Alabama holds the distinction of being the pioneering U.S. state to officially recognize Christmas as a state holiday.
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This rating is considered unproven.
Books, newspapers, and online posts have often circulated the claim that Alabama holds the distinction of being the first state to officially recognize Christmas as a statewide holiday. This recognition grants government employees and institutions a well-deserved day off to celebrate the festive occasion.
According to a Facebook post from 2017, Alabama was the first state in America to officially declare Christmas as a legal holiday in 1836. It wasn’t until 1870 that the United States declared Christmas Day as a federal holiday.
There is no evidence to support this claim. Although Christmas Day was designated a federal holiday in 1870, along with New Year’s Day, Independence Day, and Thanksgiving, there are no historical records to confirm the assertion about Alabama 34 years earlier or 17 years after it became a state.
According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, a publicly-funded agency responsible for storing state records, extensive searches conducted over the course of several years have failed to yield any evidence supporting the claim. In a memo from 2014, an archivist stated that multiple staff members, under different directors, have found no substantiation for the assertion. Due to this lack of evidence, we have assigned an “Unproven” rating to this fact check.
Over the years, several online media outlets have presented the purported piece of trivia as factual, despite the explicit lack of verification.
In a recent search on Google, Snopes found an article from the lifestyle magazine Southern Living claiming that Alabama was the first state to make Christmas a holiday. This claim was based on a March 2019 article by AL.com, a trusted news source. According to Southern Living, this historical fact is not widely known.
The alleged historical fact about Alabama has been mentioned in various sources, including the New York Times’ crossword puzzle and the History Channel’s website. Snopes managed to access an archived version of the network’s web page titled “Alabama,” which, as of Jan. 10, 2021, contained a list of purported facts about the state.
When Snopes reached out to the History Channel for clarification on the factual basis of the statement about Alabama, they did not receive a response. However, as of January 12, 2022, the bullet point regarding Christmas no longer appears under the “Interesting Facts” section on the History Channel’s web page dedicated to Alabama.
According to the Alabama Department of Archives and History, the rumor has been circulating since at least 1954. It started with James H. Barnett’s book titled “The American Christmas.” In the book, Barnett wrote the following:
According to Norwood Kerr, a research archivist at the Alabama Department of Archives and History, Barnett failed to provide any evidence or documentation to support his claimed timeline of the holiday’s celebration in different states. In his book, there are no footnotes or references to the sources of his information. This raises doubts about the accuracy and credibility of Barnett’s claims.
According to historical records, Christmas was officially designated as a bank holiday by the Alabama state Legislature in 1848. This legal title requires all financial institutions to close for the day. It is important to note that a bank holiday is distinct from a state holiday, which entails the closure of government offices and public schools.
After a span of 35 years, state leaders once again decided to categorize Christmas alongside George Washington’s birthday and Thanksgiving as holidays during which “commercial papers could not be exchanged.”
It remains uncertain as to whether Alabama ever officially recognized Christmas as a state holiday before it became a federally recognized holiday for all states in 1870. If any new evidence emerges to provide an answer, we will update this post accordingly.
Here is the complete memo from Kerr:
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 1 st and July 4 th) 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 22 nd (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 2014, the agency shared a Facebook post stating that the photos provided depict physical copies of the state statutes that outline Christmas’ status as a banking holiday, rather than a state holiday.
Photo by the Alabama Department of Archives and History.
Ken Barr, an archivist with the Alabama Department, directed our attention to Debbie Pendleton, the agency’s former assistant director for public services. It seems that Pendleton has been tirelessly trying to dispel the rumor for quite some time. In one instance, she shared her insights on the matter, stating: “On the”
In 2017, many commenters praised Alabama for what was claimed to be a significant achievement. However, Pendleton quickly debunked this claim, stating, “Sorry to disappoint you all, but this is totally false. One of the original fake news stories.” We have attempted to contact Pendleton for further clarification and will update this report accordingly.
Sources: ‘Alabama Department of Archives and History (ADAH)’. Encyclopedia of Alabama , https://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.