Those of us who observe Christmas usually know very little about the holiday beside the traditional religious premise of the celebration. It is a "given" of history that December 25 is not the historic date of the nativity of Jesus of Nazareth, although scholars debate as to the origin of the Christmas date being set at December 25. In the 20th century, the debate over Christmas has had two layers, the first between the religious holy-day and the commercial holiday. In the long run, most Christians have tended to compromise, allowing for an increasingly influential measure of the commercial aspects of Christmas to coexist with their religious observance. The only religious people who completely deny Christmas are sectarian and cultic fundamentalists on the margins, or even outside the pale of catholicity, respectively speaking.
Actually, the idea of church-state separation was primarily developed against the backdrop of centuries of government intrusion upon religious freedom. Many of the Europeans who came to North America were highly conscious of, if not particularly devoted to, the idea of government that did not represent a single religious viewpoint. Even if they were not religious pilgrims and refugees, most European Christian colonists were emerging from a world defined by centuries of religious war based upon the unity of religion and state, as well as the ambitious territorial and political agenda of the papacy. John Brown's ancestors, English and Dutch, were Protestants whose struggles against the Roman Catholic church involved civil war, religious persecution by the state, and relocation in quest of religious liberty and improvement. Were Brown to have heard the contemporary notion of church-state separation that is commonly broadcast these days, probably he would quake in his famously silent and sarcastic "laughter."
In all of its varied denominational and religious expressions, the United States from its inception has been culturally expressive of its religious practices and beliefs, and today's secular, atheistic intellectuals on a mission to suppress this religious expression are on a fool's errand. It may be possible to achieve their goal of religious suppression in closed, highly secular, areligious settings like the secular university. But most of the nation simply will not tolerate being told they cannot display a manger scene along with Santa and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. For all religious people in the United States, religion is a public and private matter and that's not going to change without imposing a military state akin to pre-Constantinian Rome. Atheistic commandos of the anti-Christmas stripe simply do not understand the depth and expanse of the strange, complicated religious fabric so essential to "American" life. If they did, they'd just learn to grin and bear it. Frankly, it's more cultural than it is religious for most people anyway.
But what's this got to do with Old Brown?
Time does not permit me to prepare a well-researched article, but from what I have been able to glean, the popular celebration of Christmas in the United States did not predominate until late in the 19th century. The reason for this is layered and extensive, but we can say that for Protestants, generally speaking, Christmas festivities and celebrations were associated with Roman Catholicism. The earliest Christmas carols and Christmas celebrations were carried down through Roman Catholic worship and religious culture, and since the Virgin Mary was venerated along with the newborn Jesus--and likewise with all of the pomp and festivity surrounding it--the Christmas "baby" was typically thrown out with the "bath water" of Roman Catholicism by many traditional Protestants, especially those from England. This anti-Christmas sentiment was particularly true of the Puritans, whose opposition to Christmas was part of their efforts to erase Roman Catholic doctrine and custom from English church and society. Oliver Cromwell, one of Brown's historical heros, outlawed Christmas during his time of influence; although England's Christmas observance was later restored, the anti-Christmas sentiment was carried to North America by the Puritans. In "New England," Puritans endeavored to found a pristine Protestant society sans Romish and papal practices, and for a brief time their little experiment worked. In time, however Puritan theology, including hostility toward Christmas celebration, tended toward compromise.
John Brown was likely brought up in a religious culture with some disdain toward pronounced Christmas celebration, but not entirely exclusive of holy-day remembrance. Based upon what historians of Christmas culture tell us, it seems that the revitalization and "Protestantization" of the holiday in the United States was just starting to kick into gear in the mid-19th century. I read somewhere that "Jingle Bells" was copyrighted in 1857, the same year that John Brown was tramping around New England as a Kansas free state fundraiser. Christmas trees, caroling, and decorations were simply not widespread among northern evangelicals yet. Christmas was just not that big of a deal in Brown's antebellum era. Furthermore, not only was Christmas still overcoming its waning association with Roman Catholicism in Protestant thinking, but it was more widely celebrated by Protestants in the South. According to one source I consulted, Christmas was first made a state holiday by several southern states in the 1830s, while Protestants in the North tended to favor Thanksgiving as the foremost Christian holiday because they believed that expressing humble thanks to the deity was more important than celebrations and parties. Perhaps one reason for the flourishing of Christmas in the South was due to the predominance of Episcopalian and Methodist churches, over against the Puritan denominations in the northeast. I cannot help but wonder too, whether one of the reasons that Christmas was more popular in the South was because slave masters commonly gave their enslaved people a "day off" and often encouraged drunken celebrations by the slaves. Did slave masters also feel a little safer from slave revolts during the holiday? And does this association of Christmas with the South also explain the slower development of Christmas culture in the antebellum Protestant North?