America’s First “War on Christmas”

Think the "attack on Christmas" is new? Think again! The debate has been around for hundreds of years.

Think the "attack on Christmas" is new? Think again! The debate has been around for hundreds of years.

I think Christmas is the most wonderful time of the year. I love the parties, music, gift giving, gift getting, spending time with the people I love, the lights, the decorations, the celebration of faith, the revelry, and even the hysterical War on Christmas. In the United States, this “war” has been a long, hard-fought battle. A battle that has brewed for close to 400 years. A battle that dates all the way back to the Pilgrims and Puritans.

Backstory: The Pilgrims

The Pilgrims were an extremely religious, fervent group. In the early 1600s, these Protestants were so intensely devout that that they wanted to separate themselves from all papal tendencies and those who chose to worship in ways that were unlike them.  They were not happy with the Church of England, or Anglican Church, and they detested the continued influence of Catholicism on society. They believed these influences were not biblical, and therefore, impure; literal separation from society was the only answer. They really took 2 Corinthians 6:17 seriously: “Wherefore come out from among them, and be ye separate, saith the Lord, and touch not the unclean thing; and I will receive you.”

The Pilgrims’ first attempt of separation happened around 1608. They went to Holland, but the congregation didn’t stay long. Life was hard in Holland and many of the Pilgrims were unhappy. The congregation’s leaders thought Holland was a bad influence on them. William Bradford,  5-time Plymouth governor and avid journaler, stated that in Holland the congregation was “drawne away by evill examples into extravagence and dangerous courses“. Due to the hardships and unholy influences, many of the Pilgrims returned to England. Soon after, they petitioned the King and the Virginia Company to allow them to journey to the thriving Virginia colony in America. Perhaps in the New World, they would find perfect the isolation they sought.

University of Texas at Austin. From the Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912.

University of Texas at Austin. From the Cambridge Modern History Atlas, 1912.

The Pilgrims, who were not called Pilgrims at the time, wanted to remain English citizens, but they also wanted to have the religious freedom to worship as they pleased, free from ridicule and mistreatment. That is why they chose to go to the Virginia colony located on the east coast of North America. They could make their very own settlement in Virginia colony and work the land. This settlement would be a haven all their own; a place far away from the reach of the monarchy, and a place where they could worship as they pleased while still reaping the benefits of being a British citizen.

Image from Aventa Learning

Image from Aventa Learning

When the Pilgrims arrived near the east coast of North America, they got off course. They had to land on what is now Massachusetts due to unsafe, treacherous waters. And to complicate matters further, they were running low on supplies. The place where they landed was pretty far from their final destination, Virginia colony. Decisions were made quickly to quiet growing unrest and ensure the safety of all.

It should be noted that the Pilgrims were not the only travelers on the Mayflower, the ship that made the journey across the Atlantic. The other passengers included people the Pilgrims referred to as ‘Strangers’. These Strangers, passengers and shipmen, were not a part of the Pilgrims’ culture or religious sect. Since they were not technically landing on English soil and many of the Strangers wanted to trek to Virginia colony, the Pilgrim leaders thought it would be best to stay together and develop an agreement of appropriate behaviors, expectations, and support. This document would later be known as the Mayflower Compact.

Mayflower Compact, 1620

IN THE NAME OF GOD, AMEN. We, whose names are underwritten, the Loyal Subjects of our dread Sovereign Lord King James, by the Grace of God, of Great Britain, France, and Ireland, King, Defender of the Faith, &c.

Having undertaken for the Glory of God, and Advancement of the Christian Faith, and the Honour of our King and Country, a Voyage to plant the first Colony in the northern Parts of Virginia; Do by these Presents, solemnly and mutually, in the Presence of God and one another, covenant and combine ourselves together into a civil Body Politick, for our better Ordering and Preservation, and Furtherance of the Ends aforesaid: And by Virtue hereof do enact, constitute, and frame, such just and equal Laws, Ordinances, Acts, Constitutions, and Officers, from time to time, as shall be thought most meet and convenient for the general Good of the Colony; unto which we promise all due Submission and Obedience.

IN WITNESS whereof we have hereunto subscribed our names at Cape-Cod the eleventh of November, in the Reign of our Sovereign Lord King James, of England, France, and Ireland, the eighteenth, and of Scotland the fifty-fourth, Anno Domini; 1620.

– Agreement Between the Settlers at New Plymouth: 1620

The Pilgrims and Strangers arrived and founded Plymouth colony in November of 1620. Just in time for winter. And that winter kicked them square in the behind. It was tough. When Autumn rolled around, the Pilgrims celebrated their bountiful harvest with what we like to call The First Thanksgiving. Then, they turned around and ignited the a war on Christmas that would rage uncontrollably for almost 400 years.

The War on Christmas

The Pilgrims were a deeply religious, orthodox Puritan sect*. They firmly believed all Catholic influences should be removed from the Protestant church. They were so devout that they thought it necessary to separate themselves from Catholics, members of the Church of England, and anyone else whose ideology differed from theirs. The Pilgrims were SERIOUS about the Bible. It was this devout faith that prompted the Pilgrims to cancel Christmas.

In the 17th century, Christmas was celebrated much like it is today with trees, decorations, parties, drinking, presents, charity, fellowship, religious observances, and all around merriment. The Pilgrims abhorred these celebrations. They believed there was no scriptural justification for the celebration of Jesus’ birth or death**.  The Sabbath was the only holy day sanctioned in the Bible. Since there was no support for the celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ in the Bible, the Pilgrims concluded that there was no reason to celebrate Christmas. They argued that Christmas traditions were steeped in idolatrous rituals from pagan holidays like Sol Invictus and Saturnalia. Furthermore, they believed the date, December 25, was not only the incorrect day for the birth of Jesus but way too connected to edicts associated with the Catholic church hundreds of years earlier. The Pilgrims were not fans of declarations from the papacy.

The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones. 

Increase Mather, 1687

Image of Julius I via Wikipedia

Image of Julius I via Wikipedia

The Bible does not clearly document when the birth of Jesus occurred. The Pilgrims understood that the date for the celebration of the birth of Christ was a decision made by modern man rather than biblical scripture, and that made the celebration of Jesus’ birth a direct threat to their faith.

In mid 300 C.E., Pope Julius I designated December 25 as Nativity. Nativity observances and celebrations included a mass for Christ or Christ’s mass. The celebrations continued until the night before  Epiphany on January 6. Thus, resulting in a 12-day celebration between Nativity and Epiphany that included festivities, a mass for Christ, and the eve of Epiphany, Twelfth Night, celebration.  This papal decree of when and how long the celebration of Christ should be observed was seen as not biblical by the Pilgrims, and this just could not do because of their stance that they live a life based on the purity of scripture that was free from popish and secular influences.

So, the Pilgrims and in many respects other Puritans held the same position on Christmas:

  1. The exact date of the birth of Christ was not documented in the bible. Hence, any observance of his birth was not biblical.
  2. They believed the holiday (or holy day) and its traditions were influenced by too many “unclean things”.
    • The Pilgrims did not agree with outside influences on their faith especially religious traditions that they thought were determined or coordinated by former Catholic popes, possible connections to ancient pagan traditions, or decrees from other religious leaders who did not share their strict faith.

The Pilgrims deemed the celebrations to be wasteful, extravagant, and somewhat immoral. Therefore, celebrating Christmas equated to reveling in pagan traditions and Catholic directives. That was something the Pilgrims were not willing to condone.

On the day called Christmas-day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used) but the most of this new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them, till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon, from their work, he found them in the street at play openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them, that was against his conscience, that they should play, and others work; if they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses, but there should be no gaming, or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly….

William Bradford (translation from Sail 1620)

After the Pilgrims established themselves at Plymouth colony, they celebrated their first Christmas in the New World by completely ignoring it. They worked and carried on as if it were another day. They expected their nonPilgrim neighbors to celebrate Christmas in the comfort of their own homes. This suppression of Christmas was also adopted by the Puritans (Calvinists) who later settled parts of Massachusetts, MA after the Plymouth colony had grown. In 1647, Christmas celebrations were banned and replaced with a day of fasting thanks to the laws passed by Oliver Cromwell and an English Puritan Parliament. There were protests and a few years later the ban was lifted, but sour attitudes towards Christmas persisted.

In 1659, Plymouth colony had grown into the Puritan Massachusetts colony. The MA General Court, the local colonial government in Massachusetts colony, banned Christmas again. John Mason wrote,  ‘festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued’. If Christmas fell on any day other than the Sabbath, stores were to remain open and churches were closed.  Preaching was not allowed on Christmas. Even fines would be imposed upon those who chose to openly celebrate Christmas.

Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forebearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.

From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659

In the 1600s and early 1700s, not everyone was on board with the fun crushing of Christmas. There were many protests and Josiah King wrote a story called ‘The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas’. In the story, Father Christmas is on trial. He is accused of making Christmas too materialistic and a spectacle that encouraged inappropriate behavior and lecherous activities. Father Christmas is ultimately acquitted, but he was reminded by the judge to remember the reason for the season.

The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King, 1686

The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King, 1686 via Missouri.edu

 Josiah King wrote a play satirizing the Puritan indigence with Christmas on 1686.

Even though the official ban only lasted 22 years in the colonies, the anti-Christmas sentiments persisted in many of the New England colonies. Celebrating Christmas did not become fashionable again in many parts of Northeast United States until the mid-1800s.  

Conclusions

The Pilgrims and Puritans’ stance on Christmas was interesting and actually unsurprising based on their religious convictions. Indeed, they fought the first battle in the “War on Christmas” in what would eventually become the United States of America. And it is likely they fought on the side you were not expecting.

The Pilgrims were an interesting yet complicated group in American history. Like most humans in history, they were filled with passion, ambition, love, faith, a sense of justice, and even hypocrisy.

I love reading and using primary documents when learning history. Primary documents, while not always being completely free of bias, are a great way of understanding history, a people’s culture, and their personal views. I am not a fan of inserting my 21st-century mores and values on people who lived 400 years ago; therefore, I resisted making dramatic connections or drawing over-generalized conclusions. I kind of hate when people do that.

Interesting Christmas Related Facts:

  • The days between Christmas day and Epiphany on January 6 are what the 12 Days of Christmas song refer. As a Baptist, that song never made sense to me as a kid.
  • Carnival season actually begins on Jan. 6, which is King’s Day (Feast of the Epiphany). Mardi Gras, Fat Tuesday, is never on the same day each year because its date depends on Easter Sunday, and Easter is never on the same Sunday each year. Fat Tuesday is always the day before Ash Wednesday which starts Lent. Ash Wednesday always falls 46 days before Easter. Easter ends Lent and is always celebrated on the Sunday immediately following the Paschal Full Moon.  (Sources: Mardi Gras New Orleans and About: Christianity).
  • The popular Christmas song “Jingle Bells” was actually written for Thanksgiving. The song was composed in 1857 by James Pierpont, and was originally called “One Horse Open Sleigh”.
  • Telling ghost stories on Christmas Eve was used to be tradition especially during the Victorian Era.
  • The X in Xmas is neither disrespectful nor trying to “X Christ out of Christmas”.  This usage is nearly as old as Christianity itself, and its origins lie in the fact that the first letter in the Greek word for ‘Christ’ is ‘chi,’ and the Greek letter ‘chi’ is represented by a symbol similar to the letter ‘X’ in the modern Roman alphabet. Hence ‘Xmas’ is indeed perfectly legitimate abbreviation for the word ‘Christmas’ (just as ‘Xian’ is also sometimes used as an abbreviation of the word ‘Christian’). (Sources: Snopes and Wikipedia)
  • Montgomery Ward wasn’t the only department store with its own Christmas mascot. Maison Blanche department store in New Orleans, LA had Mr. Bingle, Santa Claus’ snowman assistant.

*I was always taught that the Pilgrims were extremely devout, very literal Puritans. All Pilgrims were Puritans but not all Puritans were Pilgrims. However, I’ve recently learned that not all historians agree that Pilgrims should be classified as Puritans.

**The Pilgrims did not celebrate Easter either for similar pagan and papacy arguments.

Updated Dec. 19, 2015

2 thoughts on “America’s First “War on Christmas”

  1. You probably have that confusion because we were always taught the founding of the 13 colonies in a way that we did not “get” that the colonies developed over 150 years. That’s a long time. VA (Jamestown) colony was first, then Plymouth (MA). Then, more British came developing the 13 colonies.

    The misconception with Plymouth is that it was only the Pilgrims. But many of the “Strangers” were also a part of the colony. We kind of forget them in history books, but they are clearly there in primary documents. The historians call the other English people who later came to the colonies settlers and colonists. They are also referred by their specific group: Catholics, indentured servants, African slaves, Quakers, Georgia debtors… A lot went down in those 150 years.

    In my experience, pioneers usually refer to those Americans who settled the American West and west coast in the early/mid 1800s. Sometimes they are also called settlers too since they ‘settled the land’. It gets confusing since we were often taught them all lumped together. But that time period from Jamestown to the settling of the West was over 200 years. It’s easy to get all that confused.

    Salutary Neglect: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salutary_neglect

  2. WoW! I really ate this post up… You put a lot of work into it. Thank you.

    Okay, I always associated Pilgrims as Pioneers or Settlers. Such as, the Pioneering Puritans. Still a little confused on that. If that is not the case what were the others called who settled S. Carolina, Virginia … you know the Catholics and other protestants or the strangers … just plain old settlers?

    It is just too bad that the Puritans thought this way because it really did work as a way to spread Christianity. Hindsight is always the best sight.

    I also had a thought, how our beginnings was at odds with the eventual American ideals to self-govern. Like we couldn’t be trusted to stand in our own goodness enough to be trusted with a little merriment, or forgiveness for that matter. I don’t know the idea is kind of loose and may not hold up. But I found it to be an interesting start to our ideals.

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