmas, its subject was not the nativity but 'A Visit from St. Nicholas.' So it would be Santa Claus, not Jesus of Nazareth, whose influence finally succeeded in transforming Christmas from a season of misrule into a day of quieter family pleasures.
In 1856, Christmas became a public holiday in Massachusetts.
As late as 1870, classes were scheduled in Boston public schools on Christmas Day and punishments were doled out to children who chose to stay home beneath the Christmas tree. One commentator hinted that the Puritans viewed Santa Claus as the Anti-Christ.
In the aftermath of the American Civil War, Christmas became the festival highpoint of the American calendar. The day became a Federal holiday in 1870 under President Ulysses S. Grant in an attempt to unite north and south. During the 19th century, the Puritan hostility to Christmas gradually relaxed. In the late 19th century, authors praised the holiday for its liberality, family togetherness, and joyful observance. In 1887, for example, St. Nicholas Magazine published a story about a sickly Puritan boy of 1635 being restored to health when his mother brings him a bough of Christmas greenery.
One commentator suggested the Puritans had actually done the day a service in reviling the gaming, dissipation, and sporting in its observation. When the day's less pleasant associations were stripped away, Americans recreated the day according to their tastes and times. The doctrines that caused the Puritans to regard the day with disapprobation were modified and the day was rescued from its traditional excesses of behavior. Christmas was reshaped in late 19th century America with liberal Protestantism and spirituality, commercialism, artisanship, nostalgia, and hope becoming the day's distinguishing characteristics.