Today, Christmas seems as American as apple pie, but the country’s original settlers detested the holiday. Religious pilgrims who arrived in North America in the early 17th century demanded that citizens work on December 25 and shut down any merrymaking—and they eventually outlawed Christmas altogether.
Why were these New Englanders such grinches? For one thing, they disliked the celebration of Christmas—which they nicknamed “Foolstide”—because they disliked celebration in general. Puritans were a hard-working lot and pointed out that besides the Sabbath, the Bible said nothing about resting any other days, the birth date of Jesus of Nazareth included.
Beyond that, the Bible said nothing about which day Christ was born. (As historian Stephen Nissenbaum explains, “Puritans were fond of saying that if God had intended for the anniversary of the Nativity to be observed, He would surely have given some indication as to when that anniversary occurred.”) December 25 was just like any other day to Christians until the 4th century, when Pope Julius I recast the Roman Saturnalia festival into a Christian celebration. Soon holly, candles, and other midwinter pagan elements transitioned into Christmas trappings. New England leaders expected their citizens to follow the Bible, not the Pope.
For example, on Christmas Day, 1621, Plymouth Governor William Bradford came across a group of merrymakers playing “stoole-ball”—a sort of colonial version of baseball—and demanded the lot of them get back to work. Eventually, in 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law prohibiting Christmas celebration altogether. It stated that in order to prevent “disorders … to the great dishonor of God and offense of others,” anyone found celebrating the holiday “either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way,” would be fined five shillings.
While this anti-Christmas ruling would be the law of the land for decades, following the restoration of Charles II as ruler of England, the pro-Christmas Crown’s influence soon waxed in the colonies. In 1681, laws forbidding the holiday were repealed (though staunch Puritans continued to fight against Christmas celebration for decades more). In 1686, the newly appointed royalist governor of the Dominion of New England, Edmund Andros, closed shops on Christmas Day and sponsored a holiday service—though local protests made it necessary that he be accompanied there by troops.
Protests of Christmas celebrations continued, but shifted more from protesting the celebration of the holiday at all to the manner in which it was celebrated. Christmas partying had long been characterized by overindulging in booze and food, taking to the streets playing clamorous music, rowdy singing, and demanding alms. This was a holdover from the post-harvest season when little work was left to be done and much was available to drink and eat. It was a ritualized disorder developed over centuries before being adopted and adapted by the church, and the whole thing revolted the rigid Puritans.
Boston minister Cotton Mather preached to his congregation in 1712 about how “[T]he Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty … by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling.” Around the same time, however, Anglican celebrations in the colonies “began to attract more Christmas-keepers, despite the scorn and hostile preaching of the Puritan-minded,” writes historian Gerry Bowler in his new book, Christmas in the Crosshairs.
This debate over how to celebrate Christmas would continue into the next century and wouldn’t be resolved until a group of writers, poets, and intellectuals—men like New-York Historical Society cofounder John Pintard and “A Visit from St. Nicholas” poet Clement Clarke Moore—helped to move the holiday’s celebration from the streets into the home. But the merits of celebrating the day of Christ’s birth would not be widely called into question in the U.S. again.
In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare it a public holiday, and by 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant designated it a federal holiday, partly as an effort to heal the rift between North and South following the Civil War. By then there was no turning back. In the battle between puritanism and Christmas celebration, the latter won a decisive victory.