Thursday, November 29, 2018

Christmas in Colonial America

While Christmas celebrations are quite common in this century, it was not always so in America. In fact, our first settlers—both the Pilgrims who landed at Plymouth in 1620, and the Puritans who established Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1630—were adamantly opposed to the tradition, which they viewed as un-Christian.

Both immigrant groups were part of the Protestant Reformation movement that opposed many things associated with the church in Rome. Catholics had adopted the holiday based on the ancient Roman celebration called Saturnalia, a feast of lights that involved drinking and feasting. Their reasoning was to fix a definite date of birth to prove the personhood of the Christ child, yet most Christians balked at the unknown (according to Scripture) date. Puritans and Pilgrims rejected the holiday and its connection with the pagan Roman tradition celebrated on December 25. 

The colonists were not the first to renounce Christmas as a religious holiday, since the Puritans in England in 1647 had already banned the celebration. The reformists in America followed suit in 1659 when the General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony declared that “whoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other such way” was subject to a fine of five shillings. 

During the same time period, the Assembly of Connecticut prohibited the keeping of Christmas and any saint’s day. 

The Puritans believed that Christmas was just a pagan custom, adapted as a Christian one, without any Biblical basis. The way revelers celebrated Christmas did not endear the Pilgrims or Puritans to the holiday. “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas then in all the twelve months besides,” wrote 16thcentury clergyman, Hugh Latimer. 

The Christmas was neither “silent” nor “holy,” involving gambling, excess drinking, and rowdy, licentious behavior. 

Businesses and schools in Massachusetts remained open on December 25, until it was declared a public holiday in 1856.

But Christmas customs varied in the colonies, depending on religious affiliations. Most Virginians were devout Anglicans and the weeks leading up to December 25 were a time of penance and reflection on one’s spiritual condition. 

Quakers in Philadelphia, as well as Presbyterians, did not partake in Christmas festivities.

But Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, and Moravians did observe Christmas day and all its celebrations in the Middle Atlantic colonies as well as in the South. 

Peter Kalm, a Swedish visitor to Philadelphia in 1749, made note of the Christmas decorations—green boughs, garlands made of holly, ivy, and mountain laurel hanging from the church roof, walls, and pillars. 
Although historic areas now use fruits to decorate for Christmas, it is likely that these were far too precious a commodity as food in Colonial America—except perhaps by the wealthy. 

Music was a huge part of celebrations. Philip Fithian of Virginia wrote in his diary on Christmas Eve in 1775 about singing hymns written by Isaac Watts, which seems ironic since Watts was an English Congregationalist minister and theologian. Congregationalists in Massachusetts abhorred the idea of Christmas. Watts actually wrote “Joy to the World,” a favorite Christmas carol. 

Some churches offered Christmas worship services, but this religious observance seemed to play a minor role in comparison to feasting and revelry. The wealthy in the South provided lavish feasts and entertainments, including balls and fox hunts. The less well-off did not celebrate with such splendor but did participate with simpler food and festivities. 

While Southern colonists brought in the English customs of yule logs, kissing under the mistletoe, and decorating with greenery, German immigrants brought the German folk figure of Christkindel, who brings children their gifts at Christmas. 

Many cultures, traditions, and beliefs influenced the holiday of Christmas during colonial times. They were as diverse as the people who came here to settle in America.

May your Christmas be blessed. 

Elaine Marie Cooper is the award-winning author of Fields of the Fatherless and Bethany’s Calendar. Her latest release (Saratoga Letters) was finalist in Historical Romance in both the Selah Awards and Next Generation Indie Book Awards. She penned the three-book Deer Run Saga and has been published in numerous magazines and anthologies. She freely admits to being a history geek. Look for her upcoming series, entitled Dawn of America, set in Revolutionary War Connecticut. The first two books are entitled War's Respiteand Love's Kindling. You can visit her site at  


  1. Interesting. It would almost make you a pariah nowadays to not celebrate Christmas, but it sure has turned into a feast of other sorts...monetary comes to mind. I have to participate for my family but I try to do more for birthdays than Christmas.

  2. It is a conundrum, ian't it Connie? We want to keep Christ as the focus yet store sales and gift giving seems to take over. It's a struggle for all Christians and I'd love to hear how others keep Jesus as the reason for the season. Praying your Christmas is blessed!

  3. Thanks for the interesting post, Elaine. I hate to think what our forefathers would think of how we celebrate today.