In A Nutshell
It’s pretty well established that the colonial Thanksgiving of our grade-school youth is something of an agreed-upon set of myths and legends only loosely based on an actual event. Christmas in colonial New England was different. It simply didn’t exist. The Puritans who settled New England banned holidays and their influence lasted hundreds of years.
The Whole Bushel
The Puritans who founded the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not what you would call “tolerant.” Their strict existence didn’t allow for holidays. As a result, Puritans observed the Sabbath and occasionally fasted or gave thanks. They believed Christmas and other holidays like Easter lacked biblical basis. Even worse, the feasts and celebrations associated with such holidays invited licentiousness, drunkenness, and gluttony. (To be fair, there’s a grain of truth to those beliefs.) In any case, the Puritans refused to celebrate either holiday, and they certainly didn’t want anyone else doing so.
Despite the holidays’ popularity and fierce resistance, the Puritan members of the British Parliament managed to ban Christmas and Easter in 1647 and forced shopkeepers to keep their stores open on Christmas Day, presumably to prevent any clandestine feasting or merry-making. Not surprisingly, the Puritans who crossed the Atlantic brought these beliefs with them. But unlike England, which repealed the ban on Christmas in 1660, the Puritan colonies did not fall under the direct control of a king looking to increase his popularity.
The Christmas ban continued in the New England colonies where revelers were fined five shillings for feasting. To add insult to injury, Puritan settlers had a habit of calling Christmas “Foolstide,” and saying things like, “They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday.” Technically, the Crown repealed the ban on Christmas in the 1680s, but increasing royal control did little to dampen New England Puritans’ enthusiasm for intolerance. The holiday shunning lasted another 150 years.
The general downplaying of Christmas distinguished New England from the other American colonies, where Dutch, German, and Scandinavians held fast (but mostly privately) to their celebratory customs. Saint Nicholas, the historical antecedent to Santa Claus, was considered “too papist” by Puritans, but other Christian sects were just fine with the jolly embodiment of charity. It is Saint Nicholas, though, who helped turn the tide of Christmas repression. Despite anti-Christmas screeds remaining a popular rallying point for religious conservatives, America was loosening up in the early 19th century. And in 1823, the publication of a brief Christmas poem helped ignite the Christmas spirit in the fledgling country. “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was massively popular. Even though schools in New England stayed open on Christmas into the 1850s, the rest of the country had long since embraced the day. And in 1870, President Grant officially declared what most Americans already knew to be true, Christmas was a national holiday.
Show Me The Proof
When Americans banned Christmas
Christmas: A Candid History, by Bruce David Forbes
The Feast of Christmas, by Joseph F. Kelly
Christmas: with Special Reference to the Puritans, by George William Curtis