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Plymouth Rock Foundation’s E-News – Devember 2012
by Dr. Paul Jehle, Executive Director

The Legacy of Christmas in America

institution_of_the_crib-GiottoSaint Francis of Assisi, on Christmas Eve in 1223, in order to turn the people’s attention away from materialism toward Christ, introduced for the first time the nativity scene.  Soon this image, coupled with a solemn church service, became traditions at Christmas.  Though these were all well established by the 17th century when the Pilgrims and Puritans arrived in New England, these believers were not interested in replicating the same traditions here in America, especially those that were Catholic.  Though they were devoted to Christ, the mixture of “traditions of men”, worship of saints (including St. Nicholas), coupled with the fact that the actual date of Christ’s birth was unknown, caused the “separatists” and those who followed them to America to avoid the holiday entirely.

The Reformation – probably the greatest revival the world has known since the time of Christ in both scope and impact – changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe and initially in America as well.  As Biblical Christianity ascended in England, reforms aimed at diminishing decadence also took place.  This included more than curbing smoking, gaming, the theater and dance halls.  It included eliminating holidays that had become cluttered with pagan symbols and meaningless rituals that were an excuse for fleshly entertainment rather than true devotion.  One such holiday to be reformed was Christmas.  For example, the exchanging of gifts (initiated by the Christian life of Nicholas) had become a materialistic obligation to spend money you didn’t have – and thus it removed the purpose of giving.  What was worse, the “twelve days of Christmas” meant wild merriment from the 25th to January 6!

jsmith John Smith of Jamestown, in giving a report of his activity in Virginia trading with the local Native Peoples in early 1608, said “…six or seven days of extreme wind, rain, frost and snow caused us to keep Christmas among the savages, where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good oysters, fish, flesh, wild-fowl, and good bread; nor never had better fires in England, then in the dry smokey houses of Kecoughtan.”  In other words, he merely referenced the fact that Christmas in England had simply become a time to make merry, without any reference to Christ, and there is no indication that Jamestown celebrated Christmas other than the way it was done in England, except perhaps a special service conducted by Pastor Robert Hunt (which we can only assume, having no record of it).
When the Pilgrims arrived in 1620, they purposefully planted a church in America.  Beginning on their knees, they dedicated the land and themselves to God.  They also set up their church and civil government on Biblical principles.  On December 25, 1620, Bradford, in Of Plimoth Plantation simply says “and ye 25 day began to erect the first house for common use to receive them and their goods”  and the entry in Mourt’s Relation, their journal of the first year, states “Monday the 25, we went on shore, some to fell timber, some to saw…that night we had a sore storm of wind and rain.  Monday the 25 being Christmas Day, we began to drink water aboard…”
William Bradford writes of an interesting incident that concluded his description of the year 1621 and especially of those who had just come that fall – being newcomers.  “Only I shall remember one passage more, rather of mirth then of weight. One the day called Chrismas day, the Govr called them out to work, (as was used,) but the most of this new-company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Govr told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led-away the rest and left them; but when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar and some at stoole-ball, and such like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it matter of devotion, let them keep their houses, but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.”

It is interesting to note that William Bradford and the Pilgrims were against, not the devotion to Christ on Christmas, but the revelry, gaming and “mixture” so evident in the culture they left.  When the Puritans took over Parliament in 1645 back in England, they banned, by civil decree, all “festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God” and this included Christmas as it was celebrated at the time.  On May 11, 1659, the Puritans of Boston, in New England, also banned the celebration of Christmas (feasting, taking the day off from work, etc.) and a fine was imposed for those who disobeyed.  Thus, these practices of attempting to purify the culture through the banning of vice and revelry continued on through the American Revolution, and it included Christmas.  Thus, on December 25, 1789, the first Congress under our new Constitution, held its meetings without any reference to the observance of Christmas.

darley-illustration-knickBy the time Christmas became a nationally recognized holiday – on June 26, 1870 – it had been preceded by at least Forefathers Day (when the Pilgrims stepped on Plymouth Rock – first celebrated in 1769) as well as Thanksgiving Day (first declared nationally in 1863).  In other words, the recognition of internal devotion to Christ from the practice of the Pilgrims preceded the external celebration of Christmas in America!  By 1870, Washington Irving had put new clothes on Nicholas and the classical celebration of our modern symbols such as Santa Clause had returned, being reinvented in America.  So what should we do with these facts?  Should Christians celebrate Christmas?  Is our American heritage something we can learn from today?   In times like these, there are lessons we must learn, and things we should do as believers.

1) We need to return to the simplicity of focusing on Christ.  Reformation begins within our hearts, and specifically within our families.  Reading the Christmas story, and following family traditions that are wholesome and restrained yet meaningful is the place to start.
2) Reform does not begin with civil law.  To ban Christmas externally will not curb vice.  It must begin within the home and church.  Our churches need to focus on Christ at Christmas, retelling the story, and emphasizing the need to curb the materialistic urge that produces a “duty” to spend what we don’t have.
3) We need to demonstrate to our neighbors and those in our community that gift giving and service is not merely at one time of year, but is a way of life.  Only then can Christmas be truly observed again!