Christmas in Early America
In America’s early years, the celebration of Christmas was a subject of heated debate among Christians, and the lines between the opposing views were drawn largely according to church affiliation. Those from the High Church (e.g., Anglicans, Catholics, Episcopalians, etc., which practiced a more formal tradition of worship), tended to support Christmas celebrations, while those from the Low Church (e.g., Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers, etc., which practiced a more informal mode of worship), tended to oppose that celebration.
The views of the two sides had largely been shaped by their own history in Europe. For example, the High Church, which had been the church of Europe for centuries before the first colonists came to America, celebrated Christmas. However, those from the Low Church had been persecuted by the High Church, particularly by the Catholic and Anglican Church, so the Low Church saw no reason that they should copy the festival of those that had so harshly persecuted them.
Interestingly, when European colonists came to America, those affiliated with the High Churches tended to settle in southern colonies such as Virginia, Maryland, and Carolina, while colonists from the Low Churches more frequently settled in northern colonies such as Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Rhode Island.
Not surprisingly, therefore, the Virginia colony- affiliated with the Anglican Church- began celebrating Christmas from its very beginnings under Governor John Smith, but the Pilgrims and Puritans of Massachusetts- affiliated with the Congregational Church- refused to celebrate that day. In fact, their opposition to Christmas was so strong that for almost two centuries in Massachusetts, Christmas celebrations were not only discouraged but even forbidden by law.
The first state to make Christmas a state holiday was Louisiana (a southern state with a Catholic tradition) in 1837- a time when the resistance to Christmas in the north was just beginning to weaken. By the 1840s and 1850s, many more states began recognizing the holiday, and by 1870, Christmas celebrations had become so accepted that Christmas was even recognized by the federal government as a holiday.
The Christmas Sermon below was delivered in 1844- a time when the celebration was still a subject of hot debate among Christians across the nation. Preached by Robert Hallam, rector of St. James Episcopal Church in Connecticut (an area of the country still very resistant to recognitions of Christmas), the sermon is an apologetic in favor of Christmas celebrations. It addresses the arguments against celebrating Christmas and presents arguments in favor of such celebrations.
St. James’ Church, New-
Christmas- Day, 1844,
By Robert A. Hallam, Rector.
“I went with the multitude, and brought them forth into the house of God; in the voice of praise and thanksgiving, among such as keep holy-day.”- Psalm xlii: 4. 5. (Psalter.)
“To them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saint, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours:- Grace be unto you, and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.”- 1 Cor. 1: 1-3.
“He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.”-Romans, xiv:6
The Apostle speaks here of the Jewish holy-days. By the abrogation of the Law these had fallen from their ancient dignity of things obligatory, into the humbler class of things indifferent. Their observance was no longer binding upon the conscience of any man. Expediency was the highest sanction it could claim. Liberty of opinion produced its usual result of diversity of judgment and intolerance.
Jewish Christians were dealt with indulgently, and allowed without hindrance or molestation to persevere in paying a sacred regard to those annual seasons, which the history of their nation, the example of their forefathers, and the habits of their own former lives had invested with so many venerable and endearing associations.- This was simple permission however. Not even Christian Jews were required to observe Mosaic holy days. And Christian Gentiles were decidedly dissuaded from it. Their adoption of the practice might seem to indicate obligation, represent it as a permanent law and institution of Christianity, and denote a dangerous learning to formality and superstition. Even in the case of the Jews the license was jealously watched and carefully guarded. Every disposition to elevate liberty into obligation, to magnify their privilege into a duty, to enforce conformity among themselves, still more to exact if of the Gentiles, was immediately noticed and repressed.
“Ye observe days, and months, and times, and years,” writes St. Paul to the Galatian Christians in a tone of solemn remonstrance and alarm, “I am afraid of you, lest I have bestowed upon you labor in vain.” Of this freedom variety of opinion and usage was the natural fruit. Most Jews regarded the day; perhaps a few Gentiles. Some Jews disregarded the day; and the great body of the Gentiles. The difference was perfectly allowable and innocent, and ought to have created no disturbance of confidence or interruption of harmony. But the spirit of man is naturally prone to be uncharitable and dictatorial. He is not content with liberty, he aims at dominion. His own judgment is the infallible standard of truth, his own practice the unquestionable rule of rectitude. He would fain be a pope and a despot, who decisions are not to be questioned, whose will is not to be contravened, whose conclusion is a Procrustean test, not only to measure but to coerce.
The Christians of Apostolic times were not satisfied to differ amicable in things intrinsically indifferent. Conscience must needs be enlisted on the side of their respective views; and then the more conscientious they were, the most intolerance they grew. Alienation and distrust, party spirit and proselytism, mutual denunciations, bickerings and criminations were the melancholy consequence.
The Gentile was not a Christian because he did not keep the Passover; the Jew was not a Christian because he did. The Apostle saw and lamented the causeless and injurious strife. This fourteenth chapter of the epistle to the Romans, as well as several chapters in his first epistle to the Corinthians, is devoted to an examination of the dispute about this and kindred topics, with a view to settle the questions that had given rise to it upon their real merits, and allay the unholy heat it had generated. “Let no man,” he writes, “judge you in meat, or in drink, or in respect of an holy day, or of the new moon, or of the Sabbath days,”- that is, of the old seventh day Sabbath, which, under the new economy had given place to the Lord’s day of the first,–“which,” says he, “are a shadow of things to come; but the body is of Christ.” And again, “One man esteemeth one day above another: another esteemeth every day alike. Let every man be fully persuaded in his own mind. He that regardeth the day, regardeth it unto the Lord; and he that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.” The diversity is lawful and harmless. Observance or nonobservance is perfectly optional. The celebration of the day, with an enlightened, pious and devout endeavor to make it subservient to the promotion of the honor of God and the welfare of the soul, is a truly Christian service, such as Christians may fitly and profitably render; and such is acceptable to the Lord and redounds to his honor. And the refusal to celebrate the day, if it be grounded upon an honest conviction of its inutility and a holy fear of its perversion to sensual or superstitious purposes, it equally innocent and commendable, a Christian service also, and offering pleasing to God and conducive to his glory. Let not him that regardeth the day, despise him that regardeth it not; and let not him that doth not regard the day, judge him that regardeth it: for God hath received him.
At an early period of the Christian era-how early we cannot precisely determine, certainly very early, in days bordering very closely upon the times of the Apostles, if not retreating into them-a system of fast and festival commemorative of the leading events of the life of Jesus Christ, grew up, which in its relationship to Christianity, and to the duty of Christ’s disciples, is, in many important respects, parallel to the Christian retention and adoption of the Mosaic holy-days. Like it, it can claim no divine authority; for it is enjoined by no precept of the New Testament, and can shew no clear proof of having originated in any suggestion of Christ, or in the example of his Apostles. It can urge nothing beyond probability- a probability of the exact degree of which men, with their existing prepossessions, can hardly judge candidly and impartially- that it had primarily a more honorable beginning than individual fancy; though it soon acquired an ecclesiastical approval and sanction. It was a natural fruit, as it seems to us at least who regard the day, of religious impulses and reverential sentiments, of feelings deeply seated in the constitution of man and ever craving opportunity of outward expression, of the very same sensibilities which have led men of all countries and ages to regard with a peculiar sacredness and veneration places and days signalized by important events, to mark them by permanent monuments and periodical observances. It is the religious memory embodied and made visible; just as the patriotic memory is, in the noble shaft that graves the heights of Charlestown, or in the festivities that mark the anniversary of the day that gave birth to our national independence. It is the symbol of an inward sentiment strong in the texture of humanity, indelible and universal, which vehemently demands utterance and manifestation, and will not be denied it in some form without a violence that injures the fabric. That this system began, at least almost as soon as the Christian Church was established, is manifest from the fact of its universal and consentaneous observance in all parts of that Church, however widely separated and however differing in many respects, from the earliest times of which ecclesiastical historians give us any account, and of its uninterrupted continuance in all its branches till within three centuries past. Even now, it is retained by a vast majority of those who bear the Christian name, as well as Reformed as Romanist, Greek, or Oriental, whether Episcopal or non-Episcopal in their constitution, liturgical or extemporary in their worship. The exception is confined, as the preacher believes, to those bodies of Christians in Great Britain and this country, whose forms of government are nonprelatic, and of worship, unwritten. Certainly then, this system may claim to rank among those antiquities of the Gospel, whereof the memory of man and the testimony of history runneth not to the contrary; and can make good to itself that celebrated canon, the “quod semper, ubique, ab omnibus,” the always, everywhere, by all, of Vincent of Lerins.I said above, this system is a natural growth of the human mind. I believe it would have formed part of the costume of an historical religion, of a religion founded on historic facts, under any circumstances. But it was peculiarly natural under the actual circumstances. Jew and Gentile united in the Church of Christ, had each been educated under an annual series of holy-days; that of the former, accommodated by God to what I have described above as a want of our nature; that of the latter, devised by man to satisfy and appease it. How natural how happy, that the new religion in whose common bosom their ancient feud and distinction were to cease, in its rich store of solemn and interesting histories, should afford materials out of which to frame a new and common series, to occupy the place of the obsolete observances of the once, and of the impure trivial ceremonies of the other.
Among the inconsiderate aspersions thrown by those who do not regard the day upon their Christian brethren who do, is the charge that the practice is pagan, and was adopted in accommodation to the customs of the heathen, as a means of conciliation, and with a view of rendering the transition to Christianity more gentle and palatable. I am not aware that the charge is anything better than a surmise, or can claim in its support one particle of historical evidence. But I am not careful to deny it. I am perfectly willing that it should be true. Let it be, that our Christian holy-days are an imitation of heathen festivals. I see in the fact nothing but a proof of the singular wisdom and candor of the primitive Christians, who could see and acknowledge what was good in a corrupt religion, gracefully adopt it, and use it as a means to facilitate the success of the truth. The alleged coincidence of the principal holy-days of the Church with corresponding festivals of heathenism, whether real or imaginary, designed or accidental, will be no disparagement of them with men of sense and impartiality. It leaved the real question at issue entirely unaffected-are they innocent? Are they salutary?
Equally ungenerous and irrelevant is it to call the holy-day system Romish, a remnant of Popery. True, the Church of Rome holds the Christian holy-days sacred. So does the Sabbath, the Bible and the Sacraments. True wisdom consists in “taking forth the precious from the vile.” Candor will be careful to discriminate, and not to condemn and reject the good and harmless things of an evil system. They who follow in the steps of the English Reformers, suppose, that in a clearer perception of this principle that was enjoyed by most of their fellow laborers in the work of the Reformation, consisted the especial advantage and honor of those venerated men. But the holy-day system is in truth much older than Popery. It is the common possession of Papist and Protestant, inherited from a day older than either. It flourished at a period when the Bishop of Rome, so far from assuming that unlawful title to himself, was reproving his brother of Constantinople, for daring to arrogate the dignity of universal bishop; and before that monstrous fabric of falsehood and corruption, which sprung from and in turn supported the Papal supremacy, had so much as received its foundation. It is not to be disposed of by an appeal to popular odium. It must rest upon its intrinsic expediency and worth. It was neither originated by Rome, nor can it be disparaged by her adoption.
We rest then the claims of this festival, and of the system into which it enters, and of the system into which it enters, simply upon the plea of a presumed utility.
In support of this plea, we allege, first, the nature of man, so constituted, that he instinctively seeks to reveal in outwards expressions of an appropriate and significant description the inward feelings that occupy and engage him, and finds in such manifestation not only a relief, but the aliment and support, of the emotion that prompts them. This propensity discloses itself in the universal fondness for monuments and commemorative rites, which has always and does everywhere characterize mankind. And all experience proves the efficacy of such memory of the facts they represent, preserving a fresh and lively sense of them in men’s minds, giving stability to the principles embodied in the, permanency to the enthusiasm which they tend to inspire, and perpetuity to their practical influence.
We adduce, also, its early adoption by the Church of Christ, as evidence that this very want impulse were actually felt, obeyed, and Christianized by an incorporation into the service of God, before the Bride of the Redeemer had declined from the fervor of her “first love,” or departed from her primal purity and fidelity.
We add the testimony of our own experience and observation. We say with the Psalmist, “As we have heard so have we seen in the city of our God.”We have, as we trust, ourselves been made holier and happier by its operation. We have witnessed, as we think, its influence upon others, in helping to make them holier and happier. Its whole tendency seems to us benign and profitable. It arrays the Church “in a raiment of needle work,” “a clothing of wrought gold,” a fit apparel for her presentation to the Kind, a costume that makes her venerable and lovely in the yes of her children. Whatever tends to render religion beautiful and attractive, to call the attention of men to her, to awaken their interest in her, is deserving of the regard of her friends. An attire of comeliness is not to be despised, if it do but serve to obtain for her that notice, which may lead to the perception and appreciation of her more solid and substantial charms. Rome has bedizened her in the finery of a courtesan; the fear of Rome may sometimes have reduced her too nearly to a state of nudity.
As a means awaking interest, and calling forth a spirit of inquiry in the young, the holy-day system is highly useful. This happy effect Scripture expressly ascribes to the Mosaic festivals:-it is not less true of the Christian:-“and it shall come to pass, when your children shall say unto you, what mean ye by this service? That ye shall say, it is the sacrifice of the Lord’s Passover, who passed over the houses of the children of Israel in Egypt, when he smote the Egyptians, and delivered our houses.” The simple questions of a child about the evergreen wreaths that now adorn our temples, may afford a particularly happy and favorable opportunity for communicating to it a knowledge of the facts and truths of Christianity. Instruction so communicated, in answer to voluntary inquiry, comes with far greater effect, than that which comes unsought to passive, perhaps reluctant, minds. Answer your children’s questions then. Perhaps the result of some such question and answer may lead you to bless God for Christmas, and for this Christmas.
The holy-day system moreover provides a series of profitable and interesting themes for public instruction. It brings into an annual review the principal incidents in the life of Christ, the leading features of the great work by which he wrought out our redemption. It presents them in their order and connexion, and displays the successive contribution of each to the perfect whole. Such a system is replete with instruction, instinct with doctrine and with duty. It involves all that a Christian ought to believe and to do to his souls health. It is a great safeguard against partial teaching. It secures an annual survey of the whole field of the gospel. It checks the tendency of ministers to have pet topics and doctrines. Even if the pulpit be silent, the desk must make its annual proclamation of the whole counsel of God. A people among whom this system is developed with any tolerable degree of ability and fidelity, may parish; but it cannot be that they shall be “destroyed for lack of knowledge.” I speak warmly, for I feel warmly. I know that no generous mind will be displeased at the spontaneous movements of an honest but not uncharitable enthusiasm.
I trust then, sufficient reason has been shown, why, in the celebration of this festival, and of that round of holy-day which in their orderly succession make up that zodiac of heavenly signs through which she delights to take her yearly circuit, our church is not justly liable to any charge of superstition, of adding to the word of God, of Popery, or of dogmatism. She ranks it no higher than a municipal regulation, recommended to her by the ancient and general practice of the Church Catholic, and by her own experience of pleasure and profit in its use. She rests her observance of it, upon no divine law or intrinsic obligation, but simply upon expediency and ecclesiastical precept. It is but a private way she has of endeavoring to “edify herself in love,” and “build up her children in their most holy faith.” She dictates to none; she reproaches none. Thus have I sought to “give an answer to every man that asketh a reason” of this peculiarity of our practice, “with meekness and fear;” and to make it appear not incredible at least to any, that “he that regardeth the day” may “regard it unto the Lord;” and unseemly in “him that regardeth it not” to judge severely “him that regardeth it.”
But let us not forget that the text has a reverse side. It is also written, “He that regardeth not the day, to the Lord he doth not regard it.” Godliness then, will consist with a disregard of the day. Let us then be careful never to charge those who neglect to observe the day, with a breach of the divine law, or the omission of an essential means of spiritual edification and improvement. They do at the utmost but forego a source of religious improvement and strength which we retain and price, the want of which is compensated to them, it may be, by other arrangements of their own, Certain it is, that without them, they do attain a measure of Christian excellence, activity and usefulness, which should provoke us only to praise and emulation. Let us not conclude, that, because they have not our way, they have no way of keeping in mind the incarnation and other facts in the history of redemption, of meditating upon them, and making them “profitable for doctrine and instruction in righteousness.” Let not “him that regardeth the day” grow arrogant, and despise “him that regardeth it not.” Not even if we are assailed with ignorant misrepresentation and rude invective, let us be driven out of our calmness and charity. Nay, my dear brethren, let us never forget that we are disciple of One, “who, when he was reviled, reviled not again; who, when he suffered, threatened not; but committed himself to Him who judgeth righteously. “Render not evil for evil, nor railing for railing, but contrariwise blessing; knowing that ye are thereunto called, that ye should inherit a blessing.”
We are assembled this day to celebrate the nativity of the Son of God. The theme is one full of wonder, of instruction, and of comfort.
It commends Christ to us as a perfect Savior. As a Redeemer. We need one who can suffer in our stead; one who can make a satisfaction to divine justice; one who can be a “mediator between God and man, a days-man betwixt us, that might lay his hand upon us both,” This qualification the Son of God acquired by his assumption of flesh. This enabled him to die, to die a penal death, and by his death, render our pardon practicable, righteous, safe and credible. Hence “it is a faithful saying and worthy of all acceptation,” that Christ is “able to save.” Are you weary and bowed down with burden of sin? Go to Him: he can, he will “give you rest.”
As an example. By his human life, he became the model of humanity; a display of what our nature should be, a demonstration of what our nature may be. How inspiriting is this exhibition! Who has not felt the force and value of a pure and lovely example? Christ has gone before us in our walks, in our labors, in our trials, in our sufferings. Wheresoever we are, we may carry with us in the mirror of our minds, an image of “the man Christ Jesus;” and fashion and attire our life after the pattern of its perfect simplicity, propriety and beauty.
As a Head and Champion. His assumption of man’s nature at once proved its dignity and augmented it. It teaches us to think highly of ourselves, not morally or spiritually, but as to the constitution and destiny of man, and of ourselves as man. “God hath made us a little lower than the angels, to crown us with glory and honor.” Therefore “the Lord from heaven” stooped to be one of us, and to save us. He became “the second Adam,” the new Head of humanity; and took it into a close and eternal union with himself, and made it sharer of his own dignity. As he died because we die, so he rose that we might rise, and was glorified that we might share his glory. “As our forerunner, he hath for us entered” heaven; and “he ever liveth to make intercession for us”. What a demonstration of the value of our souls! What en encouragement to seek their salvation!
As a Friend and Helper. His human nature has gone up with him on high. His human memories and sympathies survive, and abide forever. He sees us, and with interest, in all our earthly troubles, in all our conflicts with unbelief, in all our struggles after holiness. He come to us, to enliven, refresh, strengthen, and reclaim us. “We have not an High Priest, that cannot be touched with the feelings of our infirmities;” or that will look idly upon them. Wherefore “lift up the hands that hang down, and the feeble knees.””Come boldly to a throne of grace to find mercy and grace to help in time of need.”
Col II 16:17
The author is aware that some may be disposed to rest the claims of the Church’s holy-day system on higher grounds that those of utility and ecclesiastical appointment; and that by such his citation of Vincent’s rule may be quoted against him. The consent of the Church is of use to elucidate and confirm doctrines and duties of which the New Testament gives intimation; but it cannot clothe with obligation anything that lacks this foundation. The Church can make an observance obligatory on its members, by that “power to decree rites and ceremonies,” (Art. XX) which is inherent in her as a society, and especially as a society divine; but nothing short of Scripture can make any observance binding on the Church. “Whatsoever is not read therein, nor may be proved thereby,” says Art. VI., “is not to be required of any man that it should be believed as an article of faith, or be thought requisite or necessary to salvation.” Still the antiquity and universality of the usage are a strong testimony in its favor; and the common judgment and feeling of Christendom, is certainly a proof of its expediency, and of the wisdom of our Church in retaining it, not easily set aside. And this, with the other considerations tending to the same conclusion exhibited in the discourse, forms the ground of deference here taken.
When the author was a student in Yale College, a professor in that institution delivered a lecture in support of this theory; in which he attempted to show that the birth of Jesus Christ did not occur on the 25th of December, and that that day had been selected for its commemoration in conformity to the Roman Saturnalia. He happened to choose Christmas day for its delivery; but the students mindful of the holiday, if not of the holy-day, left him to an empty lecture room, and compelled him to defer it to another week. Hooker disposes of this supposition effectually in a few words. But the discourse maintains that its truth or falsehood if perfectly immaterial. The blow, like multitudes of others aimed at the Episcopal Church, falls harmless, because bestowed upon a shadow. A Churchman’s answer is comprised in two words. Who cares?
Jer. xv: 19
Ps. xlviii: 8
Ps. xlv: 13,14
“Well to celebrate these religious and sacred days, is to spend the flower of our time happily. They are the splendor and outward dignity of our religion, forcible witnesses of ancient truth, provocations to the exercise of all piety, shadows or our endless felicity in heaven, on earth everlasting records and memorials, wherein they which cannot be drawn to hearken to what we teach, may only by looking upon what we do, in a measure read whatsoever we believe.” – Hooker, Eccl. Pol. B. V. lxxi. 11.
“She on the hills, which wantonly allureth all, in hope to be by her preferred, hath kissed so long her painted shines, for her reward. She, in the valley, is so shy of dressing, that her hair doth lie about her ears. While she avoids her neighbors pride, she wholly goes on th’ other side and nothing wears. But dearest mother, (what those miss,) the mean, they praise and glory is; and long may be.” – George Herbert
Ex. xii:26,27. See also Ex. xiii: 14,15; Josh. iv:6,7:21-24; Ps. lxxxviii:5-8.
“The way before us lies distinct with signs- through which, in fixed career, as through a zodiac, moves the ritual year of England’s Church.”- Wordsworth
1 Pet. Iii:15
2 Tim iii:16
1 Pet. ii:23
1 Pet. iii:9
1 Tim. ii:5
Job ix: 33
1 Cor. xv: 45-49
Heb. iv: 15
Heb. xii: 12
* Originally published: Dec. 21, 2016.