So, where did they stand on Christmas observance and celebrations? I believe you’ll be fascinated and inspired by their answers.
America’s founders would not have celebrated Christmas with quite the hoopla that we do in modern times. Indeed, Christmas Day was not formally declared a federal holiday until June 1870 by President Ulysses S. Grant.
However, we misunderstand America’s founders if we assume their lack of zeal for the holiday of Christmas is reflective of their lack of faith in the heart of Christmas. The reason one doesn’t find many references from our founders about celebrating Christmas is largely because the culture of that day was still deeply affected by the Puritans’ disdain for Christmas corruption.
To give a little background, Christmas was a holy day in 17th century England and was celebrated with many festivities and parties just like our own. Many shops and other places of employment were closed, and special church services were conducted. Feasting, exchanging gifts and carol singing were common in homes. And holly and ivy, rosemary and bays often decorated public and private buildings.
Yet, the sacred origins of the day were slowly being overtaken by the secular. The Twelve Days of Christmas became a self-indulgent and sensual season.
Some of that Christmas sentiment and celebration in the homeland carried over to the New World. As early as 1608 – 12 years before the Pilgrims landed at Plymouth, Captain John Smith of the Jamestown Settlement wrote the first report of a Christmas celebration in English North America.
However, the religiously pure in heart – like the Puritans, including the Pilgrims who came to the New World in 1620 – frowned upon the immoralities, drunkenness and other sins that surrounded Christmas in the Motherland. In addition, they disagreed with a Christ Mass (Christ-mas) as a tradition adopted from the Catholic Church. They thought the Catholic Church – and papacy in particular – was wrong for hijacking the pagan festival of Saturnalia and turning it into a time to celebrate Christ’s birth.
As far back as Oliver Cromwell and the elected parliament in England, there was a legislative clamp down on the celebration of Christmas from the mid-1640s until the Restoration of 1660.
In New England, the Puritans nicknamed Christmas “Foolstide” and banned their congregations from celebrating it throughout the 17th and 18th centuries. People were not allowed to light candles, exchange gifts or sing Christmas carols. Christmas celebrations were outlawed from 1659-1681. As a result, stores remained open and churches shut down – just the opposite of today.
Despite Christmas illegalities being eventually overturned, resistance to Christmas remained for decades. Anti-Christmas sentiment spread throughout the colonies, though manifesting in differing degrees depending upon the demographics and denominations.
In 1712, Cotton Mather, one of New England’s greatest Christian leaders, told his congregation that “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty … by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling!”
Benjamin Franklin spoke to how divided the Christmas landscape still was in his day. In his Poor Richard’s Almanac of 1739, he wrote about Christmas: “O blessed Season! Lov’d by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners.”
For most good Anglicans, like George Washington, Christmas observance was standard. That is why the official modern website of his estate at Mt. Vernon, explained: “So, you might wonder, did George Washington even celebrate Christmas? Well, yes he did. Christmas was an important religious holiday in Washington’s time, and the twelve nights of Christmas, ending with balls and parties on January 6, extended the holiday season. For Washington, his Christmas experiences range from the joyous to the terrifying, from the mundane to the celebratory.”
Anti-Christmas sentiment and debate continued throughout the Revolutionary era, largely because domestic patriots associated the celebration of Christmas with the Crown and even revolted against it as propaganda for secession. The lack of universal Christmas recognition certainly made it that much more palatable for Gen. George Washington to lead his Continental Army through a blizzard across the Delaware River on Christmas night of 1776 in order to attack the Hessians at Trenton, New Jersey. It even made the attack tactically genius considering most Brits’ celebration of Christmas.
There were no prohibitions against working on Christmas Day in early America. Even after the U.S. Constitution was adopted, the Senate assembled on Christmas Day in 1797, as well as the House convened in 1802.
Anti-Christmas sentiment slowly waned and pro-Christmas views increased with time. They did so not only by the establishment of our new Republic but also the expansion of the free exercise of religion (secured in the First Amendment) and the growth of Catholicism, Protestantism and eventually Evangelicalism.
In 1836, Alabama was the first state to make Christmas a public holiday, then Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838, and then other states soon followed, but those in New England held out for a few more decades. Not until 1856 did Christmas finally become a holiday in Massachusetts.
In fact, outside of slavery and states’ rights, Christmas observance was one more wedge that divided the Northern and Southern states erupting in the Civil War. It wouldn’t be until 1870 in the post-war era that the federal government would declare Christmas a national holiday.
Regarding the Revolutionary period, however, we again misunderstand America’s founders if we assume their lack of zeal for writing about Christmas is somehow reflective of their secularization or disdain for the Christian faith, religion or the observance of Christmas.
Dr. Thomas S. Kidd, professor of history and a Senior Fellow at Baylor University’s Institute for Studies of Religion explained in his book, “God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution“: “The Revolutionary era was shot through with public expressions of faith, from the days of prayer and fasting declared by presidents, to the chaplains employed by the Continental Congress and Washington’s army, to the faith principles undergirding the Revolution itself, especially the notion that all men are created equal. The concept of a public square stripped of religion would have been deeply unfamiliar to Americans in 1776.”
Here are just a few examples of their confessions of faith from historian David Barton’s inspiring and informing website, Wallbuilders.com:
Samuel Adams, governor of Massachusetts and signer of the Declaration of Independence, said: “The peaceful and glorious reign of our Divine Redeemer may be known and enjoyed throughout the whole family of mankind.”
Elias Boudinot, president of Congress, framer of the Bill of Rights, director of the U.S. Mint, said: “Let us enter on this important business under the idea that we are Christians on whom the eyes of the world are now turned. …”
Charles Carroll, the only Roman Catholic signer of the Declaration of Independence and the last living signer among the 56 of them, living to 96 years old, said: “I, Charles Carroll … give and bequeath my soul to God who gave it, my body to the earth, hoping that through and by the merits, sufferings, and mediation of my only Savior and Jesus Christ, I may be admitted into the Kingdom prepared by God for those who love, fear and truly serve Him.”
John Dickson, governor of Pennsylvania and Delaware, and signer of the U.S. Constitution, said: “[Governments] could not give the rights essential to happiness. … We claim them from a higher source: from the King of kings, and Lord of all the earth.”
Benjamin Franklin, governor of Pennsylvania, signer of the Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution, explained: “As to Jesus of Nazareth, my opinion of whom you particularly desire, I think the system of morals and His religion as He left them to us, the best the world ever saw or is likely to see.”
Patrick Henry, governor of Virginia, ratifier of U.S. Constitution, said: “This is all the inheritance I can give to my dear family. The religion of Christ can give them one which will make them rich indeed.”
Samuel Huntington, governor of Connecticut, president of Congress, signer of Declaration of Independence, said: “with becoming humility and sincere repentance to supplicate the pardon that we may obtain forgiveness through the merits and mediation of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”
John Jay, governor of New York, original chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court, said: “I render sincere and humble thanks for His manifold and unmerited blessings, and especially for our redemption and salvation by His beloved Son. … Blessed be His holy name.”
Benjamin Rush, signer of Declaration of Independence, said: “My only hope of salvation is in the infinite transcendent love of God manifested to the world by the death of His Son upon the Cross. Nothing but His blood will wash away my sins. I rely exclusively upon it.”
Lastly, In his address to the native Americans of the Delaware Nation on May 12, 1779, George Washington admonished: “You do well to wish to learn our arts and ways of life and above all – the religion of Jesus Christ. These will make you a greater and happier people than you are.”
To discover the type of Christmas peace with God that our founders knew and experienced, go to https://peacewithgod.net/.
If you have questions about what it means to live as a Christian, go to https://www.gotquestions.org/questions_Christian.html.
If you doubt or want to further explore evidence for God and the Bible, I encourage you to download this FREE E-copy of the book, “God Questions: Exploring Life’s Greatest Questions About God.”
As Christians that respect all peoples and creeds around the world, my wife, Gena, and I wish everyone everywhere a very Merry Christmas and a prosperous Happy New Year!
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