The First Christmas

We are now into the season of Advent in preparation for Christmas. As we are all long-comfortable with the religious background of the Christmas holiday, perhaps a little American history might be eye-opening. 

For instance, how did the first settlers celebrate Christmas? They didn’t. The Pilgrims who came to America in 1620 were strict Puritans with firm views on religious holidays like Christmas and Easter. Scripture, they said, mentions only one holiday—Sabbath. And besides, the very notion that some days were considered “holy” as opposed to all others was a repugnant thought for them. “Those for whom all days are holy can have no holidays”, they said.

They were particularly contemptuous of Christmas, nicknaming it ”Foolstide” and they banned their flock from any celebration. So what did they do on Christmas Day? They worked in the field—like every other day, except Sabbath. The following year, a group of non-Puritan workmen were caught celebrating Christmas with a game of “stoole-ball”—an early version of baseball. They were punished by Gov. William Bradford. “My conscience cannot let you play while everyone else is working,” he said. Why didn’t the Puritans like Christmas?? Several reasons, not the least of which was that the date December 25th that the church “stole” from the Romans was also a Saturnalia feast featuring much drink and frivolity. And besides, they believed Jesus was really born in September. This, then, was also the basis for why they so disliked the holiday—because over the course of time it became such a raucous and popular holiday among the masses. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.”

I suspect most of us would not have enjoyed spending time with the Puritans. Did they ever relent? No, They kept up their boycott for decades. In 1739 Benjamin Franklin, writing in Poor Richard’s Almanac, helped lead the popular acceptance of the holiday. Tension around the holiday continued for many years. It may well have been Clement Clark Moore’s poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” published in 1823 was the catalyst that propelled Christmas into the American mainstream imagination. You and I know that poem by its more popular name, “Twas The Night Before Christmas.”

Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a public holiday in 1836. It wasn’t until 1870 that President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a formal, federal holiday.

Peace On Earth

Jim