Did you know that the Pilgrims banned Christmas?

Dec. 25 in the New World at the time of the Pilgrims was far from the joyous time some experience today.

Most of us like to think our Pilgrim forefathers were the original ideal Americans, getting along well with everyone and skillfully overcoming every event, every trial they faced.

A highly romanticized vision and not true at all.

Actually, scholars note, the Pilgrims were a rather cantankerous bunch. A group of believers who had little to no tolerance for those who held different opinions or ideas from their own.

The Mayflower Pilgrims in Massachusetts actually banned the celebrating of Christmas. Dec. 25, 1620 was a day spent at hard labor, falling trees and doing all that was needed “in order to avoid any frivolity on the day sometimes called Christmas.”

Governor William Bradford had to reprimand several colonists who took Christmas day off “to pitch ye barr and play at stoole ball and such like sports.”

Pilgrim leaders held to a strict interpretation of the Bible and nothing in the Scriptures said anything about having a good time at Christmas, so they strongly discouraged such.

In the spring of 1659, the legislature of Massachusetts Bay colony passed a law which made Christmas illegal. The law stated: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas…shall pay for every offense five shillings” (about five cents American today).

However, this was not the widespread practice in all the other colonies. Some began their holiday celebrations well before hand and continued on until January 6, which is Epiphany on the Eastern Orthodox Catholic calendar.

Others in the colonies of Virginia, and Dutch New Amsterdam (New York), felt there should be equal parts of religion and revelry during this time.

To the fervently Protestant Pilgrims, Christmas was a promotion of the Roman Catholic Church, and believed to be nothing more than “a popish frivolity” at its best and the “dreadful work of Satan in their midst,” at its worst. Almost any holiday that had a connection to the Roman Catholic Church was intolerable to the Pilgrims, because it was looked upon as being the work of the devil.

Even the color green was outlawed in early Massachusetts because of its association with pagan festivals of earlier times.

Pilgrim preachers went so far as to denounce holly and ivy as “seditious badges” which are always the unmistakable evidence of the devil at work.

Soon the too-stern prohibitions proved to be extremely unpopular in the Massachusetts colony and caused wide-spread discontent. Lawmakers were forced to issue a proclamation every year reminding the people of the ban of having a good time on Christmas.

It was not until 1681 that Christmas celebrations were finally allowed without dire consequences.

However, the people were not really free from the old laws until 1856. Up until then, children in Massachusetts were required to attend school on Christmas Day, no matter what day of the week that fell on.

After 1856, the law was changed and the observance of Christmas was allowed to be a spirited and happy holiday for young and old.


(adapted from a story by Peggy Robbins, American History Illustrated, 1982)