History Repeating: The War on Christmas

History Repeating: The War on Christmas

First it was using “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas; now there are people fighting to remove nativity scenes from public places and government buildings. These are just a few deeds snagged by a new wave of conspiracy theorists as proof of a “war on Christmas” perpetrated by those mean, ungodly non-Christians in their Grinch-like effort to stamp out Christmas once and for all. Well, not really. In reality, you’d be hard pressed to find a mob of people actively trying to eradicate the holiday. After all, it’s not some Jesus-only private party; it’s a time when people do plenty of nondenominational things like exchanging presents, decorating trees, baking special goodies, and being forced to endure their families.

But if we look back at history, there have been attempts to shut down the celebration… just not in the way you might think. In fact, history might very well teach us that celebrating Christmas is very un-American. Don’t believe me? Let’s see what the past has to say about it.

Grumpy Puritan frowning at the sight of "merriment"

In the mid-17th century, a sect of Protestants in England (who happened to have majority control in government) who we happen to know as Puritans felt that Christmas was a dangerous holiday. To be honest, this view had been around for some time. Philip Stubbes wrote in Anatomie of Abuses in 1583 that the manner in which the British celebrated Christmas was atrocious and against everything the church taught. People watched theatrical plays, gambled, sang and danced in the street, feasted, drank in large quantities… In other words, people had fun. (This sounds an awful lot like the modern day arguments against Halloween. Ironically, it too is a Christian holiday made to replace a pagan one.)

British Parliament – with its strong Puritan representation – set out to put a stop to all the ungodly behavior. Christmas plays were banned by law in 1642; the law required people to fast and do penance on that day instead. Two years later, parliamentary law had officially banned all celebration of Christmas declaring it had “no biblical justification”. It wasn’t just the fun-loving folk who suffered; soldiers barged in on Christmas service at a London church in 1657 and arrested the entire congregation for celebrating this horrible holiday.


Public notice of ban on Christmas in Boston

But the Puritans were already in Massachusetts long before this day. Carrying their strict intolerant beliefs with them, and following the lead of lawmakers in England, meant Christmas was a dirty word in the New World. In Boston, celebrating Christmas was illegal from 1659 until 1681. Puritans believed the only way to honor the birth of Jesus on Christmas was with devout prayer; feasting, caroling, and exhibiting the general spirit of the season (i.e. having a “merry Christmas”)  were criminal acts. As stated by the Boston General Court:

“For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals, as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offense to others: It is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing labour, feasting, or any other way upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending, shall pay five shillings as a fine to the country.”

You might think that was the end of it; Christmas reigned supreme for the whole history of the independent United States. Again, you’d be wrong, and that all began after the war that made the United States of America.

1819 sketch of Christmas as celebrated by German immigrants in America

Following the American Revolution, England wasn’t very popular among the newly independent people across the Atlantic. That goes for any and all things deemed “British”. That included celebrating – you guessed it: Christmas. Our forefathers actually wouldn’t have been doing anything special on December 25. It was so unpopular that Congress was in session that day in 1788! Another 40 years of anti-Christmas spirit would pass by before the animosity would abate enough for Victorian Americans to warm up to the idea of celebrating Christmas. Resurgence of the holiday started out slowly in the 1820s, gaining acceptance and momentum as the decades passed. The federal government finally declared Christmas a national holiday on June 26, 1870. That’s right: it took almost a century for the United States to formally recognize Christmas.

So, the next time someone gives you a song and dance about the war on Christmas, be sure to let them know they’re doing it wrong. It’s been considered an evil pagan festivity and sacrilegious. It’s all been done before, and by some of the very ancestors of people today bemoaning attacks on their beloved Christian holiday.


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