Most Americans today look forward to the Christmas season with all its lights, sounds, smells. Christmas songs, dinners with family, gifts, parties and twinkling lights seem to be something everyone can enjoy even without the religious aspect. For the faithful, Christmas has a deeper meaning as it is a time to reflect on Christ’s birth, church services, helping others and trying to be a better person the next year.
This is not how Christmas started in America. Today’s Christmas is an evolution of some holdover traditions from England, legends brought to this country by immigrants and a lot of media influence.
The truth is the real war on Christmas began in the mid-1600s in England. It was as much a political war as a religious one and that battle carried over to the colonies for decades.
The English celebration of Christmas was known for its raucous behavior more than anything else. It wasn’t a religious holiday at all, but amplified the Roman tradition of drinking and partying during the season and typically only celebrated by the rich. One English tradition evolved where the rich would open their homes to the poor on the holiday, giving them food and drink. Even that wasn’t from a positive place in their heart as they awarded the poorest man in the community with the title of “Lord of Misrule.”
Puritans advanced their power in the 1600s and, led by Oliver Cromwell, took over England in 1845. They ended Christmas celebrating, calling it decadence. While that only lasted a few years until King Charles II was returned to the throne, the political move had a far-reaching impact on the American colonies.
Many early colonies were established by Puritans who believed that Christmas was evil. Their reasoning was theological in that it began as a Roman pagan holiday and historical in that they believed Jesus Christ was born in September. The colonists’ views were also practical. They believed the season gave rise to sin like drinking, carousing and other vices.
“Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides,” Hugh Latimer, a 16th-century clergyman, wrote.
Many of those fleeing to America were coming here because, as strict Puritans, they no longer fit in English society. So, they held even stronger anti-Christmas beliefs than Cromwell.
Colonists not only didn’t celebrate the holiday, but they punished anyone who did. Everyone was expected to work on Dec. 25 and those who did faced legal ramifications. This happened when some Puritan men decided to play a ball game, an early form of baseball, on Christmas day in the second year of settlement of the Plymouth Colony. Gov. William Bradford issued their punishment saying his conscience “cannot let you play while everybody else is out working.”
These rules varied from settlement to settlement because Capt. John Smith said the Jamestown settlement did celebrate the holiday without controversy.
It was a different story in Boston. The city banned any celebration of the holiday in 1659 and would fine anyone not working or feasting five shillings. English rule began to issue a heavy hand on Massachusetts in the 1680s and a Christmas Day service was organized in 1686. However, service attendees were protected by British soldiers out of fear of violent opposition.
More settlers began to filtrate different colonies, resulting on some celebrating the holiday with religious piousness and others celebrating it as a time for revelry. The Puritans continued to hold onto the anti-Christmas attitudes throughout much of New England as an official stance even when others celebrated.
Christmas once again lost colonists’ favor as the American Revolution ensued and a new country was born.
The reasoning, again, was political. The holiday was considered an English custom and those in the new country wanted none of that. The newly-formed U.S. Senate worked on Christmas Day in 1787, as did the U.S. House in 1802.
America’s elite began changing the idea of Christmas in the early 1800s. The reason was a common-sense solution to an ongoing problem. Unemployment was high and there was gang rioting in places like New York, with most of that happening during the Christmas season. There was also a lot of class conflict. Powerful society members thought revamping the holiday to be more family-oriented and focusing on giving would help.
Washington Irving assisted in the effort when he published The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., in 1819. The book contained fictional stories about Christmas in an English manor house. While the stories were not true, Irving succeeded in convincing people the holiday should be a peaceful day that unites people.
A poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (later becoming Twas the Night Before Christmas) by Clement C. Moore was published in 1823 in New York. Its success also helped rebrand the holiday.
Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday in 1836. However, the North and the South were heavily divided on the subject with Northerners still believing celebrating Christmas to be a sin. This continued throughout the Civil War, President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas to be a holiday in 1870.
Christmas became the holiday Americans now celebrate largely due to the media. The effort started after the Civil War and holiday traditions were widely encouraged with new publications of children’s books and women’s magazines, all which encouraged things like tree trimming, decorating, baking and family activities.
By the end of the 1800s, Americans were entrenched in the Christmas holiday with cooking, decorations and, yes, shopping. Advertisements in the early 20th century continued to establish Santa Claus as a firm figure of the holiday and promoted the holiday as an economic necessity.
Today, Christmas is largely what people make it. Some choose to spend it valuing the religious aspect while others look at it to encourage humanitarian efforts. Some enjoy the busyness of the parties and festivities while others spend it solely with family. Traditions from other countries, along with American-created traditions, have been incorporated into the holiday season to make it truly a day the whole nation can celebrate something that unites its citizens in peace, love and joy.