Despite its widespread popularity today, Christmas hasn’t always been a welcome celebration in America.
While pundits, religious freedom advocates and church-state separatists debate the merits of the so-called “War on Christmas,” there was a time in American history when Christmas celebrations — in at least in one local community — were banned entirely.
The General Court of Massachusetts Bay Colony passed a law in 1659 that fined anyone caught celebrating Christmas or similar celebrations, forcing them to pay five shillings, Mass Moments reported.
The law penalized any citizens “observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.”
Similar to the debates that some have in contemporary society about commercialism and other elements that aren’t aligned with the traditional meaning of Christmas, the Puritans apparently saw the holiday season as offering up excesses and as having no Biblical rooting.
“Finding no biblical authority for celebrating Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25, the theocrats who ran Massachusetts regarded the holiday as a mere human invention, a remnant of a heathen past,” Andrew Santella once wrote in Slate. “They also disapproved of the rowdy celebrations that went along with it.”
One of the main sources of contention was the fact that some believed Christmas was simply an adoption of the pagan holiday of Saturnalia, a Roman celebration.
Saturnalia may be unfamiliar to some, but it was an ancient festival celebrated in Rome in honor of the god Saturnus. This celebration, which was commemorated on Dec. 17, is credited with having an influence on modern-day Christmas festivities.
It wasn’t until 1681 that the law was repealed as a result of British pressure. But Christmas didn’t become a fixture in the state of Massachusetts until 1869, Mass Moments noted.
And as Mental Floss noted, despite overturning the ban, students in Boston were still reportedly punished and risked expulsion if they skilled school on Christmas Day through 1869.
While atheist activists are regularly accused today of waging a War on Christmas, it seems that it was the Puritans — a Christian cohort — that were battling over the holiday centuries ago.