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A History of Christmas in the United States

Painting of a 1776 Christmas Party

The first Christmas in America took place near Tallahassee, Fla., in 1539. Spanish explorer and conquistador Hernando de Soto and other members of his expedition, celebrated Christmas there. It was a religious observance with a Christmas mass.

During early American colonial times, there were very few Christmas celebrations. The Pilgrims and Puritans were not fans of Christmas because – Christ did not give instructions that it should be honored as a holy day; Christians in the first two centuries did not celebrate Christmas; December 25 was an arbitrary date for its celebration; and, as Cotton Mather noted, its celebration had been degenerated by the immoral behavior of the participants. In Massachusetts, anyone caught observing Christmas was obliged to pay a fine and Connecticut law forbid its celebration. This, of course, did not intrude on the colonists’ private devotions at home. How you observed Christmas, however, depended on where you settled in the colonies. Christmas celebrations were legal in both New York and Virginia.

After the American Revolution, Americans saw Christmas as an English custom and many rejected it. On Christmas day in 1789, Congress was in session. This does not mean that the members of Congress met to take a stand on the separation of church and state. As sons of their time, they recognized Christmas as part of a moral/theological debate within the predominately Christian American community. The church and public opinion would finally decide the fate of what many, at that time, saw only as a tradition or custom. Allow me to be clear about this; they saw Christmas not Christianity as a tradition.

Interestingly enough, Washington Irving’s book of short stories in 1819, “The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon“, may have influenced public opinion in this matter. The book describes various Christmas traditions and some of Irving’s own ideas. In addition, in 1822, Clement C. Moore composed the poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas”, published as “The Night Before Christmas” as a gift for his children. In it, he describes an American version of Santa Claus. Children’s books played an important part in spreading various customs of Christmas in the US. With increasing immigration, the Christmas traditions of other cultures soon found their way into American households. In 1850, the commercial selling of Christmas trees began in the United States.

As the American Civil War approached, the division on the issue of Christmas continued. Many in the North considered it sinful to celebrate Christmas. In the antebellum South, Christmas celebrations were more common. The first three states to declare Christmas a legal holiday were from the South: Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas (1836-1838).

On June 26, 1870, Christmas became a federal holiday. At first, this only applied to federal employees in the District of Columbia. In 1885, Congress extended the Christmas holiday to all federal employees throughout the US.

Christmas, as a celebration, has continued to grow in popularity in the US and throughout the world. Can we say that the popularity of Jesus is equal to that of Christmas? I am not so sure we can. Christmas has become a  secular idol to many. This is a huge problem for those of us who sincerely want to honor Christ in Christmas. Perhaps the Pilgrims and Puritans were right about Christmas all along. Perhaps, in our personal witness, we have failed to communicate the glorious message and meaning of Christ’s birth. What do you think should be done?

 

2 Responses

  1. Have you ever quoted Spurgeon or Pink on the subject?
    Mrs. Fran

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    • Yes. Spurgeon did not approve of making up holy days, but generally tolerated the celebration of Christmas. Pink opposed the celebration of Christmas outright.

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