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Christmas Was Not Always Like This (Part Two: Christmas in Early America)

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Word & World is a quarterly journal of theology, published by the faculty of Luther Seminary, that is meant for readers who are concerned for Christian ministry in and to the world. The journal seeks to relate the word of God to the contemporary world and to relate theology to Christian ministry.

This three-part series includes excerpts from an article written by Bruce David Forbes, former professor of religious studies at Morningside College in Sioux City, Iowa. They were originally published in the Fall 2007 issue of Word &World. You can read the entire article here.

Mark Granquist
Editor, Word & World

Christmas Was Not Always Like This (Part Two: Christmas in Early America)

By Bruce David Forbes

Read Part One.

Although it took a few centuries for Christians to begin an annual observance of Jesus’ birth, the celebration became popular over the years. As Christianity spread from the Mediterranean region into Europe, the Americas, and elsewhere in the world, Christmas festivities spread with it, influenced in part by local customs.

By the time Christmas reached the American colonies and the new nation of the United States, we tend to assume that almost all Christians embraced it as a generally shared celebration, that citizens of the United States were united in their celebration of Christmas, and the whole culture recognized it without question.

Yet it was not that way in the colonies and the early nation. Everyone did not celebrate Christmas, and the entire culture did not stop to recognize the holiday. The reason for this was not some early appearance of religious pluralism; the differences about Christmas in early America were among Christians themselves.

The explanation extends back to the Puritan Revolution in England in the 1600s. In the Reformation a century earlier, many Protestant groups were concerned that Christmas contained too many Roman Catholic elements. However, through minor revisions of Christmas practices, Protestants usually were content to continue the nativity observances and their accompanying cultural elements.

The English Puritans, however, along with Presbyterians in Scotland, disapproved of Christmas altogether. They said that it was a Catholic innovation not practiced in the early church, and complained that the winter partying provided too many excuses for licentious behavior. Thus, in 1644 the English Parliament, controlled by Puritans, declared Christmas a day of penance instead of a feast day, and in 1652 it banned any observance of Christmas, inside or outside of churches.

Even though Puritan control was short-lived, their actions helped break the Christmas tradition in England, with New Year’s Day and Valentine’s Day becoming more important for many people. Christmas did not come back to prominence in England until the mid-1800s, partly through the influence of Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, and Prince Albert.

New England was the home of English Puritanism in the American colonies, and the Puritan disapproval of Christmas extended to the New World. In 1659 the Massachusetts General Court ordered a five-shilling fine for persons who observed Christmas in any way, although the law was repealed by 1681.

In general, many of the English-speaking colonists who were dissenters from the Anglican Church tended to ignore or at least deemphasize Christmas when they came to the colonies. That included Congregationalists (the name for Puritans in the American colonies), Presbyterians (members of the Church of Scotland who settled in the colonies), Quakers, Baptists, and Methodists. For example, Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies, who eventually became president of the College of New Jersey (later Princeton), in 1758 said this about Christmas: “I do not set apart this day for public worship, as though it had any peculiar sanctity; or we were under any obligations to keep it religiously.”

Other Christians in the colonies came from backgrounds that did not include the Puritan suppression of Christmas. Catholics from several nations, the Dutch Reformed, Lutherans from Scandinavia and Germany, and other small German sects all brought their Christmas traditions with them.

Some Christians celebrated Christmas, and other Christians did not. Those who wanted to observe Christmas were free to do so, but shops and government offices remained open, and the general culture continued on with business as usual. Many people are surprised to learn that the United States Congress met on Christmas Day every year from 1789 to 1855, with only three exceptions. Public schools met on Christmas Day in parts of New England at least until 1870. It is simply not true that virtually all Americans celebrated Christmas throughout this nation’s history until recent years.

Parallel to the revival of Christmas in England, Christmas became a more widespread cultural phenomenon in the United States in the middle of the nineteenth century, but with an additional, specifically American contribution: the development of Santa Claus. There were earlier traditions about Saint Nicholas, but it was in the United States during the 1800s, and especially in the city and state of New York, that Nicholas (Sinter Klaas) transmuted into Santa Claus.

For reasons that need more study, Christmas grew in the mid-1800s to be a more central observance in the overall American culture. States began declaring it a legal holiday, and Christian denominations that previously had resisted began to join the bandwagon.

However, when Christmas became more central to American culture, it was not principally as a result of a campaign by churches or other organized Christian groups. More important was the encouragement of Christmas by business interests, and that leads to our third assumption.

Next – Part three: Christmas and Gift-Giving

About the Author

Bruce David Forbes is a former professor of religious studies at Morningside College, Sioux City, Iowa. He is the author of Christmas: A Candid History (University of California, 2007) and the co-editor of two other books about religion and popular culture.


Further Resources

Go deeper with these articles from Word & World, Fall 2007:

Photo by Jan-Henrik Franz on Unsplash

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