The ever-widening chasm that separates the North and the South today has a long history with many fissures, but one would hardly consider the celebration of Christmas to be one of them. However, in the years prior to the founding of America’s first English colonies in Virginia and Massachusetts, Christmas was a highly controversial subject in Great Britain, and that controversy was brought to Jamestown and Plymouth in the Seventeenth Century.
The disputation surrounding Christmas is actually as old as Christianity itself. During the first two centuries of the Christian era, the church leaders objected to the celebration of the birth of martyrs, including Jesus, contending that the day of their martyrdom was the true date of their birth. For this reason, Good Friday and Easter had been the two most important dates in the Christian calendar. Furthermore, as the New Testament Gospels had not indicated any specific period for the birth of Jesus, let alone an actual date, the entire matter of when the nativity actually took place also became a subject of controversy.
In 221 A.D., the Greek historian Sextus Julius Africanus was the first to declare that December 25th was the actual date of Jesus’ birth and a little over a century later, that date was proclaimed a religious holiday by the church in Rome. Many contended, however, that the date was merely selected to attract pagans to Christianity, as it coincided with the Roman and Nordic holidays of Saturnalia and Yule, both feast days to celebrate the arrival of the winter solstice.
With the onset of Europe’s Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, various forms of Catholic worship became the cause of harsh debate, with some being banned and others the subject of religious trials and even executions. Most saints were stripped of their titles and a number of celebrations, including Christmas, were prohibited. Many in England continued to celebrate the twelve-day period of revelry from December 25 to January 6, while others in the country, such as the Puritans, sought to eliminate the holiday entirely. The Puritans finally prevailed, and after the execution of Charles I in 1649, Christmas was officially banned in Great Britain.
The group of English adventurers and entrepreneurs that founded Virginia’s Jamestown colony in 1607 brought with them the merry holiday spirit of Christmas they had enjoyed in England, while the Pilgrims who founded the Plymouth and Boston colonies over a decade later adopted a strictly puritanical outlook regarding the holiday.
Unlike the Pilgrims, the Dutch who came to America in 1609 and five years later founded their first settlement at what is now Albany, New York, brought with them their own Christmas customs and traditions from the Netherlands. While other saints had lost their religious status in Europe, the Dutch still revered Saint Nicholas, their patron saint of children, who they called Sinter Klaas and later made him the patron saint of New Amsterdam in America. The saint’s Dutch name eventually evolving into the jolly personage we now call Santa Claus.
While Christmas continued to be joyfully celebrated in the colonial South, the Puritans were busy playing the role of Ebenezer Scrooge by following England’s lead and banning the holiday entirely, a prohibition that lasted for more than a generation in New England. In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made it a criminal offense to publicly celebrate Christmas, and anyone arrested for doing so would be fined five shillings, which would be about thirty dollars today, or enough to purchase a horse or a cow at that time.
Meanwhile, in Virginia, Christmas was officially recognized by the legislature and in 1631, a law was passed that required new churches to be built in time for “the feast of the nativitie of our Saviour.” Two hundred years later, another Christmas tradition that had begun in Germany during the Sixteenth Century was also brought to Virginia. In 1842, Charles Minnigerode, a professor at William and Mary College in Williamsburg, put up America’s first decorated Christmas tree at the home of St. George Tucker in that city. The following year, most homes in Williamsburg had decorated trees and from there the custom quickly spread throughout Virginia and then the entire South. Professor Minnigerode, an 1839 German immigrant, was also the rector of Saint Paul’s Episcopal Church in Richmond during the War of Secession, and it was in the “Cathedral of the Confederacy” that he baptized President Jefferson Davis and officiated at the burial of General J. E. B. Stuart.
Many in New England continued to maintain a rather hostile attitude towards Christmas festivities until well into the Eighteenth Century, with a number of businesses remaining open on that day and church services very solemn occasions. In the ensuing years, waves of European immigrants, particularly those from Germany and Ireland, settled in both the North and the South, bringing with them more of a true holiday spirit. One Prussian immigrant, Louis Prang, even became the first in America to produce a Christmas card at his print shop near Boston. In keeping with New England’s non-festive mood, however, his card did not display any type of holiday images, merely a single painted flower and the expression “Merry Christmas.”
In literature, the first Christmas stories in America were written by New York City author Washington Irving who became famous for his portrayal of life in Dutch New York. In 1820, Irving included five Christmas essays in his popular “Sketchbook.” along with some far better known tales such as “Rip van Winkle” and “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.” The Christmas stories, however, were not about America, but were all set in England and concerned the various guests who visited a country estate there during the holiday. The first books with a Christmas setting in the United States were two novels about the South by one of South Carolina’s most famous authors, William Gilmore Simms. The first, “Castle Dismal: or , The Bachelor’s Christmas,” was written by Simms in 1841 and the second, “The Golden Christmas,” in 1852.
The 1841 work by Simms was a gothic tale of ghosts, murder and love that takes place in South Carolina during the Christmas season. Edgar Allen Poe regarded it as “one of the most original fictions ever penned.” The book that came out eleven years later was also about South Carolina, but this work, “The Golden Christmas,” provided a broad view of the low-country’s rich holiday history, heritage and humor, as well as an intimate look into the social life at the antebellum plantations around Charleston during the Christmas holidays.
In her 1995 book “Christmas in America: A History,” Texas-born Dr. Penne Lee Restad, a professor of history at the University of Texas, also presented a chapter on how Christmas was observed in the Southern states during the antebellum period. Unlike the North, where Christmas was generally a one-day affair at best, in the South, it was a more extended period of ease and enjoyment for virtually everyone, including the slaves. The holiday was celebrated from the evening of December 24th until the morning of January 2nd. During the week-long period, most of the slaves were freed from their usual chores and allowed to visit with friends and relatives from other plantations.
While Christmas did not become a federal holiday in the United States until 1870, most Southern states, beginning with Alabama, Arkansas and Louisiana in the 1830s, had already declared Christmas as a state holiday. The giving of gifts, feasting, decorating the home, singing carols and holding holiday balls that had long been traditional events throughout the South were also generally extended in some manner to the slaves. Most plantation owners rewarded their adult workers with presents such as clothing, personal accessories, household items, special foods and even small amounts of cash. The slave’s children were generally not forgotten either, with many being presented with bags of candy and pennies.
As a footnote to the history of Christmas, while the holiday was brought to Virginia in 1607, it was exported in the opposite direction over a half century earlier. In 1552, Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal began to celebrate Christmas in Japan, with the first large-scale Christmas mass being held in the ancient capital of Kyoto eight years later. However, controversy of a different nature soon arose in the country, as the leaders of the Edo shogunate that ruled Japan from 1603 until 1868 deemed not only Christmas, but Christianity in general to be a highly dangerous foreign influence and in 1612, they banned the entire religion for well over two and a half centuries.
During the latter part of the Nineteenth Century, foreign Christian missionaries began to return to Japan but even though a number of Christian churches, universities and hospitals were established there, the religion never again regained the strong foothold it once had. Today, only a little more than one per cent of the Japanese population is Christian . . . but Christmas is quite a different story.
As the holiday takes place during the traditional Japanese winter gift-giving season, a Tokyo department store used a variety of Christmas decorations, including a large, lighted Christmas tree, in 1900 as an advertising ploy. The idea grew quickly nationwide and while Christmas is still not a holiday in Japan, the country now overflows with the Christmas spirit each December, and even the Colonel Sanders statues at Japan’s nearly twelve hundred Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurants are all dressed as Santa Claus.