Belief  /  Origin Story

The War on Christmas

A brief history of the Yuletide in America.

The War on Christmas is a meme, a political cudgel that is itself real, but no one is scheming to abolish our yuletide celebrations. Yet there once was a real war on Christmas, and one of my ancestors was directly involved. William Luddington left the village of Turvey, in Bedfordshire, England, in the 1630s and immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he settled in Charlestown, now a part of Boston. The reasons for his departure from England are unclear, but likely one of them was his disagreement with those who wanted to celebrate Christmas. Luddington was emphatically against it.

He was born into the Church of England in 1611, and his father was a warden in Turvey’s Parish Church, known as All Saints. Perhaps Luddington’s piety exceeded his father’s, at least in his own eyes, or maybe, at the age of 25, he simply had more energy than his father to leave England behind and start over in a new land. Either way, Charlestown, where Luddington settled in the New World, was a godly town full of like-minded Christians, John Winthrop among them. But eventually even Charlestown was not godly enough for Luddington, who moved on to the New Haven Colony in 1660. New Haven had been founded by English settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who believed that Boston had been ruined by commerce. In their eyes, Boston had squandered the opportunity to become the Christian “City Upon a Hill” of which Winthrop had dreamt; in fact, their “New Haven” for God’s chosen people, was purposely located so as not to take full advantage of the magnificent natural harbor, and thereby keep its citizens’ minds on what truly mattered.

To put all this in more familiar terms, Luddington was a Puritan, someone who believed that the Anglican Church needed to be purified of its Roman Catholic vestiges. Bishops, therefore, were to be abolished from the church hierarchy; elaborate priestly vestments had to be jettisoned in favor of plain black garments; making the sign of the cross could not be tolerated; and Christmas had to be outlawed. Yes, the Puritans, whom we collectively celebrate every Thanksgiving, and whom some see as the very founders of what would become the United States, detested Christmas. It was, after all, a Mass for Christ, an early church ceremony that had been invented in order to Christianize the raucous Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Add candle lighting, caroling, and wassailing (toasting and drinking to someone’s health, repeatedly)—all common practices at Christmastide (the 12 days from Christmas until Epiphany) that had survived the Reformation in England, and Puritans saw a clear-cut case of papist idolatry. It’s no wonder that righteous Puritans like Luddington would have wanted to get away from England and go to a place where almost everyone agreed that December 25 was just another gray, winter day.