The Pilgrims hated Christmas. Saying so almost feels profane, like telling a kid that there is no Santa Claus. True, Christmas was never really the Pilgrims’ time to shine, anyway. Their spotlight comes in November, when kindergartners make belt buckle hats out of construction paper.
But how could the Pilgrims, who came to America on the Mayflower to worship God freely, be such scrooges? With their wholesome smiles and prayer-clasped hands, we picture them as happy Whos of Whoville, not a group of Grinches with hearts two sizes too small.
Yet the Pilgrims hated Christmas, so much so they outlawed it in 1659. As they put it, “exchanging gifts and greetings… and similar satanical practices” was worth a fine of $8,000 in today’s money. They didn’t call it Christmas, they called it “Foolstide” and even William Bradford—yes, that William Bradford—stole children’s sticks and balls when he saw them being played with on Christmas Day.
It's difficult to understand the Puritans' disdain towards Christmas. When today's most nominal Christian still ventures to church for a candlelight service, the thought of hating Christmas seems too mythical to be real. Perhaps it's for this very reason that the terms used to describe the less-than-enthusiatic (grinch, scrooge) come from fiction and not reality.
So what was it about December 25th that made the Pilgrims say, “Bah Humbug?”
1. No Day Was Holy Except the Sabbath
The Puritan calendar had 300 working days in a year. Modern Americans have roughly 220. The Puritans not only rejected Christmas, they rejected all holidays. They didn't even celebrate Easter! The Puritans had no two-day weekends, no bank holidays, and no birthdays.
But this wasn't because they sat around and sucked on lemons. The Puritans loved to celebrate. It's why they're associated with one of America's most popular holidays. But the Pilgrims refused to recognize days deemed special by men or institutions. They only wished to set apart the days that God set apart, and that meant only the Sabbath. It also meant impromptu days of giving thanks for particular acts of God’s provision. This is how we got the "very first" Thanksgiving in 1621. But although it was the first for us, it wasn't the first for them.
2. They Associated it With Catholicism
The Pilgrims came to North America to avoid the infusion of Roman Catholic traditions with Protestant beliefs. The Catholic Church celebrated Christmas since Medieval times. When Luther sparked a break from the Roman Church in 1517, it created an inherent mistrust of anything associated with Catholicism, Christmas included.
Under Queen Elizabeth I, the Anglican Church adopted and enforced many Roman Catholic traditions to diffuse the tension between English Catholics and Protestants. The idea worked, but it alienated certain believers who were uncomfortable with the pure Gospel being infected with extra rules and rituals. Most famous of these Christians were the Pilgrims, who called themselves Separatists due to their desire to separate from what they considered a corrupted religion. For the Pilgrims landing on Plymouth Rock in 1620, Christmas represented exactly what they were trying to leave: legalistic traditions that got in the way of the simple Gospel.
3. Christmas Encouraged Sin
Parents today use Christmas to encourage good behavior in their children. But in 1620, December 25th encouraged the opposite. Christmas was a night for drinking, partying, and sin.
George Washington’s crossing of the Delaware became legendary, in part, because he did so on Christmas night. While the German Hessians were drunk in their tents, Washington and the colonists faced the cold to fight for freedom. This allegiance to duty was widely admired by Americans in the early years of the nation's existence.
When the Pilgrims landed in America they faced deadly winters that few endured. Even a single day off could mean the difference between life and death. A day like Christmas that gave an excuse to be lazy literally meant doom for the settlers. The Pilgrims considered everything they did as an act of worship to God, even their holidays. To celebrate a non-biblical holiday instead of working hard to keep their families alive seemed as blasphemous to the Plymouth settlers as the Israelites bowing down to Baal. Honoring God with anything less than everything just wasn't enough.
So What Changed?
Today you can drive to Boston and sing Jingle Bells without going to jail. The cold attitudes against Christmas have clearly melted. So what changed? One of the major forces of change in favor of Christmas was Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol.
The Scrooge in All of Us
In it, Dickens depicts Ebenezer Scrooge as a typical Puritan. Scrooge was wise with his money and worked hard. He mistrusted peddlers at his door and called them “humbugs,” (Victorian slang for “deceivers”). What modern readers identify as an obvious villain today was back then seen as a relatively relatable character. Simply put, many readers in 1844 saw shades of themselves in Ebenezer. He wasn't a scrooge, he was a survivor.
"You are fettered," said Scrooge, trembling. "Tell me why?" "I wear the chain I forged in life,' replied the Ghost. 'I made it link by link, and yard by yard; I girded it on of my own free will, and of my own free will I wore it." -A Christmas Carol
But this was the exact hook that made A Christmas Carol so impactful. It did more than just give readers a chance to find fault in Ebenezer Scrooge. It gave them a chance to see themselves in Ebenezer Scrooge. He represented more than just an adversary to Christmas, but the practical side in all of us, which hardens our heart so it won't break, and builds a wall to not be seen. Scrooge's selfishness represented the fear we all have--even the Puritans, that prefers the safety of trusting in ourselves, most of all, so to avoid the peril of trusting in others.
But page by page, Dickens slowly revealed to both the protagonist and the audience that what Scrooge considered a life of wisdom was really a life of folly. His hard work did not lead to comfort, but to a cold office. His reverence did not lead to joy, but to a grave. Scrooge lived a calculated life that subtracted love. And thus his life was found in deficit. In its bleakest chapter, the 19th century reader realized alongside Scrooge what the Puritans eventually realized with Christmas, that reverence means little when not accompanied by love.
Excess, a Sign of Sufficiency
In the end, Scrooge realized that excess was a sign of sufficiency. At the beginning, he gave little because he believed he had little. At the conclusion, Scrooge gave much because he finally realized that he had much. Christians must do the same.
God gave up everything so that we could have everything. Because we have much, we can give much. This in its heart is the core of Christmas. It's why we celebrate Christ's birth. God gave His Son, which was more than enough, so on Christmas, we do that which is more than enough. We pour an extra glass, spend an extra dollar, and throw another log onto the fire. God did not spare us His Son, so we shall not spare ourselves to others. Our cups runneth other.
A Christmas Carol didn’t singlehandedly reverse Puritan attitudes towards Christmas, but it did show that obedience for its own sake is selfishness when not preceded by a love for God and others. Dickens was not a Christian himself, but presented Christmas in such a way that was irresistible; the same way, in fact, that the Gospel is irresistible.
In closing, we should not be too hard on the Pilgrims. Their distaste for Christmas was motivated only by their taste for Christ. In many ways, how Christians treat Halloween today mirrors the Puritans. All considered, it was the Pilgrims who knew how to celebrate more than anyone. Their celebrations were based solely on the fact that it was God who provides. What better example of God’s provision than the giving of Himself? The Puritans may have missed out on the Christmas cheer we know so well today, but their cheer was still in Christ. They knew comfort and joy, because they knew the Comforter.
“And it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well..." -A Christmas Carol