While most Americans today probably can’t imagine the Christmas season without Santa Claus, Christmas trees, hanging stockings and giving gifts, most of those traditions didn’t get started until the 19th century. In the pre-Revolutionary War era, people living in the original 13 colonies disagreed fiercely over the question of how to celebrate Christmas—and even whether to celebrate it at all.
READ MORE: 25 Christmas Traditions and Their Origins
Roots of the Colonial Christmas Debate
English settlers who traveled to the New World brought the debate over Christmas with them. By the late 16th century, a group of Protestant reformers known as Puritans sought to purify the Church of England, and purge it of Roman Catholic traditions they saw as excessive.
This included Christmas, which had roots in the pagan Roman winter festival of Saturnalia, as well as the Norse festival of Yule. At the time, celebrations of Christmas in England lasted for nearly two weeks—from the day of Jesus Christ’s birth, December 25, to Twelfth Day, January 6—and consisted of rowdy celebrations including feasting, gambling, drinking, and masquerade balls.
READ MORE: Saturnalia
Christmas in Jamestown and Plymouth
Like those they left behind in England, the settlers who came to the New World were divided on whether and how to celebrate Christmas.
For the settlers who arrived in Virginia in 1607, Christmas was an important holiday. While celebrations may have been limited, given the harsh realities of life in the struggling new Jamestown settlement, they preserved it as a sacred occasion and a day of rest. By the 1620s and ‘30s, Christmas was established as a benchmark in the legislative calendar of the Virginia colony, according to Nancy Egloff, Jamestown Settlement historian. Laws on the books in 1631, for example, stated that churches were to be built in areas that needed them before the “feast of the nativitie of our Saviour Christ.”
By contrast, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Colony belonged to a Puritan sect known as Separatists. They treated their first Christmas in the New World as just one more working day. Governor William Bradford noted in his diary that the colonists began building the colony’s first house on December 25, 1620.
The following year, when a group of newly arrived settlers refused to work on Christmas Day, Bradford let them off the hook until they could become “better informed.” But he drew a firm line after he found them playing games while everyone else worked.
“If they made the keeping of it [Christmas] a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses,” Bradford wrote. “But there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.”
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In Massachusetts, the Puritans Made Christmas Illegal
The bitter differences between Puritans and Anglicans would eventually lead to the First English Civil War (1642-46), after which the Puritans came to power and banned the celebration of Christmas, Easter, and the various saints’ days. In their strict view of the Bible, only the Sabbath was sacred. Christmas, with its pagan roots, was especially unacceptable.
Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630 by a group of Puritan refugees from England, followed this example. According to a law passed in 1659, “whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way” would be slapped with a five-shilling fine.
In 1681, after the English Civil Wars ended and the monarchy was restored, Massachusetts gave in to mounting pressure and repealed some of its most restrictive laws, including the ban on Christmas. Puritan opposition to Christmas remained strong throughout the colonial period, however: Most businesses often remained open on December 25, and Massachusetts didn’t officially recognize the holiday until the mid-19th century.
READ MORE: When Massachusetts Banned Christmas
Colonists Imported English Traditions
Despite Puritan efforts, many colonists in New England did celebrate Christmas, importing English customs such as drinking, feasting, mumming and wassailing. Mumming, or “masking,” involved people dressing up in costume and going from house to house, putting on plays and otherwise performing. Wassailers also traveled between homes, drinking and singing while passing around bowls full of spiced ale or mulled wine.
In the middle and southern colonies, where there was more religious diversity, Anglicans, Roman Catholics, Lutherans, Moravians and other groups introduced their own Christmas traditions to the New World, both religious and secular.
Far from the children-focused occasion it is today, the Christmas season was packed with adult activities such as parties, feasts, hunts, balls and—of course—church services. People decorated homes and churches with evergreen plants such as holly, ivy, mountain laurel and mistletoe, a favorite of couples seeking a holiday kiss.
In addition to mumming and wassailing, revelers in southern colonies like Virginia enjoyed caroling, singing popular English favorites such as “The First Noel," "God Rest You Merry Gentlemen” and "The Holly and the Ivy."
Though Christmas had become a relatively mainstream celebration by the mid-18th century, it still wasn’t officially recognized as a holiday by the time of the Revolutionary War. In 1789, Congress went so far as to hold its first session on Christmas Day.
It would take nearly a century for Congress to declare Christmas a national holiday, which it finally did in 1870. By that time, traditions such as the Christmas tree, Santa Claus and gift-giving had made their way into the American mainstream, helping to turn December 25 into the family-friendly holiday we know and love today.