Remembering America’s First Christmas: The Myths That Led to the ‘War on Christmas’

Christmas time, that wonderful time of year when we can pause and reflect on the first Christmas in America, with the Pilgrims exchanging gifts with the Indians in snowy New England.

After all, the Pilgrims came to America to avoid religious persecution, right?

Unfortunately, this view of American history, as well as the modern belief in a so-called ‘War on Christmas,’ are totally in err.

The Pilgrims, some of the strictest of the Puritan movement, held Christmas as an aberration of true Christianity–and even at times forbade its celebration in the colonies they controlled, including Massachusetts:

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.

 

From the records of the General Court,
Massachusetts Bay Colony
May 11, 1659

Five shillings was an enormous fine, considering that most laborers didn’t even make 5 pence a day during this time period.

It was the American’s ho-hum attitude toward Christmas that gave George Washington the decisive edge during the Battle of Trenton — against the predominately Lutheran, Hessian soldiers who celebrated Christmas with gusto and drunkenness.

Celebrating Christmas, with the comparative fervor as it is today, didn’t become fashionable throughout the United States until the mid-1800s, and it wasn’t until 1889 that the White House even had a Christmas tree displayed.

Reflecting on the ‘War on Christmas’

One of the greatest disservices we can do to history is to reminisce about the way things never were.

Christmas traditions in America were developed over time, especially as more and more Catholics and Lutherans came into America–bringing with them the very deeply rooted traditions of Christmas observance.

Celebrating Christmas ... didn't become fashionable throughout the United States until the mid-1800s.
Christmas itself was a celebration of the effectiveness of America’s melting pot, eventually becoming an almost universal celebration.

But, as with all traditions, the melting pot ebbs and flows.

America has more ethnic Jews in our population than even Israel, as well as a roughly equal number of Muslims who are also the fastest growing religion in America.

The Indochina refugee crisis brought almost 3 million mostly non-Christians into the United States. While not celebrating Christmas, they were keenly observant of celebrating both the solar and lunar New Year’s.

And then we have a wide spectrum of atheists, nonreligious, and non-Christians who make up a considerable part of our society.

Coupled with the demographic shifts are other changes within our culture–especially economic ones. Even 20 years ago you would have been hard pressed to find a business open on Christmas Day–now commonplace throughout America.

The belief in the so-called ‘War on Christmas’ may be a backlash to these changes, but America has been in constant change since the very first colonists set foot on our shores.

But we can celebrate this time of year without bitterness or hostility–accepting that living peaceably with people of different beliefs has become a hallmark American trait.

So to everyone celebrating this time of year, regardless of faith, we should truly wish all a very heartfelt ‘Happy Holidays,’ and the very best wishes for the New Year to come.