Christmas in the colonies was just another day. In New England, a great devoutness meant Christmas was just another day to do the Lord’s work, which means an ordinary working day.
Many colonial religious groups banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming ties to pagan traditions. Puritans abhorred the excesses of church celebrations. From 1659 to 1681, displaying one's holiday spirit in Boston could cost you a fine of as much as five shillings. That's right — Christmas used to be illegal. It is surprising, then, that the same puritanical minds also created the first American batch of eggnog at Captain John Smith's 1607 Jamestown settlement. (The word nog comes from the word grog; that is, any drink made with rum.)
As more immigrants migrated to America, the Christmas holiday became more widespread and incorporated traditions from around the word. Some historians say that Hessian soldiers who fought alongside the British first introduced the Christmas tree to the colonies during the Revolutionary War. Others claim German immigrants who settled in Eastern Pennsylvania started the tradition. All agree that prior to the Revolutionary War, Christmas was celebrated without merriment and outward adornment, as this did not befit the proper Puritan of that day.
Some colonists did not hold to the Puritanical ban, however. Philip Fithian, of colonial Virginia, recorded in his diary entry for December 18, 1773: “When it grew too dark to dance….we conversed ‘til half after six; Nothing is now to be heard of in conversation, but the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship, which are to be exhibited at the approaching Christmas.” Fithian’s Christmas Eve, 1775 diary entry from Staunton, Virginia, described other common pastimes of the holiday celebration: “The Evening I spent at Mr. Guy's-I sung for an Hour, at the good Peoples Desire, Mr. Watts admirable Hymns-I myself was entertained; I felt myself improved; so much Love to Jesus is set forth-So much divine Exercise.”
During the first Christmas of the American Revolution in 1774, Martha Washington traveled to Cambridge, Massachusetts to be with her husband. Martha's presence at the Continental Army’s winter encampment each year not only helped to encourage George Washington, but also boosted the morale of the entire camp.
The month of December was ironically a turning point multiple times during the war. It was on November 28, 1775, that Congress established the American Navy. December 23rd of that same year King George III issued a royal proclamation closing the American colonies to all commerce and trade, to take effect in March of 1776. Also in December, Congress was informed that France might offer support in the war against Britain.
During one of the darkest moments of the American Revolution, Gen. George Washington led his army over the frozen Delaware River on the evening of December 25, 1776. The famous Crossing of the Delaware led to the Battle of Trenton and a string of victories that revived the cause. Washington decided to make a bold move and attack Trenton, where Hessian troops were wintering. The Americans formed into three divisions and were to cross the river at three separate locations once night fell. Washington personally led one division. The weather was poor. Ice chunks were floating in the river, and the falling snow soon turned to sleet, and hail driven by a bitterly frigid wind. Though many soldiers were lacking warm winter clothing and shoes, they crossed the river and marched nine miles to the town of Trenton. The Hessian soldiers were celebrating Christmas in a traditional German style, never expecting an attack on the morning of December 26. The Hessians' quick surrender at the Battle of Trenton would be the first of two rebel victories in New Jersey (the other being the Battle of Princeton a week later) as the Continental Army regained control of the colony. This effectively reversed the British drive that had pushed the rebels across New Jersey in the previous months. The daring crossing of the Delaware ended up being one of the turning points of the war.
In 1777, General Washington and much of the Continental Army were in winter quarters at Valley Forge, Pennsylvania. Half the camp was either sick or dying during this trying winter. On Christmas Eve, Washington wrote, "Every regiment is to draw provisions, to complete their rations, for tomorrow [sic]..." It snowed Christmas Day and by the next morning, it measured four inches deep.
During the winter of 1777 to 1778, Washington camped with his troops at Valley Forge, twenty miles north of Philadelphia. Images of bloody footprints in the snow, soldiers huddled around lonely campfires, and Washington on his knees, praying that his army might survive often come to mind when people hear the words "Valley Forge." But truer images of the place would show General Washington using the time between December 1777 and June 1778 to train his men and to fight to maintain his position as the head of the Continental Army.
In 1779, George and Martha Washington were with the army at the winter headquarters at Morristown, New Jersey. On Christmas Day, George Washington paid £15 “for a band of music.” A few days later, he attended "the celebration of the festival of St. John the Evangelist by the “American Union Lodge of Ancient Free and Accepted Masons.”
At the close of the war in 1781, there was yet another bittersweet Christmas spent in Philadelphia. George Washington had defeated Lord Cornwallis in the last major battle of the Revolutionary War in October 1781. However, Martha Washington's son, Jacky, died shortly after that victory from a fever contracted during the siege of Yorktown. George and Martha dined with Robert Morris at his Philadelphia home. Washington later wrote of this night that "Mrs. Washington is better than I could have expected after the Heavy loss she met with."
It was also at Christmas 1783 that General George Washington chose to step down as leader of the Revolutionary Army. Author Stanley Weintraub wrote in his book “General Washington’s Christmas Farewell”: “In late November 1783 when Washington finally received formal notice of the signing of a peace treaty with England, he had little more than a month to accept the transfer of power from British troops in New York; to bid farewell to his troops; and to resign his commission to Congress if he hoped to make it to Mount Vernon for Christmas. He could have remained in charge of the army and become a virtual king to the Americans who loved him. Control of the newly forming government was his to take – yet he chose to resign. It was that decision, coupled with his later decision to step down from the presidency after two terms, which rendered him ‘the greatest character of the age’ (according to none other than King George III).
Washington’s homeward journey is one of the most moving and inspiring stories from his great and eventful life. When he bade farewell to his troops at Fraunces Tavern in New York City there were no dry eyes. When he reached Congress and gave a retirement speech, it cemented his greatness more fully than had his victory over the British. When he made it to Mount Vernon, finally, on Christmas Eve, it could not have been a happier homecoming.”
Despite this, Christmas was so inconsequential in early America that after the Revolutionary War, Congress did not even bother taking the day off to celebrate the holiday, deciding instead to hold its first session on Christmas Day, 1789. It took a century for Congress to proclaim it a federal holiday.