We all have Christmas memories and may long for that Christmas of old… “back when it was celebrated for the right reason,” as church goers may implore. But Christmas, as we know it today, is a late-nineteenth-century creation: a blend of Old World history and traditions as America emerged and became a nation made up of many cultures and customs.
As late as 1886 the American Methodist newspaper The Christian Advocate made mention of Christmas as a day “on which more sin and sacrilege and pagan foolishness is committed than on any other day of the year.” The reasons were simple.
Since the actual date of Jesus’ birth was lost in time, and December 25 had been assigned only in the fourth century by the Roman Church, the Puritan reform movement in the British Isles, the Pilgrims, Congregationalists, Baptists, Presbyterians, and Quakers said unequivocally that the day called Christmas was a human invention. They felt strongly that any celebration of the Jesus’s birth was totally without Biblical sanction and these Reformers, as they were known, viewed Christmas as a season marked by gluttony, drunkenness, dancing, gambling, and mass begging. They wanted no part of it.
Religion was the preoccupation of colonial times with eighty percent of the people being of British decent and Protestant. They thrived on the Bible and emotional sermons with theology being the sport of the day.
Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan Council abolished Christmas on December 22, 1657. Staples of the Christmas table, mince meat pies and plum porridge were outlawed and pork and goose were forbidden from the December dining table.
Connecticut followed suit in 1659 and so did Massachusetts. But Virginia (perhaps a harbinger of their rebellious nature in the coming Civil War) defied Cromwell, maintaining their Episcopal worship and their Christmas celebrations throughout the colonial period.
As late as 1810, most of the citizens of Pennsylvania paid little or no attention to Christmas. But some breakthrough could be seen as one Quaker woman wrote in her diary of how she “carried out a vigorous housecleaning before December 25th and baked mince pies and doughnuts and shopped for presents for her family.”
Christmas could best be seen in New York in the nineteenth century, where Dutch settlers made merry. New York was the principal port for European immigration in the nineteenth century and it was here that Christmas traditions were first interchanged and then taken across the continent as a mixture of strands from many cultures.
Many of these Christmas observances were purely secular with emphasis on children, hospitality, and seasonal good cheer. By the end of the century, Christmas had gained the support of the reluctant New England states and in 1887, the first Christmas carnival was held in Bridgeport, Connecticut. It lasted a week and reminded one of the mardi gras in New Orleans.
As the Roman Catholic associations died out and were no longer associated with the day, Christmas gradually united its religious and secular elements into a national celebration, encompassing religion as well as folk lore.
So perhaps celebrating an old fashioned Christmas isn’t what many had in mind.