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Many may be surprised to learn that Christmas used to be illegal in America — all thanks to Protestants.
The story begins in England, just before Puritan leader Oliver Cromwell came to power. After crushing royalist uprisings throughout England, Wales and Scotland in the English Civil Wars and overseeing the trial and execution of King Charles I, Cromwell declared himself Lord Protector of the Realm in 1653. He ruled for a brief five years, but during that time did what he could to do away with "papist" elements, implementing his Puritan reforms with zeal.
Among those reforms included the banning of Christmas festivities. Fiercely Calvinist Scotland had already banned Christmas since the 1560s, and now with the king deposed in neighboring England and Parliament full of Puritan sympathizers, the English government also set about to do the same.
The war was not so much against Christmas as it was against Catholicism; one of the distinctive marks of the Catholic faith is the celebration of feast days — days marked for special celebration in the Catholic liturgical calendar. Solemnities, first-class feasts, octaves — to Puritans, all of this was so much nonsense, nothing more than "popish" celebrations with no scriptural foundation. A common Puritan maxim went: "They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday."
Christmas in particular was especially "Catholic," the season opening with Christmas Day, a public holiday, when shops and businesses closed and the faithful attended "Christ's Mass," followed by festivities lasting throughout the Twelve Days of Christmas. In contrast to the penitential season of Advent, Christmas was marked by eating and drinking in greater quantities, with special foods like turkey, beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially brewed Christmas ale. Dancing, singing, games and plays also took place, as well as the exchange of gifts.
It was English recusants — Catholics who clung stubbornly to the Faith of old and refused to bow to the novelties of state-imposed Anglicanism — who celebrated Christmas with gusto. They were the target of special hatred by the Puritans, who demanded a stricter and more austere observance of the Lord's Day, not just on Christmas, but also on Easter and other holy days. With their somber theology, Puritans also took a dim view of the merrymaking, deeming it excessive and sinful.
In the 1640s, the Long Parliament set about abolishing Christmas. The ban was made official in 1647, making the celebration of not only Christmas but also Easter and Whitsun (Pentecost Sunday) a punishable offense. Dancing, plays and especially drinking were prohibited, as were any signs of special celebration, and shops were forced to remain open on Christmas Day. Cromwell's ascendancy as Lord Protector only cemented the law. England would have to wait until 1660, with the restoration of the monarchy under King Charles II — who converted to the Catholic faith on his deathbed — for Christmas to be restored as a holiday.
In the New World, colonials in Boston followed their Puritan counterparts in England by shunning the feast honoring Our Lord's Nativity. The Pilgrims who came over on the Mayflower worked in the fields through December 25, and the city of Boston — a Puritan stronghold — banned Christmas from 1659 to 1681.
Those caught taking time off to make merry on December 25 were forced to pay a penalty of five shillings — a lot of money at the time. Although Christmas was made legal in England in 1660, the Crown was unable to exercise influence over its American subjects on the matter until the 1680s, when modest Christmas celebrations were once again permitted in Boston. In 1686, a public Christmas Day service was held at the Boston Town House. Sir Edmund Andros, who sponsored the event, feared violence from Puritan locals, and attended the event flanked by redcoats to guard him while he sang Christmas carols.
Anti-Christmas hostility wouldn't cease entirely for centuries, flaring up in Puritan pockets of colonial America here and there. During the American Revolution, Christmas often came to be associated with royalist sympathizers (comprised largely of High-Church Anglicans and Catholics). Even after ratification of the U.S. Constitution, the Senate and House continued to assemble on Christmas Day, and as late as 1850, businesses and schools in New England worked through December 25.
Helped by the success of Charles Dickens' "A Christmas Carol," published to much acclaim in 1843 and which presented a cheerful tale of the holiday, Americans' perceptions of Christmas slowly began to change. It wouldn't be until 1870 that Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday, ensuring the legal celebration of Our Lord's birth in every state. Since that time, the holiday has been celebrated as many Protestant Americans' favorite time of year, the old hostility fading from national memory — but it remains the case that once upon a time, this nation's protestant forebears sought to do away with Christmas — actions that ultimately found their source in an animus against the Catholic faith.
Watch the full episode of "Mic'd Up—The Assault on Christmas."
This article originally appeared on December 20, 2015.