Our Puritan Forefathers’ War on Christmas

The holiday season is here and that means it’s story time!

We all know the story of the Pilgrims, right? The Pilgrims were English settlers who established the Plymouth Colony in 1620 after fleeing religious persecution back in England. The Pilgrims’ story plays a central theme in the history and culture of the United States.

Fun fact: These Pilgrims first settled in the Netherlands, but the Dutch language proved so difficult that they decided to give it a try elsewhere.

Now, the Pilgrims were Puritans. Puritans were English Protestants in the 16th and 17th centuries, who sought to “purify” the Church of England of Roman Catholic practices, maintaining that the Church of England had not been fully reformed and needed to become more protestant.

Here’s the story they never teach in school:

The Puritans hated Christmas. They hated it so much the they tried to abolish the holiday all together and succeeded, albeit for a short period, both in the old world and the new.

The celebration of Christmas in 17th century England had many similarities with our own celebrations. Christmas Day itself, December 25th, was marked as a holy day, celebrating and commemorating the birth of Christ, but it also formed the first day of an extended period of celebration and merriment, lasting until early January – the Twelve Days of Christmas.

Increasingly in the late 16th and early 17th centuries, many people, especially the more Godly Puritans, came to frown upon this celebration of Christmas, for two reasons: Firstly, they disliked all the waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality of the Christmas celebrations. Secondly, they saw Christmas as an unwelcome survival of the Roman Catholic faith, a popish festival with no biblical justification – nowhere had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in this way, they said. The Puritans wanted a much stricter observance of the Lord’s day (Sundays), instead of the popish and often sinful celebration of Christmas.

When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I, inciting the English Revolution, the popular celebration of Christmas was on their hit list. Victorious against the king, in 1647, the new and overwhelmingly Puritan government actively sought to canceled Christmas. Not only were traditional expressions of merriment strictly forbidden, but shops were also ordered to stay open, churches were shut down and ministers arrested for preaching on Christmas Day.

In January 1645 a group of ministers appointed by parliament produced a new Directory of Public Worship, which set out a new church organisation and new forms of worship to be adopted and followed in England and Wales. The Directory made clear that Sundays were to be strictly observed as holy days and that there were to be no other holy days thereby prohibiting (on paper at least) the religious celebration of all other holy days, including Christmas. In June 1647 the Long Parliament reiterated this by passing an Ordinance confirming the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.

Touching Days and Places for Publick Worship.

THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord’s day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued.

Directory of Public Worship, Appendix

The Puritans contended that there was no Scriptural warrant for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Puritans argued (not incorrectly) that Christmas represented nothing more than a thin Christian veneer slapped on a pagan celebration. Believing in the holiday was superstitious at best, heretical at worst.

The Restoration canceled the Directory of Public Worship and declared null and void all other legislation of the period 1642-60. Christmas could once again be celebrated openly on English soil.

The ban on Christmas held out much longer in the Americas. The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony also outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony was fined five shillings.

The Plymouth Pilgrims put their loathing for the day into practice in 1620 when they spent their first Christmas Day in the New World building their first structure in the New World – thus demonstrating their complete contempt for the day.

The powerful Massachusetts minister and president of Harvard College, Increase Mather, explained in 1687:

The very name of Christmass savours of superstition. It can never bee proved that Christ was born on December 25. It is most probable that the Nativity was in September. The New-Testament allows of no stated Holy-day but the Lords-day. Objections answered. It was in compliance with the Pagan Saturnalia that Christ-mass Holy-days were first invented. The manner of Christ-mass-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonourable to the Name of Christ.

Christmas Holidays were at first invented and institute in compliance with the Pagan Festivals, of old observed at that very time of the Year. This [De Antiq. Conviv. p. 133.] Stuckius has fully cleared. And [De Origine Festorum Christ.] Hospinian speaketh judiciously, when he saith, that he cloth not believe that they who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it as thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian.

Now for Christians thus to practise, is against clear Scripture, which commands the Lord’s People not to learn the way of the Heathen, nor do after their manner.

A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England (London, 1687), Chapter 3

So naturally, official suppression of Christmas was foundational to the godly colonies in New England. By the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it was not widely celebrated in the US.

Christmas was so inconsequential that after the Revolutionary War, Congress didn’t even bother taking the day off to celebrate the holiday, deciding instead to hold its first session on Christmas Day, 1789. It took almost a century for Congress to proclaim it a federal holiday.

Puts a new spin on the “War on Christmas”, doesn’t it?

Thanks for reading,

If you would like to read a few more stories on the Christmas holiday, please read:

And if you’re looking for a real jolt, please read The Christian Communist Manifesto.








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