When Clement Clarke Moore wrote "An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas" on Christmas Eve 1822, he intended it as a gift for his children. A scholar of Greek and Oriental languages and a professor at the General Theological Seminary of New York, he quickly penned the poem in an afternoon and would have forgotten about it after the holiday was over, had not an enterprising houseguest copied it. She sent it to the Troy, New York Sentinel, where it was published the following December without Moore's knowledge. The poem, now known as "The Night Before Christmas," changed the course of American celebrations of Christmas and the image Americans had of the merry saint associated with that holiday.1
Before this time, there was no Christmas in America as we know it today, with gift-giving and merrymaking and sumptuous eating. The British celebrated the twelve days between Christmas and Epiphany with feating and high revelry; one has only to read Shakespeare's Twelfth Night in order to recapture the high spirits of the season as it was celebrated in the early seventeenth century. But the Puritans, those dour founders of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and the settlers of the rest of New England, objected to such unseemly behavior on a religious holiday, although they kept Christmas as a solemn occasion only with some difficulty. On their first Christmas in 1620, Governor Bradford noted that some of them objected to working; instead they resorted to "pitching ye barr" and "stoole-ball" and other such "gaming or reveling in ye streets," much to Bradford's displeasure. He admonished his recalcitrant flock either to stay home and observe the holiday quietly in meditation and prayer or to return to their work. By 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts set a fine of five shillings for observing Christmas, and strangers to the colony became known as "Christmas keepers," to denote not only their status as outsiders but also their supposedly improper attitude toward religion. Though the fine for celebrating Christmas was repealed in 1681, the Puritan tradition of fasting and prayer on the holiday died hard in New England. It wasn't that the Puritans had no holidays or fun; they certainly had their own days of celebration, such as Thanksgiving or weddings or election days; but Christmas remained for them too holy an occasion for such earthly pleasure.
Also, the Puritans probably did not feel the need for a holiday especially for children. They did not celebrate birthdays, although Puritan parents might sometimes wish their children well as a special recognition of the day. The Puritans also did not believe in saints, such as Nicholas, as they were known both in the Catholic church and the Church of England from which they had parted company; like the early Christians, the Puritans used the term to refer to all true believers, not just to a few exemplary models of faith. Even more important, they thought that play, or too much pleasure in and attention to it, was dangerous for children; idle hands were the devil's playthings. Consequently, the Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony made play a legal offense, punishable by public confession and public whipping. Since no one thought that children deserved their own special day on which to celebrate and play, no one in New England invented it.
In the other American colonies, Christmas was also kept as a strict religious holiday, although the strictness was somewhat more relaxed. Roger Williams's Providence Plantation indulged in some public celebration and in the Narragansett Bay settlement, where the people were mostly Anglicans, the reveling and merriment which characterized English celebrations of Christmas prevailed. In the Dutch colony of New Amsterdam, now New York, there was St. Nicholas Day, December 6, which was celebrated as a holiday for children, with gift-giving and stockings by the chimney and a visit from the saint himself. The Dutch were more liberal about the care of their children than the Puritans were; they had toys and toy stores and co-education for their children, while the Puritans kept...