Was Alabama the 1st US State To Declare Christmas an Official Holiday?

"One of the original fake news stories," said a former archivist of historical records.

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Claim

Alabama was the first U.S. state to legally designate Christmas a state holiday.

Rating

Origin

For more than a half-century, this persistent rumor about Christmas’ history in the United States has infiltrated literature, newspaper articles, and — more recently — the Internet: Alabama was the first state to legally recognize the day as an official state holiday, giving government workers and institutions a day off. 

“In 1836, Alabama became the first state in America to declare Christmas a legal holiday,” a 2017 Facebook post read. “It wasn’t until 1870 that the U.S. declared Christmas Day a federal holiday.”

While it is true that Congress designated Christmas Day a federal holiday in 1870 (along with New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving), no historical records exist to corroborate the claim about Alabama 34 years earlier — or, 17 years after it became a state.

In fact, the Alabama Department of Archives and History — a publicly-funded agency that serves as the official repository for state records — told Snopes that “exhaustive searches” of relevant documents and other evidence over years have not provided answers. “Staff under four different directors … have found no evidence to support the claim,” an archivist wrote in a 2014 memo, which we obtained and detailed below. For that reason, we issued an “Unproven” rating on this fact check.

Despite the explicit lack of verification, however, several online media outlets have presented the purported piece of trivia as factual over the years.

For example, the lifestyle magazine Southern Living made the same claim about Alabama in a story that appeared as the leading search result when, in early 2022, Snopes entered into Google: “first state to make Christmas a holiday.” The Southern Living article cited a March 2019 article by AL.com, a print and digital newsroom, with the headline, “Bet you didn’t know: Alabama was the first state to…”

Aside from those sources, the alleged historical fact about Alabama appeared at least once in New York Times’ crossword puzzle and the History Channel previously listed it on its website. Snopes obtained an archived version of the network’s web page titled, “Alabama,” that, as of Jan. 10, 2021, included the below list of purported facts about the state:

Snopes asked the History Channel how, or with what evidence, it believed the above-underlined item about Alabama to be factual. We did not receive a response. However, as of this writing, on Jan. 12, 2022, the in-question bullet point about Christmas no longer appeared under “Interesting Facts” on the History Channel’s “Alabama” web page.

According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the unsubstantiated rumor dates back to at least 1954, when James H. Barnett published a book titled,”The American Christmas.” The Google Books’ preview of the piece showed Barnett wrote the following:

But Barnett did not offer any evidence to substantiate the alleged timeline nor explain how he developed it. “His book provides no footnotes or other documentation for the sources of his information on how and when the holiday was celebrated in the various states,” wrote Norwood Kerr, a research archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, in the 2014 memo copied below.

Historical records show that, in 1848, the Alabama state Legislature first labeled Christmas a bank holiday — a legal title that mandates a one-day shut down of all financial institutions and is different than a state holiday when all government offices and public schools close.

Then, 35 years went by, and state leaders again grouped Christmas with George Washington’s birthday and Thanksgiving as holidays “when commercial papers could not be exchanged.”

But it’s not clear when — if ever — Alabama designated Christmas a state holiday before federal leaders made it a government-recognized holiday for all states in 1870. We will update this post when, or if, new evidence emerges to answer the question.

Here’s Kerr’s full memo:

For the past fifty years, books, magazines, newspapers, and now Internet sites have declared that Alabama was the first state to officially recognize Christmas Day as a holiday, in 1836.  Exhaustive searches by the staff under four different directors of the Alabama Department of Archives & History have found no evidence to support the claim.

The legislature, on January 27, 1848, did declare Christmas (along with January 1st and July 4th) a bank holiday, in the sense that any promissory note due that day would instead be due the day before unless that day was Sunday, in which the note would be due on the previous Saturday (1852 Code of Alabama, sec. 1528). Not until February 23, 1883 did the legislature associate the word “holiday” with Christmas. An act passed on that date added February 22nd (then widely recognized as George Washington’s birthdate) and whatever date in November the governor proclaimed a “day of public thanksgiving” as times when commercial papers could not be exchanged – the act’s margin note refers to these as “holidays” (1882-83 Acts of Alabama, No. 117).

The claim that Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a holiday, in 1836, dates back to at least 1954, in James H. Barnett’s The American Christmas, A Study in National Culture.  His book provides no footnotes or other documentation for the sources of his information on how and when the holiday was celebrated in the various states. The only connection with that year that the department’s investigations have found is that the 1867 Code of Alabama included the 1848 bank-holiday provision as section 1836.

In a 2014 Facebook post, the agency shared the above-copied statement along with these photos supposedly depicting physical copies of the state statutes outlining Christmas’ status as a banking holiday, not a state holiday.

Photo via Alabama Department of Archives and History.

Let us note here: Ken Barr, an archivist with the Alabama department, also referred us to Debbie Pendleton, the agency’s former assistant director for public services, who apparently had been attempting to set the record straight on the rumor for years. For example, on the above-displayed Facebook post from 2017, commenters praised Alabama for the purported milestone, and Pendleton chimed in: “Sorry to disappoint you all, but this is totally false. One of the original fake news stories.” 
 
We reached out to Pendleton ourselves, and we will update this report when or if we hear back.

Sources:

‘Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH)’. Encyclopedia of Alabama, http://encyclopediaofalabama.org/article/h-2014. Accessed 11 Jan. 2022.

‘Were Southern States Really the First to Make Christmas a Holiday? Taking on the Myth’. It’s a Southern Thing, 8 Dec. 2021, https://www.southernthing.com/were-southern-states-really-the-first-to-make-christmas-a-holiday-taking-on-the-myth-2655938859.html.

‘Alabama Was the First State to Make Christmas a Holiday’. Al, 19 Nov. 2018, https://www.al.com/life-and-culture/erry-2018/11/599fd92c3d9681/alabama-was-the-first-state-to.html.

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