While researching the history of Christmas celebrations in our nation I came upon some information I thought you might enjoy:
The Pilgrims, who came to America in 1620, had been appalled at the drunkenness and rioting that was common during the Christmas season in England. So they banned the mention of Saint Nicolaus and the exchange of gifts and the singing of Christmas carols.
In fact, the Massachusetts Bay Colony drafted a law against Christmas in 1659: “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.”
Though the law lasted only until 1689, Christmas remained a rather insignificant day through much of the nation (especially the northern states). Congress was actually in session on December 25, 1789, the first Christmas under our nation’s new constitution.
In the early 19th century, because of severe class conflict and high unemployment in our country, riots by disenchanted classes often broke out during the Christmas season. In fact, in 1828, the New York City Council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot.
In 1819, however, something took place that began to change the fabric of Christmas in our nation. The best-selling author Washing Irving wrote a series of stories about a squire who invited peasants into his home for the Christmas holiday. In contrast to the social conflict that was so prevalent in our country, Irving’s characters mingled well and enjoyed together what he portrayed as traditional customs, but which were actually the creation of his imagination. Some historians claim that Irving’s sketches “invented” tradition by implying that they were already the customs of the season—customs which we continue to practice today.
Not long after this, various states began to make Christmas a legal holiday, beginning with Alabama in 1836, but it did not become a federal holiday until 1870.
In 1861, on the first Christmas after his wife’s tragic death, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow wrote in his journal, “How inexpressibly sad are all holidays.” A year later, he wrote, “‘A merry Christmas’ say the children, but that is no more for me.” Almost a year later, Longfellow received word that his oldest son Charles, a lieutenant in the Union Army, had been severely wounded when a bullet passed under his shoulder blades into his spine. That year, 1863, he wrote a poem that shares the hopefulness of Christmas amidst all struggles.
It reads, in part:
I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day
Their old familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet the words repeat
Of peace on earth, good will to men….
And in despair I bowed my head:
“There is no peace on earth,” I said,
“For hate is strong and mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good will to men.”
Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth he sleep;
The wrong shall fail, the right prevail,
With peace on earth, good will to men.”
Till, ringing singing, on its way,
The world revolved from night to day,
A voice, a chime, a chant sublime,
Of peace on earth, good will to men!
—Tom Tripp is the Pastor at the First Presbyterian Church of Colusa.