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When Christmas Was Really Under Attack

The Puritans and the original “war on Christmas.”
December 20, 2021
When Christmas Was Really Under Attack
(GettyImages / Shutterstock)

Talk of the “war on Christmas” has become as much a part of the annual tradition in America as the tree, the tinsel, and the tracking of Santa on NORAD. The incidents that seem to rile people up, from workers saying “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas” to winter-but-not-quite-Christmas-themed Starbucks cups, while cringe-inducing, are largely harmless nontroversies. Thanks to SNL sketches and old monologues from The Colbert Report, it seems fair to say most people nowadays find talk of a war on Christmas to be less alarming than amusing. But earlier this month, the towering Fox New Christmas tree was set ablaze in New York City. Folks on Fox—a longtime purveyor of war-on-Christmas talk—understandably had a lot to say about the act of arboreal arson. Tucker Carlson called it “an attack of Christianity” and argued that the perpetrator should be convicted of a “hate crime.” An impassioned Ainsley Earhardt said that the Christmas tree “brings us together. It’s about the Christmas spirit. It is about the holiday season. It’s about Jesus. It’s about Hanukkah. It is about everything that we stand for as a country.”

But despite the image of Christmas as a quintessentially American holiday, the widespread celebration of Christmas across the United States is a surprisingly recent development. As historians Penne L. Restad and Stephen Nissenbaum have pointed out in their respective books on the American history of Christmas, it wasn’t until the middle of the nineteenth century that many Christmas traditions, such as gift-giving and sending seasonal cards, started to emerge in their recognizable forms. Only in the 1860s did Christmas start to gain recognition by various states as a legal holiday; not until June 26, 1870, did Congress declare December 25 a federal holiday.

What took so long? As strange as it might sound, the original “war on Christmas” was among Christians.

Because of Protestantism’s emphasis on biblical authority, some groups, like the Puritans, found the scriptural justification for Christmas lacking. While Jesus’ birth is referenced repeatedly and narrativized twice (Matthew 1:18-25; Luke 2:1-7), December 25 is never referenced. The question of Christmas’s origins also became disputed, with Protestant theologians arguing that the celebratory date and many of its customs were pagan in origin, which seemed to lend credence to the Protestant belief that Catholic practices had corrupted Christianity. Through his own exegetical calculations, Robert Skinner’s Christs Birth Misse-timed (1649) argued that earlier Christians had miscalculated the date, further demonstrating that “all error cometh from Rome.”

(Via Donna Seger)

The prolific Puritan pamphleteer William Prynne’s Histriomastix (1632) lambasted Christmas as nothing more than repacking of the Greco-Roman festival of Saturnalia by “paganizing Priests and Monks of popish (the same with the heathen Rome).” Likewise, Thomas Mockett, the Puritan rector of Gilston in Hertfordshire, argued that Christmas had been a Catholic plot to convert the unconverted masses using “riotous drinking, health drinking, gluttony, luxury, wantonness, dancing, dicing, stage-plays, interludes, masks, mummeries, with all other pagan sports.” The First Book of Discipline (1560), drafted in part by Scottish reformer John Knox, claimed Christmas among the things “that the Papists have invented.” Across the Atlantic world, Puritan clergymen and pamphleteers railed against Christmas as another “popish” and “pagan” error that true Christians need to do away with.

In addition to fierce anti-Catholic sentiment, the Puritan attacks on Christmas were also fueled by concerns over the indulgent conduct and frenzied atmosphere the holiday seemed to produce. It should be noted, despite their modern-day image as a grim lot who never knew how to have a good time and always wore black (when in fact, they wore all sorts of colorfully ‘sadd’ outfits), Puritans could be a merry bunch. They enjoyed drinking, singing, dancing, and sex as much as their less religiously extreme neighbors. But during these recreational activities, Puritan leaders always worried about the temptation of excess and were concerned that the festivities would become unchristian distractions. William Prynne complained of how Christians on “solemn feasts of Saints, especially of St. Nicholas,” would “honor Bacchus more than God” through “drunkenness and disorder.” Philip Stubbs, another provocative Puritan pamphleteer, described Christmas a time of “great wickedness,” bemoaning how such banqueting would devolve into scenes of mischief, with “dicing & carding” as well as “whordome.” Other Puritans also lamented how the true meaning of Christmas, namely the incarnation of Jesus, seemed lost on people who were instead more focused on partying. Given that the lead-up to Christmas often featured festivals and feasting, gateways to gluttony, drunkenness, mischief, and promiscuity, it is little wonder why the Puritans came to view the holiday with scorn.

Puritan efforts to quash the observance of Christmas did not manifest from pulpit preaching alone, but also through legal efforts and government action. With the Puritans in power in England following the execution of Charles I and the establishment of Cromwell’s Commonwealth, Parliament held regular sessions on December 25 to dispel any notion that there was something special about the day. In addition to fining those who desecrated their churches with seasonal decorations and threatening imprisonment to ministers who preached on the Nativity, Parliament outlawed Christmas plays in 1642. It upped the ante in 1647 by designating December 25 as day of repentance, signifying that it should be used for fasting, not feasting.

On this side of the Atlantic, the Mayflower Pilgrims likewise shunned the holiday, spending their first December 25 in the newly established Plymouth colony building houses. The Massachusetts Bay Colony also did not celebrate Christmas and passed a law in 1659 fining anyone “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” five shillings.

The Quakers of Pennsylvania also left Christmas unobserved for many of the same reasons. Unsurprisingly, New England almanacs dropped all references to December 25 as the date of Christ’s birth and references to Christmas celebrations are few and far between in colonial documentary records. In true Puritan style, Increase Mather wrote from New England in his pamphlet Against several Prophane and Superstitious Customs (1687), “The manner of Christ-mass-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonourable to the Name of Christ.”

But Christmas did not go down without a fight in England or the colonies. In the mother country, strict orders for markets and shops to remain open fell on deaf ears and for those who lived beyond the direct control of Puritan governance typically carried on with the festive merriment regardless. But Puritan mayors could also face protest through the holiday adornment of churches and businesses—as well as serious public backlash in the form of pro-Christmas rioting.

Meanwhile, the arrival of non-Puritans to the Plymouth and Massachusetts Bay colonies complicated the situation for those who had sought to escape England in order to form their own godly society. Only one year into his tenure as Plymouth’s governor, William Bradford encountered a group of newcomers to the colony who had excused themselves from work on December 25. Coastal towns like Marblehead in Massachusetts garnered a reputation for Christmas celebrations, much to the disapproval of their Puritan neighbors. One fisherman, William Hoar of Beverly (whose wife, Dorcas, was among the accused witches at Salem in 1692), hosted friends for Christmas drinking in 1662. Furthermore, as Stephen Nissenbaum has highlighted, the very existence and wording of the 1659 law “suggests that there were indeed people in Massachusetts who were observing Christmas in the late 1650s.” In fact, in 1659, the Massachusetts General Court remarked that there were “some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries,” like Christmas. Such details and data demonstrate the lingering Christmas spirit even in Puritan America.

With the restoration of the monarchy, many of the English laws decreed under Puritan rule were overturned, including the ones against Christmas. But the Puritans of New England resisted these changes. Puritan ministers continued to rage against holiday from the pulpit and in their personal writings long after the Massachusetts Bay Colony repealed the ban on Christmas. In a particularly dramatic display in 1686, the newly appointed governor, Sir Edmund Andros, surrounded himself with bodyguards at a Boston Christmas service for fear of protesters. Given this hostile environment and these anti-Christmas traditions, throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries Christmas remained a minor event for most American colonists. As Penne L. Restad observes, “It would take the project of nation-building in the wake of the Revolution to begin to define an American conception of Christmas.”

While today’s hand-wringing about the supposed war on Christmas centers on imagined attacks on American Christianity, there is a rich irony in the fact that the longest and most sustained critique of Christmas—including its banning—came from those who were claiming to be the truest and purest defenders of the reason for the season.

Daniel N. Gullotta

Daniel N. Gullotta is a Ph.D. candidate (ABD) in American religious history at Stanford University. He is also the host of the Age of Jackson Podcast. Substack: The Letters of Wyoming. Twitter: @danielgullotta.