The Puritan War on Christmas - NYTimes.com
In the early 17th century in England, the Christmas season was not so different from what it is today: churches and other buildings were decorated with holly and ivy, gifts were exchanged and charity was distributed among the poor.
Also much as it is today, it was a period of carousing and merriment. The weeks around Christmas were celebrated with feasting, drinking, singing and games. Mummers would blacken their faces and dress up in costumes, often in the clothes of the opposite sex, to perform plays in the streets or in homes. Carolers, too, would sing door to door as well as in the home. Wealthy lords threw open their manors, inviting local peasants and villagers inside to gorge on food and drink. Groups of young men called wassailers would march in and demand to be feasted or given gifts of money in exchange for their good wishes and songs.
Puritans detested these sorts of activities, grumbling that Christmas was observed with more revelry than piety. Worse, they contended that there was no Scriptural warrant for the celebration of Jesus’ birth. Puritans argued (not incorrectly) that Christmas represented nothing more than a thin Christian veneer slapped on a pagan celebration. Believing in the holiday was superstitious at best, heretical at worst.
When the Puritans rebelled against King Charles I, inciting the English Revolution, the popular celebration of Christmas was on their hit list. Victorious against the king, in 1647, the Puritan government actually canceled Christmas. Not only were traditional expressions of merriment strictly forbidden, but shops were also ordered to stay open, churches were shut down and ministers arrested for preaching on Christmas Day.
The Puritans who came to America naturally shared these sentiments. As the Massachusetts minister Increase Mather explained in 1687, Christmas was observed on Dec. 25 not because “Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian” ones. So naturally, official suppression of Christmas was foundational to the godly colonies in New England.