The “War on Christmas” in Early America

With Christmas right around the corner, we are re-posting this piece from three years ago. All of us at The Junto would like to wish happy holidays to all our readers. 

This oft-used image is not from Puritan Massachusetts but from a 1969 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. See:

As an historian of early America, I suspect I am not alone in sighing a little bit to myself when hearing the often heated rhetoric about the “War on Christmas” emanating from right-wing and evangelical media outlets at this time of the year. That, of course, is because the real war on Christmas was not waged by 21st-century godless, liberal secular humanists and the ACLU but by 17th-century New England Puritans, particularly the clergy.

Saturnalia was a pagan Roman festival held annually from December 17-25. Its customary celebrations were both chaotic and violent and, hence, were popular amongst lower-class Romans. In the fourth century, as the Catholic Church sought to bring the pagan masses into the Christian fold, the Church adopted the final day of the festival as Jesus’s birthday, which the New Testament does not indicate and on which, until this time, there had been no widespread consensus. The Church effectively killed two birds with one stone. Throughout the centuries, the most violent aspects of the celebration (which, allegedly, may have included human sacrifices) fell away, but the customs of near-lawless revelry persisted, and indeed defined the celebrations in the early modern period.

Vindication of Christmas

At the start of the early modern period, the holiday was not yet the priority it has become, as Easter dominated the Catholic calendar. But the Reformation had a significant impact on the perception of Christmas, both positively and negatively. The holiday celebration customs were continued by the Church of England. The often uninhibited revelry of the holiday (which Puritans derisively referred to as “Foolstide”) appealed to the English lower classes while the gentry celebrated with “eating and drinking, [and] banqueting and feasting.”

In addition there was a distinct class aspect to one of the customs, in which the poorest man in the town was named “The Lord of Misrule” and treated like a gentleman.[1] Another custom, known as “wassailling” involved lower-class persons going to the homes of wealthy individuals and “asking” for food and drink, which they would then use to toast that individual. Due to the penchant for disorder, immodesty, gluttony, and the (temporary) breakdown of the social order, it should come as no surprise that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English dissenters began to take a very dim view of the holiday. Indeed, the hotter the Protestant, the stronger the aversion to Christmas. But their opposition to Christmas was not just due to the overtly social nature of its celebration. Puritan faith derived wholly from scripture, and, in 1645 and again in 1647, the Long Parliament declared the abolition of all holy days except the Sabbath, which was the only day described as such in the Bible.[2]

And so the first English dissenters who settled New England in the early seventeenth century were, like their brethren back home, decidedly anti-Christmas. Puritans were keenly aware of the holiday’s pagan origins, as Increase Mather wrote in A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England: [3]

In the pure Apostolical times there was no Christ-mass day observed in the Church of God. We ought to keep the primitive Pattern. That Book of Scripture which is called The Acts of Apostles saith nothing of their keeping Christ’s Nativity as an Holy-day.

[. . .]

Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? [. . .] It can never be proved that Christ’s nativity was on 25 of December.

[. . .]

[They] who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it not as 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.

By mid-century, the Puritan “City on a Hill” was already losing its spiritual homogeneity and the combination of new settlers and a new generation less committed to Puritan strictures forced the Massachusetts General Court to take action. On May 11, 1659, the following was entered into the General Court’s records:[4]

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.

Mather, “A Testimony…” (click to see full-size page)

Despite being told to repeal the “penalty for keeping Christmas” as early as May of 1665 for its “being directly against the lawe of England,” the law was not stricken until 1681, followed by renewed pressure from Charles II.[5] But even though the legal war was over, the cultural war on Christmas continued. In 1686, the unpopular royal governor of the new Dominion of New England, Sir Edmund Andros, required an armed escort at a Christmas service he sponsored (somewhat brazenly) in Boston. Indeed, Christmas was not celebrated widely in New England through the eighteenth century, and, when it was, it was done privately. All this is not to imply that Christmas was celebrated broadly outside of New England. Even after the Revolution, the Congress was known to meet on Christmas Day, if they were in session. Throughout the nineteenth century, as well, there are numerous reports from all over the United States attesting to the lack Christmas observance, particularly by various Protestant and German Pietist sects.

A few days ago, Bill O’Reilly claimed that—thanks to him and Fox News—the “War on Christmas” had been won and Christmas had been saved for all the true Americans out there wishing to celebrate the “traditional American Christmas.” However, the history shows that waging a “war on Christmas” is one of the very oldest of all American traditions and is a far more American tradition than the current twentieth-century, commercial capitalist version of Christmas that Bill O’Reilly claims to have saved.


[1] This tradition had its roots in a Saturnalian custom of Masters exchanging roles with their servants.

[2] If there could be said to have been a war “over” Christmas, it would have been in the 1640s and 1650s as Oliver Cromwell and Parliament tried to enforce their ban on Christmas by attempting to stop public celebrations by Anglicans (and the few remaining Catholics) and force shop keepers to remain open. In many localities, the result was fighting in the street between the authorities and those intent on celebrating the holiday in its traditional manner. For more on the English context, see Chris Durston, “The Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas, 1642-60History Today 35, no. 12 (1985).

[3] Increase Mather, A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England (London, 1687), 18-9; 35. Early English Books Online.

[4] Records of the Governor and Company of the Massachusetts Bay in New England, 5 vols., ed. Nathaniel B. Shurtleff (Boston: From the Press of W. White, printer to the Commonwealth, 1854), 4:366.

[5] Ibid., 5:212; For repeal, see William H. Whitmore, A Bibliographical Sketch of the Laws of the Massachusetts Colony from 1630 to 1686 (Boston: Rockwell and Churchill, City Printers, 1890), 126.

14 responses

  1. Mr Hattem enjoy your historical research very much, I find revisiting what I was not taught in my youth enriching. This blog about the war on Christmas was also interesting. However your political slip is showing sir. History is far better written without a predetermined political bias, which creates doubt regarding factual accuracy in the research presented.

    • Ptfan1, that is not an altogether unexpected reaction. Though I would challenge you to point to any statement in the piece that implies partisanship on my part. I find people often say things like that without any intent of checking the research for themselves, i.e., just as a way to dismiss an argument they don’t like. I don’t necessarily think you’re doing that here, but I would strongly encourage you to double-check any statement of fact or quotation in the piece. The only source I used that is not freely available on the internet (either by clicking the corresponding link or easily found on Google) was the Mather source and for that I included a large scan of the page quoted from the actual 1687 pamphlet. It’s the last graphic in the piece, click on it to see it full-size and double-check my quotation and read Mather for yourself.

      In terms of politics, I think it is a sad commentary on our current political culture that criticizing a group’s argument must mean you are from a completely opposing political persuasion. From this piece, I guess you could assume I was a liberal, if you wanted. Or you could just as easily assume I am an independent or a non-evangelical right-wing libertarian. Or you could assume that I wrote this piece not as a partisan to attack a specific political party but as an American historian trying to educate the public about its own history. If you don’t agree with my comment at the end (the only opinion in the piece) that is entirely fair. Historians disagree with each other’s interpretations all the time and I would very much be interested in your own interpretation of the relationship between these events and the current “war on Christmas.” Thanks for reading and I hope you have a happy holidays!

  2. I saw no bias in the article, to be candid. It’s an admirable, well-researched, tersely-written exploration of the complex and conflicted relationship between early Americans and Christmas. It’s a nice present for those loyal readers of THE JUNTO, too. Merry happy.

  3. An interesting addition to this piece might be an explanation of how and when the Christmas celebration became a full-blown, media-hyped, government-sponsored and publicly-subsidized retail event. For instance, when did local governments start decorating their downtown streets to help their local merchants in pushing the Christmas merchandise? I’m guessing that Increase Mather would have a stroke if he could walk down Main Street in Anytown, USA, on Dec. 24.

  4. Mr Hattem, I very much appreciate your scholarship in this blog, and I have been thrilled to have discovered The Junto. I am in no way qualified to question the research you have presented here, in fact I would be comfortable in quoting it as source material and recommending it to others. It is your opening and closing paragraphs that led me to comment about political bias. Perhaps my initial reaction was too knee jerky.

    Sometimes ones choice of words in discussing politics can be viewed as intellectual “code” for demeaning or dismissing others, which I find disingenuous and not scholarly at all. Here are the words in the opening paragraph, “21st Century godless liberal secular humanists and the ACLU.”
    that struck me as a labeling by innuendo i.e. that is how right leaning folks would label all those declaring war on Christmas. In the second paragraph I am not sure that Bill O’rielly actually claimed to have saved ONLY a “20th century commercial capitalist version of Christmas.” In fact if he were to respond that he might say “whoa fella, what about the Dickensian model of Christmas, isn’t that worth saving?”

    In any event I found your point of comparison interesting, relevant and a fun read. And I wish you and yours a Merry Christmas, “God bless us, everyone!”


    • The term “godless liberal secular humanists and the ACLU” is exactly how O’Reilly describes the people that are waging the war on Christmas. That, of course, is not a judgment on my part but an accurate portrayal of a view held by many people. And in the last paragraph, I didn’t say O’Reilly himself thought he ONLY saved the commercial version of Christmas. That’s me saying what I think he was defending. Then again, when your defense of Christmas is primarily aimed at boycotting large retail stores for putting up signs that say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” I think that statement was a fair one to make, but, of course, that is open to debate. I really appreciate your comments, ptfan1, as they touched on an important aspect of writing on contemporary topics, especially political ones, and something we should all take into account when doing so. Thank you and I hope you have a merry Christmas.

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  6. Reblogged this on Liberalism is Trust Fucked with Prudence. Conservatism is Distrust Tainted with Fear and commented:
    I cotton to Deeper Waters Bashing Bill O’Reilly:“Now I understand that not everyone can be religious expert. This includes not just people on Fox, but CNN, MSNBC, NBC, ABC, etc. You might be able to speak authoritatively on politics and other matters, but that does not necessarily mean you can do the same with religion. You can be an expert on politics and religion, but being an expert in one does not entail being an expert in the other”. “Bill O’Reilly was trying to make the story exciting instead of just telling the story. Of course, there is historical fiction that might paint in some details, but O’Reilly just really seems to detract from the story”. O’Reilly makes the claim that Mary Magdalene was the prostitute who came to Jesus in Luke 7. O’Reilly gives us the myth that Hitler sought the holy lance that was supposed to have been used on Jesus. there is a strong emphasis on Jesus’s claims to be God. This was not the message Jesus went around preaching. I do fully uphold the deity of Christ of course, and we should defend that, but the main message of Jesus was the Kingdom of God and God acting through Him as that King. O’Reilly gives the impression the gospels were written to show the deity of Christ. They were written to show the life and message. Deity is a part of that, but not the message entire.

  7. Pingback: The early American origins of the War on Christmas

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  10. Pingback: A Few Thoughts on Holidays in #VastEarlyAmerica - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture - Omohundro Institute of Early American History and Culture


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