Many American conservatives have long claimed that secularists are waging a “war” on Christmas. “The War On Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Even Worse Than You Thought,” published in 2005 and written by John Gibson of Fox News, purports to expose a conspiracy launched by progressives to remove every Christian vestige from Christmas. Bill O’Reilly of Fox News has cited what he regards as a chilling example of this conspiracy: Walmart greeters have been instructed to welcome customers with a cheery “Happy Holidays!” rather than “Merry Christmas!” True believers undoubtedly regard Walmart’s apparent collaboration in this nefarious enterprise as proof that the conspiracy to transform Christmas into a secular holiday is succeeding only all too well.
While belief in a war on Christmas is quite prevalent among those who are also convinced that President Obama is Kenyan-born as well as a communist bisexual Muslim to boot, reasonable people dismiss the notion as nonsense. Many Americans, however, are unaware that, centuries ago, there was in fact a war on Christmas. Ironically, this campaign to ban the Christian religion’s most beloved day wasn’t instigated by secularists. It was waged by a sect of fanatical Christians.
While the Protestant Reformation indeed marked a break with the Roman Catholic Church, the degree of that break varied considerably among the various denominations. The Anglican and Lutheran churches forged a new theology based on salvation through faith rather than works, but both allowed much of the externals of Catholicism — such as the celebration of Christmas — to remain intact. Calvinists such as the Puritans, however, demanded a complete break with any tradition that could be traced to Catholicism. Christmas was not mentioned in the Bible, Puritans pointed out, so the notion that Jesus had been born on Dec. 25 has no scriptural basis. Christmas, they maintained, was a blend of pagan festivals such as the ancient Roman celebration of Saturnalia, a Dec. 17 to Dec. 25 festival marked by feasting and the exchange of gifts, and the Birth of the Invincible Sun, a day to honor the pagan god Mithra who was thought to have been born on Dec. 25. Puritans argued that the Roman Catholic Church had merely repackaged these festivals as Christmas in an attempt to popularize Christianity for pagans.
Pre-Reformation celebrations of Christmas were boisterous affairs that were characterized by excessive drinking and rowdy customs such as the Lord of Misrule, which Puritans detested. The sheer merriment that Christmas embodied ran counter to the self-discipline, devotion to work and profound distrust of joy that Calvinism demanded.
John Knox, who had lived in Geneva and known John Calvin, transformed his native Scotland into a bastion of Calvinism. “The First Book of Discipline,” drawn up in 1560 by Knox and other Scottish reformers, declared that saints’ days, Christmas, Epiphany and the other holy days of the Catholic Church “utterly to be abolished from this Realm.” English Calvinists also abhorred Christmas. The Puritan-dominated Parliament passed a resolution in June of 1647 declaring that Christmas, Easter, and Whitsunday (Pentecost to us) “be no longer observed as festivals.” Christmas didn’t return to England until that nation’s people — the vast majority of whom having grown sick to death of Puritanism — welcomed the restoration of the English monarchy in 1660.
Early America was a decidedly hostile place to celebrate Christmas. The Pilgrims who settled in Plymouth as well as the Puritan residents of the Massachusetts Bay Colony brought their loathing of Christmas with them. William Bradford, governor of the Plymouth Colony and a signer of the Mayflower Compact, was angered upon finding some non-Pilgrim colonists playing games on Dec. 25, 1621, and admonished them that “ther should be no gameing or revelling in the streets.” The Massachusetts Puritan theocracy in 1659 officially banned Christmas as a festival “superstitiously kept in other countrys, to the great dishonor of God.” Anyone caught “observing any such day as Christmas or the like” by feasting or simply not working “shall pay for every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.” The British Crown in 1681 rescinded this ban on celebrating Christmas, but hardcore Puritans still condemned the day. Rev. Increase Mather in 1687 lambasted the observance of Christmas as “highly dishonorourable to the name of Christ.” Dec. 25 was just another workday in much of New England until well into the 19th century. A Boston public school student could be expelled for not attending classes on Christmas Day. Christmas didn’t become a federal holiday in the United States until 1870.
When someone tells you that there’s a “war on Christmas” in progress, tell them that you have some good news and better news. The good news is that the war on Christmas ended long ago. The better news is that Christmas won.
John J. Dunphy writes from Alton, Illinois, where he collects cats and operates The Second Reading Book Shop. His haiku have appeared in both DM and DM du Jour. This feuilleton first appeared in the Alton Telegraph in Dec 2013.