A Brief History of Christmas in New England

In the first two centuries of New England, most people did not celebrate Christmas.  Strange as this may sound, Protestant Christians in New England including the Pilgrims, Puritans, Congregationalists, Quakers, Baptists, and Presbyterians did not celebrate Christmas.  In fact, it was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.  Even after the American Revolution, Congress was in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under America's new constitution.

In his book “The Battle for Christmas”, Stephen Nissenbaum notes that in 1817 there was an effort in Boston to establish Christmas as an important holiday.  The movement was led by the Universalist and Unitarian churches.  (Universalists later merged with the Unitarians to form the Unitarian & Universalist Association.)  According to Nissenbaum(1), “Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800.  They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born.  They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to.  And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.” 

The 1817 movement in Boston to transform Christmas into a more socially acceptable holiday was a two-phased effort.  First, the Univeralist and Unitarians led a drive for all Bostonion churches to hold services on Christmas Day.  One Methodist, one Universalist, and three Congregationalist churches agreed to do so (in addition to Catholic and Episcopal churches who already celebrated Christmas).  A second drive was undertaken to get business owners to close their places of business on Christmas Day.  After significant lobbying, most businesses owners agreed to remain closed.  The closure of businesses on December 25th caught some non-locals by surprise.  According to Nissenbaum1, “One rural merchant who was in town on a buying trip noted in his diary that ‘the inhabitants of Boston introduced a suspension of business for the first time, with a view to commemorating this day in religious exercise.’  He added that ‘but little business could be done,’ and that he had been forced to reload the goods he had brought in to sell that day.”  Apparently, this rural merchant had no idea that such a movement was underway in Boston in 1817.

The Boston Christmas campaign was again undertaken in 1818 and 1819.  The campaign had become the topic of discussion in several local newspapers and publications as businesses and public offices closed for business on December 25th.  However, by 1820 the movement ran out of momentum and within a few years died.  Once again, businesses begin to open on Christmas Day, just as they had in the past, while Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Congregationalist, and Unitarian churches remained closed.  The pro-Christmas movement in Boston had failed.   

Why did the movement fail?  Protestant Christians in New England during the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries knew that the festivities, traditions, and trappings of Christmas were simply pagan celebrations covered with a Christian veneer.  In addition, they were all too familiar with the Saturnalian misrule, disorder, and revelry associated with the mid-winter festivities and wanted to suppress it. 

Protestant Christians of colonial New England knew the history of Christmas.  Christmas was established early in the fourth century by the Roman Church as a means of Christianizing pagan mid-winter celebrations associated with the Saturnalia and birthday of Sol Invictus – the Sun god.  But it didn’t end there!  As Christianity spread into northern Europe, elements of the twelve day Scandinavian Yule festival to the god Thor and various other practices of the Germanic pagans were also incorporated into Christmas-time celebrations by the Roman Church.  All of this was done contrary to God’s clear instructions in Deuteronomy 12: 28-32, Jeremiah 10: 1-3, and Matthew 15: 3, 8-9.  No wonder New England Protestants were so opposed to Christmas.

The pro-Christmas movement of 1817-1819 may have failed, but this is not the end of the story.  In the mid-1800’s, a new crusade to celebrate Christmas would find its place in New England culture.  But this movement would have secular not religious motives.  Nissenbaum1 observes: “What happened was that in New England, as elsewhere, religion failed to transform Christmas from a season of misrule into an occasion of quieter pleasure.  The ‘house of ale’ would not be vanquished by the house of God, but by a new faith that was just beginning to sweep across American society.  It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus Christ of Nazareth but by a newer and more worldly deity – Santa Claus.”

Nissembaum is correct.  Christmas observance would indeed become an accepted practice in the New England colonies during the mid-1800’s.  However, its acceptance was for secular – social, cultural, and economic - not religious reasons.  At the center of these changes was Clement Clark Moore’s 1822 poem entitled “A Visit from St. Nicolas” which was renamed “The Night Before Christmas”.  This poem, along the efforts of many others such as Washington Irving and John Pintard, would transform Christmas into the busy, commercial holiday that people know today.   As Christmas underwent its commercial transformation, it provided a financial boom to New England businessman and a domestic holiday for families.  It was now vogue to celebrate Christmas, and few were interested in the anti-Christmas arguments of religious conservatives.  Times were changing and so were the churches. 

In her book “Christmas in America”, Penne Restad(2) addressed these changing views regarding Christmas.  “In 1841 John Templeton Strong reported that in New York City Christmas had ‘been verily well observed.’  He especially noted ‘a lachrymose paragraph in the Presbyterian’ headed ‘Times are Changed.’  Henry Wadsworth Longfellow detected a ‘transition state about Christmas here in New England’ in 1856.  ‘The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.’  In Reading, Pennsylvania, a newspaper remarked in 1861, ‘Even our Presbyterian friends who have steadfastly ignored Christmas – threw open their church doors and assembled in force to celebrate the anniversary of the Savior’s birth.’  And the First Congregational Church of Rockford, Illinois, ‘although of genuine Puritan stock,’ was ‘preparing for a grand Christmas jubilee,’ a news correspondent reported in 1864.”

As Christmas became more popular, Protestant Christians softened their opposition to the holiday, and soon, just accepted it.  In just two-hundred years, Christmas was transformed from a festival season that was suppressed and frowned upon due to its pagan roots and public disorder to a popular, commercial holiday that was celebrated throughout New England.  By 1860, fourteen states including several from New England had adopted Christmas as a legal holiday.  Finally, on June 26, 1870, Christmas was formally declared a national holiday by Congress.  Times had truly changed, but the Word of God remains the same forever. 

Joe Weicks

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