History of Christmas in America

Early Colonial settlers included the Puritans in New England to the Dutch in New Amsterdam, and the English Anglicans and Catholics in the Mid Atlantic colonies. Each of these areas celebrated (or didn’t celebrate) Christmas in their own unique way. Out of these Colonial Christmas customs came the modern Christmas traditions we know today.

How the Puritans (almost) stole Christmas

Following the Protestant Reformation of the 16th Century, new religious sects sprang up in England based on the strict teachings of John Calvin and John Knox. At the same the Church of England was established, giving way to a form of Protestantism that was not as strict as the other “puritan” groups. Following the rise of Oliver Cromwell and his “roundheads” in 1642, Christmas festivities, considered a “heathen practice” were outlawed, including singing Christmas carols, nativity scenes and any other obvious attempts at celebration.

Puritans arriving in Massachusetts during the 17th Century brought this same disdain for Christmas with them. While Thanksgiving was an acceptable holiday in New England, Christmas certainly was not. In 1620, Governor William Bradford forbid any of the Pilgrims to observe the holiday. Instead, he noted that they felled trees and worked on building houses. Business as usual.

Persecution of Christmas persisted through the 17th century. Caroling, games and even mince pies, considered a vulgar holiday luxury, were all outlawed. Despite its Spartan beginnings, New England did have many people who celebrated Christmas, especially as more and more settlers began arriving from Europe through the 17th and 18th Centuries. This trend is apparent in 1686 by a repeal of a 1659 law that fined people five shillings for feasting or any other perceived merriment on December 25th. Despite People’s growing acceptance of Christmas, it wasn’t made an official holiday in New England until the 1856.

The Dutch & Sinter Klass

In 1604, the Dutch East India Company sent a group of Dutch settlers to the newly established colony  of New Amsterdam (now New York City). Unlike their Puritan counterparts, the Dutch Protestants celebrated Christmas with much merriment. Especially important was Saint Nicholas’ Day on December 6th. Saint Nicholas, nicknamed Sinter Klass, was eagerly anticipated by Dutch settlers children. He arrived via a toy laden ship from the mother country just in time for his Saint Day celebration, each year. Following the take over of New Amsterdam by the British, Sinter Klass was joined by another gift bearer, the English Father Christmas. Together they gradually melded together to form our modern day Santa Clause.

Christmas in the Mid Atlantic Colonies

Unlike their northern neighbors, settlers in the mid Atlantic colonies celebrated Christmas just as they had in Merry Old England. Captain John Smith (of Pocahontas fame) celebrated one of the earliest Christmases in Virginia by feasting on wild game, oysters and fish. As the colonies of the mid Atlantic became more established, Christmas grew more elaborate. Colonists decorated their homes with lavish greenery, held great feasts, sang carols and played games. A traditional Yule log was burned and affluent families held Christmas balls.

Other Colonial Christmas Customs

Religious persecution in Eastern Europe during the 18th Century brought an influx of immigrants from Bohemia and Moravia, who settled in what is now Bethlehem Pennsylvania and Salem, North Carolina. These groups brought several distinct Christmas customs with them, including a Putz, or nativity scene and the introduction of the first candlelight church service.

Originally posted at Suite101 Colonial Christmas Traditions

All Rights Reserved (c) Lorri Brown 2015

All images courtesy of Public Domain

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