Tempted to go back in time and enjoy Christmas in old New England? Don’t bother—there wasn’t any!
The vast majority of New Englanders did not celebrate Christmas until after the Civil War.
The main issue was religion. While there was a rich tradition of Christmas in England, those who wanted to reform the church in the 16th and 17th centuries felt that the festival included many pagan and non-religious elements, such as wassailing, sports and other revelries. These reformers included the Separatists and Puritans who settled New England.
In 1620, the Pilgrims did not observe any Christmas—rather, they worked at building a common house on December 25th, having arrived in Plymouth only a few days before.
The next year, William Bradford wrote about how some of the newest arrivals to the colony, who were not Separatists, protested at working on Christmas. He agreed that “if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed.” When Bradford returned at noon from working, he found them playing ball games and other sports.
“So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that it was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it [a] matter of devotion, let them keep to their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets.”
Puritans and Separatists looked to the Old Testament for their holy days, which included the Sabbath, days of fasting and prayer, and days of thanksgiving. Christmas, Easter and other festivals that were part of the traditional English calendar were not on the list.
In 1708, Boston minister Samuel Sewall received an almanac that listed these festivals. He proceeded to blot out Valentine’s Day, Lady Day. Easter, Michaelmas and Christmas.
Sewall’s diaries indicate the debate over observing Christmas. To most Bostonians, December 25 was just another day. In 1685 Sewall wrote, “Carts come to Town and Shops open as is usual. Some somehow observe the day; but are vexed I believe the Body of the People profane it, and blessed be God no Authority yet to compel them to keep it.”
Throughout the 18th and early 19th centuries, most New Englanders did not observe Christmas. According to Plymouth historian William T. Davis, “Christmas during my day came and went without observation or notice. It was not a holiday, presents were not exchanged, schools were kept, and the wish for a “Merry Christmas” was never heard.”
By the middle of the 19th century, Christmas was growing in popularity as a family holiday. Immigrants arriving from Ireland and Germany brought their traditions. Illustrated weekly magazines circulated across regions, showing people celebrating. In 1870, President Ulysses S. Grant established December 25th as a federal holiday, and slowly New Englanders began to relax their attitude toward Christmas.