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Did 17th Century Protestants Really Ban Christmas?


December 09, 2003
Tuesday - 12:50 am

Christmas in mid-17th century puritanical America was outlawed by Protestant reformists as "another one of those idol-worshipping religious festivals well worth expunging," says Colgate University professor Anthony Aveni. Author of "The Book of the Year - A History of Our Holidays," Aveni explores the myths and origins of the December 25 holiday extending back to Neolithic cultures. Here are a few facts Aveni notes about the holiday:

  • The Bible does not supply concrete information on exactly when Christ was born. No astrological indicators exist that point to December 25. The earliest record comes from a 354 A.D. calendar description of a holiday in which Romans lit candles to celebrate the sun's birthday.
  • Church officials, "impressed with the ritual's symbolic bringing back of light into the world," claimed the date. Roman Emperor Constantine officially recognized the date as the celebration of Jesus' birth in 4th century A.D.
  • The Middle Ages marked the origin of many traditional Christmas symbols such as the Yule log, holly, and caroling. The burning Yule log (Yule comes from the Scandinavian jol or jul which means "jolly") symbolized the time in which bonfires raged to "beckon the reappearance of winter's holy light."
  • The Farmer's Almanac also got its start in the Middle Ages during the 12 days of Christmas. People used these days to predict weather by recording sunny and snowy days in a system that became the precursor of the modern Farmer's Almanac.
  • Celebrations in Britain and America waxed and waned between the 16th and 19th centuries. Reformist Protestants levied fines on those individuals who dared to miss work on Christmas in 17th century America.
  • It was not until the early 19th century that German and Dutch Protestant immigrants resurrected the holiday to its original status and Santa Claus became popular. The name St. Nicholas gained prominence during the Victorian era. Originally Santa was not regarded as the rotund gift bearer in an airborne sled. American Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem promoted this image.
  • Santa's Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer sprang from a commercial endeavor in 1939. A Montgomery Ward employee wrote the original story as part of a promotional "giveaway" program. The song gained prominence in the late 40s.

"The paradox of Christmas today lies in the confrontation of the consumer's strong materialism sense and the decidedly nonmaterialistic values of religious celebrants," Aveni says. "But obviously Christmas is a reinvented tradition. Our capacity to change its meaning to suit the times is the force that keeps it alive."




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