The history of Christmas celebrations

December 26, 2018

It’s Christmas. A time when we celebrate the savior’s birth. It’s also a time of giving, of good cheer, Christmas trees, sleigh bells, mistletoe and good will to all. For most people, it’s a happy time of year, but it hasn’t always been so.

In the 1640s, Britain suffered through several civil wars, with the Puritan members of Parliament fighting against the forces of the king, Charles I. Parliament won and, in June 1647, they announced they were banning Christmas and introducing a day of fasting in its place. They said they considered Christmas Day to be a Catholic festival that had “no biblical justification,” and added that it was a time of “wasteful and immoral behavior.”

Not surprisingly, a lot of people didn’t like this. There were objections in several towns and the apprentice boys of London marched to register their opposition. The most notable protest however, was in Canterbury, home to the archbishop who was head of the church.

In that year Christmas Day fell on a Friday, which was market day in the city. In compliance with parliament’s edict the local council ordered shops to stay open and said that the market would be held as usual. The people were incensed. They rioted, wrecking any shops that dared to open and, when the mayor tried to restore order, he was attacked and knocked down.

Some protesters were arrested but the mob promptly broke into the town jail and released them and after that the situation deteriorated, one protester was shot and the commander of the guard was seized and beaten. It took a while but peace was finally restored, no one was punished and the Christmas ban went on until King Charles II, known as the “Merry Monarch,” returned in 1660. The British could celebrate again but over this side of the ocean, in what were then the colonies, things were different.

Many of the early settlers were Puritans who’d moved to America to practice their own version of religion. They did not believe in Christmas and as early as 1620 the Pilgrim Fathers in Plymouth, Massachusetts, spent Christmas Day as an ordinary working day.

A year later the governor of the colony, William Bradford, again organized work parties for Dec. 25, but this time several new arrivals objected. They said it was against their conscience to work on that day and the governor allowed them to be excused.

That wasn’t the end of the story. The governor and his party worked all morning and then returned to the settlement for lunch. There they found the objectors celebrating in what, at the time, was the traditional way. They were eating and drinking excessively, singing, dancing and playing various games. Bradford was outraged and the revelers were sent to their homes to celebrate in private.

The settlers continued to frown on all Christmas celebrations and, after the English Parliament banned it, they passed several laws

to make Christmas illegal. In fact, in 1657 they passed a law imposing a five shilling fine on anyone who was caught celebrating.

After the ban on Christmas was revoked in England, it was to be another 21 years before an English-born governor, Edmund Andros, repealed the laws forbidding celebrations in Boston. He made shops close on Dec. 25 and encouraged officials to take a day off but, despite his efforts, the people of New England were still very puritan in their outlook. The clergy discouraged any celebration and, after Andros’ dismissal in 1686, the festivities were once again frowned upon, merry-makers were arrested for disturbing the peace and Christmas did not become popular again for many years.

The change was gradual but by 1712, even the fiery Puritan Minister, Cotton Mather, was preaching sermons that hinted he was not totally averse to people celebrating Christmas, as long as they did so in moderation. The excessive drinking, eating and other, over the top, festivities of previous years were still frowned upon but the idea of Christmas was coming back and, within 20 years, some pamphlets were referring to the holiday, including Benjamin Franklin’s “Poor Richard’s Almanac.”

By the time the Revolutionary War started, Christmas was popular once more. Christmas music was published, the newspapers mentioned it and even printed poems and stories about it. Then, as the 19th century began, churches were calling for special services on the day, there was a movement for all businesses to close and ads for Christmas gifts began to appear. The holiday got a boost when, in 1822, a poem was printed that I have no doubt you’ll all recognize. Called “A visit from Saint Nicholas” it’s now probably the most widely read piece of poetry ever written in America. It starts with ‘Twas the night before Christmas and all through the house...’

In 1856, Massachusetts declared Dec. 25 to be a public holiday, although as late as 1870, public schools there still scheduled lessons on that day.

German settlers in Pennsylvania had Christmas trees before the start of the Revolutionary War, but they were not appreciated by most Americans until the mid-18405 when Queen Victoria and her German husband. Prince Albert, were pictured with one in the Illustrated London News. The royal couple were the fashion trend setters of the day and suddenly Christmas trees were the “in” thing and everybody wanted one.

One of the country’s most famous trees of course is the one in Rockefeller Center in New York. This has been a tradition since 1931, when construction workers placed a lonely little tree without decorations in the middle of the site. Today the trees are huge and carry as many as 25,000 lights.

Ulysses S. Grant made Christmas Day a federal holiday in 1870 and the first Christmas parade was held in Peoria, Illinois in 1887. 131 years later it’s still being held, although there are better known ones such as that held in Philadelphia, which started 1920 and is held on Thanksgiving Day. New York got in on the act four years later with the first Macy’s Parade, featuring its famous giant balloons.

Personally, I love Christmas, and I may have gotten into a lot of trouble if I’d lived back in Puritan times, although perhaps we should be grateful for their strict edicts. They succeeded in turning something that was wild, drunken debauchery into the start of the wonderful season of goodwill and giving it is today.

That said, I’d like to wish you all a very merry Christmas, especially those members of the armed services who can’t be home for the holiday.

Derek Coleman is a part-time writer who is a native of England and who now lives in Hurricane, W.Va. He can be reached at tallderek@hotmail.com.

Update hourly