As Christmas approaches and the annual "War on Christmas" revs up here in America, I thought it would be appropriate to look at the history of Christmas in the US. Many Christians complain about the commercialization and how we have "taken Christ out of Christmas". I'll bet most Christians would be shocked to find out that Christmas was even less religious in most areas during the founding of our nation.
Christmas was originally a 12-day celebration, which began on December 25th. It became a big party, in which people would feast, drink, play games, go wassailing and mumming, and generally engage in a lot of boisterous and debauched behavior. Wassailing is a tradition in which peasants go door-to-door singing carols and asking for food and ale in exchange for a blessing of good health. Mumming is a practice in which people dress up in costumes or masks and go around acting out the character they are portraying. Christmas at the time was basically like Mardis Gras. While some sects did offer church services on Christmas Day, religion does not seem to have played a large role in the holiday prior to the mid-19th century.
Many Protestants, Baptists, Calvinists, Quakers, and Puritans shunned Christmas. The Puritans unofficially banned celebrating Christmas starting in their second year in the New World. This eventually led to an official banning of the holiday in 1659. The law banning the holiday read:
"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."
The law was repealed in 1681, when an English-appointed governor was put in charge of the colony. Still, Christmas was not celebrated by most in New England until the latter part of the 19th century. Boston-area schools were not given the day off until 1870, when Christmas became a national holiday.
Meanwhile, people in Catholic, Anglican, Moravian, and Dutch Reformed communities continued to celebrate Christmas. After the American Revolution, however, celebrations of Christmas dwindled, with many seeing it as an English custom and wanting to separate themselves from the Old World customs. Still, some continued to celebrate it to some degree. Among those were some of our first Presidents, which you can read about here.
Christmas was revived in the mid-1800s, largely due to books like Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol" and Clement C. Moore's "A Visit From St. Nicholas", along with the commercialization of gift-giving following the Civil War.
For more, here are some interesting articles:
Christmas in Nineteenth Century America, which is when the modern Christmas celebrations started to form.