01 December 2022

Why colonial America didn't celebrate Christmas

"As late as 1832 the English actress Fanny Kemble noted in her diary: “comparatively no observances of ‘tides and times’ punctuated the American year.  Christmas Day is no religious day and hardly a holiday with them.  New-year’s day is perhaps a little more, but only a little more so.  As for Twelfth-day, it is unknown.”

To understand the absence of Christmas observances noted by Fanny Femble, we must go back to the nation’s earliest days, when the colonial Americans, Puritans, Presbyterians, Quakers, and Baptists tried to suppress the celebration of ChristmasFinding no biblical evidence for the date of Jesus’ birth, they found no reason to celebrate the day as a holiday, let alone observe it in church.  Their disdain for Christmas only grew as peasant-class settlers from other European countries began arriving, bringing their Old World Christmas customs along.

Characterized by prolonged and raucous festivity, these customs had arisen at the one time of the year that offered both a reduced workload and an abundance of food.  For hard-laboring peasants, Christmas provided a welcome occasion to let off steam and to gorge themselves.  The carnival mood that resulted permitted – even encouraged – the participants to violate the usual rules of conduct.  Celebrants blackened their faces or disguised themselves as animals and members of the opposite sex; thus cloaked in anonymity, they begged for money from the prosperous.  From house to house they marched while “shouting, singing, blowing penny-trumpets and long tin horns, beating on kettles, firing crackers, hurling missiles, etc.”  Barging into the homes of the well-to-do, they also demanded gifts of food and drink.   The upper classes participated in hopes that the workers, with this spree behind them, would put more effort into their labors the rest of the year.

Such a celebration could function in confined neighborhoods, but as the working class expanded, the wealthy felt increasingly threatened by the marauding masses.  The growth of cities deepened the social inequity between rich and poor, and the revelry became the occasion for expressing class and ethnic hatred.  Pressure against the chaos of the Christmas revels began to mount, as the growing middle class also felt the need of an alternative to “these disgraceful saturnalia” which, according to the observer just quoted, had only gotten worse.

While the seventeenth- and eighteenth-century Puritans and Presbyterians had given up on Christmas, seeing repression as the best path of reform, Anglicans commended both the religious observance and the festive hospitality that Christmas could provide.  Though they, too, viewed with alarm the holiday’s “current riot and excess,” they thought they should avail themselves of the festival and sought a way to “hallow the occasion” and “redeem the exultation” to perpetuate an “innocent and laudable festivity” by which people were made “more generous, virtuous and religious.”

Toward that end a group of wealthy, conservative New Yorkers known as the Knickerbockers met during the 1810s and 1820s. A group of High Church Episcopalians, they aimed to devise a Christmas holiday that would be celebrated at home and allow each family’s children – rather than the unknown poor – to benefit from tis bounty.  Clement Clark Moore belonged to the group, and his familiar 1822 poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” popularly known by its first line “Twas the night before Christmas,” played an instrumental role in transforming the American Christmas, replacing the rowdy roaming bands demanding gifts from homeowners with a benevolent man who comes to bestow them…  (pp. xvii-xix).
Excerpted from Stokker, Kathleen, Keeping Christmas; Yuletide Traditions in Norway and the New Land. Minnesota Historical Society Press, 2000.  


  1. Too bad Scrooge had no kin. He could have simply showered his spoiled grandchildren with crap they didn't need and been free of all the drama.

  2. And people look at ME weird because I don't participate in the holidays...

  3. It is very confusing to me that it's the Episcopalians that brought Santa Claus to the US, by invoking the Dutch Sinterklaas (St Nic), partially to get rid of people blackfacing themselves. Black Pete would be horrified.

  4. ...Oh, bring us some figgy pudding
    And bring it right here...

    ...We won't go until we get some
    So bring it right here...


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