Written by Barbara Brown Zikmund
A monthly feature about the history of the United Church of Christ
Most of us know that Christmas is not about Santa Claus, or presents, or holiday parties. It is about the love of God for the world. It is about angels singing good news, and kings honoring divine promises. Many of us make a yearly effort to "put Christ back into Christmas."
This is ironic, because our Puritan ancestors never celebrated Christmas at all. Puritans in England and New England could not find any support for Christmas in the Bible. They believed that Christian practices and worship should be based solely on scripture, so they rejected organs and stained glass windows. They sang Psalms and kept the Sabbath. They were sure that the prayer books, rituals and vestments of the Church of England needed "purifying," because they were too "Roman."
Even the word "Christmas," which literally means "Christ's mass," implied something unacceptable. If, as the Bible said, Christ died once for all, there was no need for a "mass" to reenact Christ's death.
Puritans also rebelled against the ways that Christmas in 17th-century "Merrie England" had degenerated into a great festival of wassailing, games, singing, feasting and merry making. Christmas, they said, exhibited "an extreme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights." In 1644 Christmas was actually forbidden in England by an act of Parliament, and sheriffs were sent out to require merchants to open for business on Christmas day.
In New England from 1659 to 1681 the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned the celebration of Christmas to prevent disorders "arising in several places within this jurisdiction...to the great dishonor of God and offense of others." The Court stated that anyone found "observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or any other way" would have to pay a fine of five shillings. After the official ban against Christmas was revoked in 1681, New England leaders like Increase Mather continued to lament that there were very few citizens "that spend those holidays (as they are called) after a holy manner."
Even in colonial Pennsylvania during the 18th century, leaders kept Christmas celebrations subdued. Quakers, Scotch-Irish Presbyterians, Mennonites and other "plain people" did not make much of any holidays.
It was not until the early 19th century that Christmas developed into the popular mix of religious and secular customs that today we cherish as "old fashioned Christmas." It turns out, however, that it is really not so "old fashioned" after all.
The Rev. Barbara Brown Zikmund, a missionary associate for the Global Ministries Board, teaches American Studies at Doshisha University in Kyoto, Japan.