We hear a lot about the war on Christmas, but few remember that, once upon a time, Christmas was completely banned. This wasn’t in Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union. It happened right here in America. The story begins with the Pilgrims. Yes, those Pilgrims. The same ones that we celebrated a few weeks ago when we had Thanksgiving dinner.
Conventional wisdom has it that the Pilgrims came to the New World in search of religious freedom. That’s true to a certain extent. They left England originally to avoid persecution, but they first settled in Holland. In Holland, they had religious freedom, but they had several complaints about life there.
According to Christianity Today, the Pilgrims didn’t like living in Holland because it was a hard place to make a living. They also thought that Holland, with its permissive culture, was not a good place to raise their children. The Pilgrims left Holland for America because they want a more pure and holy society.
As we all know, the Pilgrims moved to America in 1620. What many don’t think about is that, once established in New England, the Pilgrims were absorbed into the larger Puritan movement. The Puritans were reformers in the Church of England who rejected many of the trappings of the English church.
As the Puritan colonies in New England were growing, Puritans in the mother country were actually revolting against the king. The English civil war was fought between the Royalists, also called Cavaliers, who supported Charles I, the Catholic king, and the pro-Puritan forces of Parliament called “Roundheads.” The Roundheads were led by Oliver Cromwell, a Puritan military leader. After the Roundhead victory in 1645, Cromwell became the military ruler of England and the Puritan Parliament canceled Christmas.
Puritans hated Christmas because, even then it was largely a secular holiday. Christmas was celebrated with raucous partying and drinking, two things that were very unpopular among the Puritans, who were literally “puritanical.” After all, the Pilgrims had left Holland a few years earlier to escape this sort of sinful culture. They didn’t want it follow them to Massachusetts.
The Puritans also noted that Christmas was not Biblical. The Bible didn’t mention when Jesus was born and there was no record of early Christians celebrating the Nativity. Puritans associated Christmas with the pagan Roman festival of Saturnalia and the winter solstice. Puritans also viewed every day as holy and spurned the idea that holidays were more special than any other day.
In Puritan England and Massachusetts, work went on as normal on Christmas Day. People who openly celebrated Christmas could be fined. In England, the Christmas spirit was hard to break. Pastors who attempted to preach on Christmas Day were arrested. Pro-Christmas sentiment ran so high that Parliament ordered shops to stay open and ordered that they be protected from violence and intimidation by people offended that they were open on the holiday.
After Cromwell’s death in 1658, Christmas returned to England in 1660 when the monarchy was restored. The ban on Christmas lasted much longer in Puritan Massachusetts. Royal pressure led to lifting of the Christmas ban in 1681, but the holiday still wasn’t popular. The royal governor of Massachusetts held a Christmas Day service in Boston under the protection of redcoat troops in 1686. Anti-Christmas sentiment flared up around the time of the American Revolution due to its association with the crown. While not banned, Christmas wasn’t widely celebrated in New England as late as the 1850s. Christmas became an official holiday in Massachusetts in 1856.
With the Christian concern today that secular forces are trying to eliminate Christmas, it’s ironic to think that it was Christians who once banned the celebration of the birth of Christ. Truth can definitely be stranger than fiction.
Originally published on The Resurgent