Christmas is celebrated as an important religious and community holiday by many Americans. Christians worship and commemorate the birth of Jesus, and they and many other Americans enjoy a break from work and gather with family to feast and exchange gifts. But it was not always this way.
In many of the American colonies, Christmas was not observed as a religious or secular holiday. The seventeenth-century Puritan leaders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony considered Christmas to be non-biblical and pagan influenced, and in Boston and other parts of New England any observance of Christmas was prohibited and, for a few years, illegal. The holiday was not generally accepted in many parts of the United States until after the federal government made December 25 a national holiday in 1870.
Yet in other colonies and parts of the new United States, Christmas was often observed with religious celebrations and a variety of holiday customs and activities. The tradition of a decorated Christmas tree may have been first brought to North America in 1781 by Hessian troops guarding the Province of Québec* against possible American attack. Christmas trees became increasingly popular throughout North America during the nineteenth century and by the 1870s and 1880s commercially manufactured ornaments became widely available.
As a reflective, bible reading and prayerful Methodist of his era, Rev. J. W. Woodworth was serious about observing the Sabbath and basing one’s life and worship on sound biblical principles. He was often suspicious of new religious ideas and practices. Even the idea of a “children’s sermon” seemed dubious to him. Here is the first part of his diary entry from December 26, 1867 (by this time he had been widowed, re-married, and
had may have** left Mequon for the Milwaukee area):
This Christmas Eve, we went to the Sabbath school concert; an address was given by Dr. Eddy of the Presbyterian Church in this city [Milwaukee]; it was quite a lively address, was interspersed with considerable wit, to please the little folks and instruct them; if the Lord is pleased with this manner of conveying instruction, I trust he will bless the same to their good. We do hope no serious evil will arise from it.
The children’s sermon was not the only novelty in church that night. Rev. Woodworth continues:
At nine o’clock, in came two masked individuals called Santa Claus and wife, with each a basket of trinkets for the children, hastily distributing them to all the little folks, as far as they went; and then hastily retiring to fill up again, and returning as hastily with many bows to the children, distributing with a liberal hand to the little folks. This was very amusing, and pleasing to them; but it is a question whether any good will arise from such comic proceedings; yet I do not know; if it is proved that the Bible sanctions it, we dismiss our doubts of its propriety.
The service ended on a more traditional and apparently satisfying note:
We had some very interesting [congregational] singing led by Professor S. L. Fish, and this was much the best of the evening’s entertainment.
However you observe December 25, please enjoy the day. Thanks for reading and best wishes to you all for a Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
This post is based on the links cited and on page 242 of Rev. Woodworth’s book.
*Post updated December 25, 2017, to correct factual error about Hessian troops in 1781. They were stationed in Québec, not the American colonies.
**Post updated December 31, 2017 to correct possible error about J. W. Woodworth’s residence circa 1867. James W. Woodworth is shown living at “559 15th” in the 1868 city directory for Milwaukee, but other maps and documents indicate that he may have still owned and/or lived at his original Mequon homestead well past that date. His probate file from 1893 states that he died in the city of Milwaukee. Anyone who desires more information on Rev. Woodworth’s homes should begin by consulting “My Path…”