The fascination—even obsession—with the celebration of Christmas has not always been part of the American landscape. In fact, the earliest Americans opposed and even made laws against the observance of Christmas.
Many of the Puritan settlers in New England were convinced that Christmas was a “popish” or Catholic celebration. These settlers had left the Church of England because they felt that the church desperately needed purification and renewal.
Included in their complaints against the church was this idea that the church continued to hold onto “relics of Popery,” including “Christ-mass.” The Puritans believed that Christmas celebrations were human inventions having no biblical basis.
As a result of these anti-Christmas sentiments, many early American colonies outlawed Christmas. The colony of Connecticut banned the celebration of Christmas in 1659, including a ban on mincemeat pies! Puritan Massachusetts passed a similar law in the same year, and anyone caught observing the holiday was required to pay a five-shilling fine or be whipped. Anti-Christmas sentiment in these and other colonies resulted in Christmas Day being treated like any other workday or schoolday.
The Puritans’ solemn ideas about Christmas, however, were not universally accepted. Immigrants to this new land were diverse, and many of them brought more tolerant beliefs about Christmas, as well as their own Christian customs. The steady stream of immigrants led to the repeal of Massachusetts’s anti-Christmas law in 1681. By 1686, Christmas services were being held in Boston’s town hall.
Despite the growing acceptance of Christmas celebrations, the Puritans continued their opposition, and those settlers who did celebrate Christmas encountered discrimination and even violence. In 1706, a Puritan mob smashed the windows of King’s Chapel in Boston as Anglicans held a Christmas service there. Adults in Boston continued to be required to work on Christmas Day, and children in Boston continued to be required to attend school on Christmas Day.
In 1855, Massachusetts became the 14th state to recognize Christmas as an official holiday. Even so, Boston schools did not close for Christmas until 1870, and as late as 1874, Henry Ward Beecher, a prominent American preacher, said, “To me, Christmas is a foreign day.” Because of the Puritan influence, the festive aspects of Christmas were not accepted in New England until around 1875.
Almost 130 years later, Christmas has become the most popular holiday for both religious and non-religious Americans. A number of factors influenced the widespread acceptance of Christmas in the late 19th century, including Dutch and German immigrants who brought their own religious and cultural views of Christmas.
The German immigrants, even when surrounded by some of the holiday’s staunchest opponents, continued their merry celebrations of Christmas and gradually gained converts through their joyous Christmas spirit. The Dutch immigrants brought St. Nicholas with them, and Americans, especially American children, quickly adopted this tradition.
Children’s books and women’s magazines also played a vital role in spreading the customs of Christmas celebrations, particularly the traditions of decorated trees and gifts delivered by Santa Claus.
Today a good majority of Americans dedicate days and even weeks to shopping for Christmas gifts, decorating their homes for Christmas, and attending or hosting elaborate Christmas parties. Christmas has become commercially successful and is now the most-loved religious holiday in America.
Is it not ironic that this current obsession developed in a country where Christmas once faced extreme opposition and was even an outlawed holiday?
Pam Durso serves as assistant professor of church history and Baptist heritage at Campbell University Divinity School in Buies Creek, N.C.
President of Central Seminary in Shawnee, Kansas.