22 December 2011

Christmas in American History

Different Christian groups throughout American history have celebrated Christmas in many different ways.  Some have totally ignored the holiday, others have been quite festive.  Christmas itself was not a national holiday until declared so by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870.  That is not to say that many people totally ignored the holiday before this date. 

Just today, I read an article on Christmas in Revolutionary America by Thomas Kidd.  Apparently, some people at this time had a major problem with the revelry, especially from the lower sort.  Kidd points out some of the gifts that people gave (mostly wealthier individuals to relatively poorer people) and the signs that commercialism was becoming a characteristic of Christmas at that date.

The accounts that Kidd listed were based in New York, a cosmopolitan town even at this early date.  Other groups viewed Christmas as a pagan ritual that true Christians should avoid.  In New England, the early Puritan settlers had a legal ban on the celebration of Christmas.  Celebration of Christmas could apparently lead to fines of up to five shillings.  The ban on Christmas ended in 1680, but many people continued downplaying the holiday.  Schools in Boston scheduled classes on Christmas day until the 1870s and punished those who skipped out to celebrate.

Baptist groups tended to downplay Christmas until the late nineteenth century, as well.  A short article by Bruce Gourley on Baptist celebrations of Christmas indicated that early American Baptists continued their general day-to-day lives on Christmas.  The first Baptist educational endeavor in America, Isaac Eaton's Hopewell Academy, scheduled classes on Christmas in 1757.  Eaton refused to celebrate Christmas because Jesus was not born on that day.  Gourley's article points out some interesting changes in Baptist churches over the nineteenth century that tended to follow trends in American society. 

It would seem that the legitimization of Christmas by President Grant helped in removing some of the stigma associated with the holiday in some circles.  Even today, however, some groups claiming to be Christian refuse to celebrate the Christmas holiday.  I am not among these groups, and although I have a major problem with the commercial aspect of things, I still celebrate with friends and family at this time of year.  So, to those who read this, I would like to wish you a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year.

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