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 such as Christmas and Easter. Scripture did not name any holiday except the Sabbath, they argued, and the very concept of "holy days" implied that some days were not holy. "They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday," was a common Puritan maxim. Puritans were particularly contemptuous of Christmas, nicknaming it "Foolstide" and banning their flock from any celebration of it throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. On the first Dec. 25 the settlers spent in Plymouth Colony, they worked in the fields as they would on any other day. The next year, a group of non-Puritan workmen caught celebrating Christmas with a game of "stoole-ball" — an early precursor of baseball — were punished by Gov. William Bradford. "My conscience cannot let you play while everybody else is out working," he told them.
Why didn't Puritans like Christmas?
They had several reasons, including the fact that it did not originate as a Christian holiday. The upper classes in ancient Rome celebrated Dec. 25 as the birthday of the sun god Mithra. The date fell right in the middle of Saturnalia, a monthlong holiday dedicated to food, drink, and revelry, and Pope Julius I is said to have chosen that day to celebrate Christ's birth as a way of co-opting the pagan rituals. Beyond that, the Puritans considered it historically inaccurate to place the Messiah's arrival on Dec. 25. They thought Jesus had been born sometime in September.
So their objections were theological?
Not exclusively. The main reason Puritans didn't like Christmas was that it was a raucously popular holiday in late medieval England. Each year, rich landowners would throw open their doors to the poor and give them food and drink as an act of charity. The poorest man in the parish was named the "Lord of Misrule," and the rich would wait upon him at feasts that often descended into bawdy drunkenness. Such decadence never impressed religious purists. "Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas," wrote the 16th-century clergyman Hugh Latimer, "than in all the 12 months besides."
When did that view win out?
Puritans in the English Parliament eliminated Christmas as a national holiday in 1645, amid widespread anti-Christmas sentiment. Settlers in New England went even further, outlawing Christmas celebrations entirely in 1659. Anyone caught shirking their work duties or feasting was forced to pay a significant penalty of five shillings. Christmas returned to England in 1660, but in New England it remained banned until the 1680s, when the Crown managed to exert greater control over its subjects in Massachusetts. In 1686, the royal governor of the colony, Sir Edmund Andros, sponsored a Christmas Day service at the Boston Town House. Fearing a violent backlash from Puritan settlers, Andros was flanked by redcoats as he prayed and sang Christmas hymns.
Did the Puritans finally relent?
Not at all. They kept up their boycott of Christmas in Massachusetts for decades. Cotton Mather, New England's most influential religious leader, told his flock in 1712 that "the feast of Christ's nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty...by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!" European settlers in other American colonies continued to celebrate it, however, as both a pious holiday and a time for revelry. In his Poor Richard's Almanac of 1739, Philadelphian Benjamin Franklin wrote of Christmas: "O blessed Season! Lov'd by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners."
So Christmas was finally accepted at that time?
No. Anti-Christmas sentiment flared up again around the time of the American Revolution. Colonial New Englanders began to associate Christmas with royal officialdom, and refused to mark it as a holiday. Even after the U.S. Constitution came into effect, the Senate assembled on Christmas Day in 1797, as did the House in 1802. It was only in the following decades that disdain for the holiday slowly ebbed away. Clement Clarke Moore's poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" — aka "'Twas the Night Before Christmas" — was published in New York in 1823 to enormous success. In 1836, Alabama became the first state to declare Christmas a public holiday, and other states soon followed suit. But New England remained defiantly Scrooge-like; as late as 1850, schools and markets remained open on Christmas Day. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow finally noted a "transition state about Christmas" in New England in 1856. "The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so," he wrote. Christmas Day was formally declared a federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870.