Christmas is a major holiday in the U.S., celebrated in many different ways. The season begins the day after Thanksgiving and is enjoyed by Christians and non-Christians alike. But in the beginning, in the early 1600s, there wasn’t any Christmas celebration at all!
The Pilgrims in Massachusetts in the early 17th Century did not originally celebrate Christmas. They were in America to build a new society based on the Bible and they knew there was nothing in the Bible to say December was when Christ was born. They knew Christmas had roots in pagan winter solstice festivals like the Roman Saturnalia. They disapproved of the feasting and parties at Christmas.
The General Court of Massachusetts made celebrating Christmas punishable by law in 1659. The law stated: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forebearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country. "[A fine would be imposed if anyone did not work, or held a feast, or celebrated in any way, Christmas.]
Even after the law was repealed in 1681, New Englanders were slow to accept Christmas. Giving gifts and parties and even decorations were considered to be pagan customs. As late as 1870, Boston schools held classes on Christmas Day!
The same wasn’t true in Virginia. Jamestown was settled in 1607, before the Pilgrims, by people who hoped to get rich. They had no principles opposed to Christmas revels. But they didn't do much celebrating. For four years, they starved. There was no Christmas feast; they were lucky if there was food at all.
Then, in 1611, they started to grow a new tobacco plant. It wasn’t the plant the local Indians grew. It came from a strain grown in the Spanish colonies of Trinidad and South America. How John Rolfe got the seeds he brought to Jamestown is a mystery—there was a death penalty for anyone who sold such seeds to a non-Spaniard! Rolfe crossed his Spanish seeds with the local tobacco and produced a plant well-adapted to local conditions. At the same time, it was more pleasing to European taste and had a higher nicotine content than the native tobacco. The first shipment went to England in 1614. Their new kind of tobacco became their gold.
With life secure, merriment and Christmas celebration quickly followed. Parties and festivities just like they had enjoyed back in England enlivened the Virginia Christmas season.