Thursday, December 24, 2009

Merry Colonial Christmas

Being that we are only days from celebrating Christmas, I have chosen to look at how early colonial Americans understood this celebration, which has become so mainstream in our modern era. Contrary to what most of us might think, Christmas has not been a predominant American holiday throughout our history. In fact, it has been anything but that.

This bright and joyful holiday that we celebrate every December, which is no doubt the most popular holiday in modern day America, was seen in a very different light by the earliest Americans. Instead of lavishly decorating the town and cheerfully celebrating the holiday spirit, those of America's early years took a very indifferent stance on the celebration Christmas. As historian Nicole Harms put it:
Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.
Nicole Harms is 100% right. The Puritans, whom we celebrate for their quest to establish a new religious community, utterly loathed the celebration of Christmas. Since their religious doctrine was predominantly based on strict adherence to the Bible, and since there is no mention of Christmas being celebrated in the Bible, the Puritans saw the holiday as a blasphemous heresy. Even the overwhelming majority of Puritan diaries reveal that December 25th was nothing more than an average day of work and worship in their corner of the New World. Not only could one be fined for celebrating Christmas, but in addition they could find themselves locked up in the stocks for up to four hours!

As more Europeans began migrating to British America, many of their Christmas customs naturally made the journey as well. However, as these customs clashed with overwhelming religious opposition, the celebration of Christmas evolved into a more secular winter festival that was reminiscent of its original pagan roots. As a result, Christmas was detached from any major religious significance. The overwhelming majority of colonial preachers -- particularly in the Puritan lands of Massachusetts -- made little to no effort to preach the "pagan" or "papal" doctrine surrounding Christmas. For those various Protestants, the Reformation had taken care of those "vile," "hideous" traditions of the papacy, and Christmas was certainly seen as one of them.

A good example of this American religious detachment from Christmas can be found in the first year of the American Revolution. As George Washington and his men limped away from their horrific defeat in New York at the end of 1776, the Continental Army was literally teetering on the brink of destruction. It wasn't until General Washington suggested a Christmas Day attack of the Hessian camps in Trenton that the "rebels" were able to gain a measure of success in the war's first year. And why did Washington choose Christmas for his attack? Because he knew that the Hessians, would be completely drunk and hung over from their Christmas celebration; a celebration that was completely secular in nature. After all, Washington wasn't counting on the Hessians being caught up in prayer. Instead he was sure they would be drunk off their mind from their holiday ale.

In addition to Washington's wartime experience, it is also worth noting that Christmas was ignored in the halls of government. In the early years of the republic, members of Congress assembled on December 25th as if it were any other day. In fact, the earliest notes of the congress gave little or not mention to the Christmas holiday. This tradition would continue for the first 65 years of the nation's existence.

And such was the case for most colonial celebrations in America. Amongst the earliest settlers to the New World were the Jamestown explorers of 1607. And what did their first Christmas in the New World entail? Well, pretty much nothing but getting as drunk as possible. John Smith mentioned how the popular holiday drink that we call eggnog was the primary source for "jolliness" during their Christmas season. The Jamestown drink, known as "grog," was a slang for any beverage containing run. Later, the word was eventually changed to "nog," and has been present at every Christmas festival since.

In conclusion, there can be little argument that many of the festivities that we use to commemorate Christmas are deeply rooted in pagan tradition. In today's society this is hardly noticed, but in Colonial America it was a well known fact, which turned many Christians off to the holiday. It wasn't until the late part of the 19th century that Christmas took on its central role as the premiere American religious holiday. For literally centuries, Christmas was a quasi-holiday, often ignored by the masses. Christian churches were less zealous to see it celebrated than they are today. If our ancestors could only see us now!!!


King of Ireland said...

Good angle on the Hessian thing. I never knew it was on Christmas. Maybe I just forgot it has been a long time since college History classes.

Brad Hart said...

I've always loved the Trenton story. It has components of Caesar's Rubicon crossing, Ike's D-Day invasion and Old Hickory's defense of New Orleans all in one!

Great story.

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