Every year, about this time, we are hit with two things - Christmas and the War on Christmas - generally from the same 'side'. The
Comedy Central FoxNews pundit, Bill O'Reilly, has made it his mission to make a war on the war on Christmas, whether there is such an animal is of no consequence to him. (More than likely, the perceived War on Christmas is the actual 'war' on demonstrations of religion on the public square, serving as a confluence of political forces, left and right.) Further, it would most likely not matter to Mr. O'Reilly that the original war on Christmas was began by the Religious Right and that Americans did not celebrate Christmas until the middle of the 19th century, a generation or two after the founding of the Republic and centuries after the first colonies. Nor, I doubt, would it cross his mind that the long standing Christmas traditions were but recently invented, and that Christmas has been historically derided as a 'popish' holiday.
The history of Christmas in this country - that eternally standard holiday, from ages and ages hence - does not date from the American Creation, but instead from fictional accounts with a need for historical revision to some fantasy ideal of English and Dutch traditions which warmed the heart. As a matter of fact the first Congress under the new Constitution was in session on Christmas day, 1789; it was not until 1870 that President Grant actually declared Christmas a Federal holiday. The idea that Christmas as a tradition - American, for the topic of this post - more than a century or two old is laughable, and thus the idea that it is something to wage war for or against is equally humorous.
Christmas was banned in England by the Presbyterian Oliver Cromwell, during the English Interregnum. Cromwellian England saw the Puritans thrive, but it was here in the colonies that the more orthodox Puritans entrenched themselves. It was the Catholics, Episcopals and Lutherans that celebrated Christmas in the colonies (later States), as it had long been a part of their feast days, as opposed to the anti-Roman Baptists and Presbyterians.
Christmas in the colonies was very different from modern day celebrations. It consisted of worship, dinner, entertainments, and maybe a few social calls, but it was not something that was near and dear to the hearts of the American colonists. Philip Vickers Fithian's (a Presbyterian minister and missionary) December 18, 1773, diary entry about exciting holiday events mentions: "the Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments..." seemingly excluded activities for children as well as any mention of religious events. According to Steven Mintz, in Massachusetts there was a five shilling fine for celebrating the holiday while in Virginia and Maryland, it simply wasn't celebrated. As time progressed, and the puritanical hold relaxed, Christmas became a 'rowdy drunken street carnival, a raucous combination of Halloween, New Year's Eve, and Mardi Gras.' The poor, as it was in England (figgy pudding), would find ways into the homes of the rich, demanding food, drink, and money. A city police force was instituted in 1828 after a particularly violent Christmas riot in New York City.
As we know, during the Battle of Trent, the German mercenaries were in the midst of their traditional celebrations when the American colonists attacked. This was not something new - to have Christmas as a small celebration, and considered just another day. The present Christmas customs are derived from a wide array of inspirations further derived from the immigrants who brought their own culture to this land. Most of the ways Americans celebrate the midwinter holiday came about in the nineteenth century, as the importance of Christmas increased.
In 1621, a mild conflict arose when some newcomers had to be confronted over their use of the day:
On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called them out to work as was used. But the most part of this new company excused themselves and said that it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it a matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, they found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly. (William Bradford, Of Plymouth Plantation (Samuel Eliot Morison, ed.; New York: Alfred Knopf, 1979), p. 97. )
The idea of Christmas as a sacred national holiday began to pick up steam with fictional poems and stories first published in the 19th century (and familiar to many Americans today. It was reinvented from raucous carnival holiday (Think figgy pudding - where if the hearer did not response positively to the carol, their could be violence and bodily harm.) into a family-centered day of peace, warmth and longing for years gone by - which generally never occurred. The early 19th century saw a great change in the traditional American landscape. In response to immigration, among other things, the Know Nothing Party was founded to stem the tide of the increasing control of Rome and the Masons (via Irish Catholic Immigration, among others) over the young country by appealing to nativism. Although the Know Nothing Party quickly failed, it brought to light the hidden fears of many Americans - that they and their traditions were under attack by 'others'.
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to re-focus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one that was focused on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response.
The riot, loss of a perceived hegemony and traditions, and the general direction of the country cumulated in the American populace's adopting of the Christmas tradition, or at the very least helped the American populace rediscover ancient traditions. Admittedly, however, they adopted for these traditions works written a half a generation before. In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of an English Christmas featuring a squire who invited the peasants into his manor for the holiday. In contrast to the problems that were clearly seen at Christmas - which were thrown open with the New York Christmas Day riot - the two groups mingled effortlessly. Irving presented Christmas as a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving pictured his groups as celebrating “ancient customs.” The history of Irving does not allow for Irving to have actually attend an event like this, but does allow for a certain amount of poetic license to invent a tradition.
As a side note, Irving is noted for his laments that the Americans had no heroes and traditions.
We cannot forget as well Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol, written in 1843. It expressed the deep class divide which suddenly dissipated at Christmas. Thomas Hood, and English poet, said, 'If Christmas, with its ancient and hospitable customs, its social and charitable observances, were in danger of decay, this is the book that would give them a new lease.' Historians attribute a redefinition of Christmas to Dickens' work of prose.
A fellow New Yorker, Clement Clarke Moore (a slave holder and a Presbyterian), brought about a tradition large enough to span the globe, in a matter of 56 lines. He is thought to have written the most famous Christmas poem of all time, A Visit from St. Nicolas (better known today as "The Night Before Christmas"). Of course, much is owed again to Washington Irving and his History of New York, (1809). Sinterklaas was made an American tradition named "Santa Claus" but lost his bishop's apparel (He began not as a creation of pen and parchment, but as an actual Saint in the Roman/Orthodox tradition). He was having some fun at the Dutch, but Moore seemed to miss that as he brought St. Nicholas into the American mainstream. Santa would later find himself as a piece of Union propaganda against the Confederacy as a drawing featuring Santa and Union soldiers was circulated in Harper's Weekly (1863). Granted, Santa Clause was not merely an American creation (with the English variation - Father Christmas - come some time before), but it was the Americans which developed the legend into a true Christmas tradition, albeit some 1500 years after St. Nicholas lived and a few centuries after the discovery of the New World.
According to Steve Mintz,
The first painting of St. Nicholas by an American artist did not appear until 1837. In the early days, Santa Claus didn't necessary give children presents; he was often pictured holding a birch rod in his hands, and he punished children with his gift of a whipping. In 1839, there was a Broadway production: Santaclaus: Or, The Orgies of St. Nicholas.
In connection with Santa Clause, gift giving at Christmas was inherited from the Germans and the Dutch, as it was originally on New Year's which gifts were given. Cash, books, and sweets in small quantities were given by masters or parents to dependents, whether slaves, servants, apprentices, or children. It seems to have worked in only one direction: children and others did not give gifts to their superiors. Along with Santa, the idea of gift-giving developed long after the American founding, and long, long after the origins of Christmas.
It may be said that the Religious Right was the first to wage a war on Christ, when in 17th century England, after the beheading of the King, Cromwell became a dictator and was led to outlaw Christmas because of the 'pagan traditions', spurred on by the Puritan forces that supported his rule. Across the Atlantic, the Puritans essentially outlawed Christmas and kept it so for several centuries, until commercialism invented a holiday.
The Swiss Calvinists banned Christmas in Geneva and with the spread of Presbyterianism, Scotland would follow their lead in 1583. The Register of Ministers in Geneva (1546) records a list of "faults which contravene the Reformation."(Phillip E. Hughes, ed. and trans., The Register of the Company of Pastors in the Time of Calvin (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), p. 56) Among the directives regarding "Superstitions" is the following: "Those who observe Romish festivals or fasts shall only be reprimanded, unless they remain obstinately rebellious. " In personal correspondence with John Haller, a pastor in Berne, Calvin writes, "Before I ever entered the city, there were no festivals but the Lord's day." He added, "If I had got my choice, I should not have decided in favor of what has now been agreed upon." (Letters of John Calvin (Jules Bonnet, ed.; rpt. New York: Burt Franklin, 1972), Vol. 2, pp. 288-89.)
Scotland's own John Knox followed the lead of Calvin and Geneva with the regulative principle, which forbade anything not in Scripture. In 1560, Knox wrote his First Book of Discipline, which contained the statement,
Lest upon this our generality ungodly men take occasion to cavil, this we add for explication. By preaching of the Evangel, we understand not only the Scriptures of the New Testament, but also of the Old; to wit, the Law, Prophets, and Histories, in which Christ Jesus is no less contained in figure, than we have him now expressed in verity. And, therefore, with the Apostle, we affirm that "all Scripture inspired of God is profitable to instruct, to reprove, and to exhort." In which Books of Old and New Testaments we affirm that all things necessary for the instruction of the Kirk, and to make the man of God perfect, are contained and sufficiently expressed.
By contrary Doctrine, we understand whatsoever men, by Laws, Councils, or Constitutions have imposed upon the consciences of men, without the expressed commandment of God's word: such as be vows of chastity, foreswearing of marriage, binding of men and women to several and disguised apparels, to the superstitious observation of fasting days, difference of meat for conscience sake, prayer for the dead; and keeping of holy days of certain Saints commanded by men, such as be all those that the Papists have invented, as the Feasts (as they term them) of Apostles, Martyrs, Virgins, of Christmas, Circumcision, Epiphany, Purification, and other fond feasts of our Lady. Which things, because in God's scriptures they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this Realm; affirming further, that the obstinate maintainers and teachers of such abominations ought not to escape the punishment of the Civil Magistrate. (>Knox's History, Vol. 2, p. 281. Cf. John Knox, Works (David Laing, ed.; Edinburgh: James Thin, 1895), Vol. ii, p. 190.)
In response to a letter from Theodore Beza to the Scottish Assembly concerning the Second Helvetic Confession, the Assembly replied,
scarcely refrain from mentioning, with regard to what is written in the 24th chapter of the aforesaid Confession concerning the "festival of our Lord's nativity, circumcision, passion, resurrection, ascension, and sending the Holy Ghost upon his disciples," that these festivals at the present time obtain no place among us; for we dare not religiously celebrate any other feast-day than what the divine oracles prescribed ( In Knox, Works, Vol. vi, pp. 547-48. The same position is expressed in the Second Scotch Confession (1580), which rejects the "dedicating of kirks, altars, days." )
As late as 1835, Samuel Miller, the Moderator of the Presbyterians in the United States, used the regulative principle to reject Christmas and Easter as Romish holidays. Initially, he notes the regulative principle regarding worship: "the Scriptures being the only infallible rule of faith and practice, no rite or ceremony ought to have a place in the public worship of God, which is not warranted in Scripture, either by direct precept or example, or by good and sufficient inference." Not only does the celebration of non-biblical holidays lack a scriptural foundation, he says, but the scriptures "positively discountenance it" (Miller, pp. 65, 74. ).
As Amy McNeese writes, in an article first published in the Church of Scotland magazine, Life & Work, an historical account of the Scottish ban on Christmas that only was lifted in the 1950's:
"For almost 400 years, Christmas was banned in Scotland. At the height of the Reformation, in 1583, when anything smacking of Catholicism and idolatrous excess was thrown out with contempt, Christmas and all its trappings was wiped off the official calendar...
...Reinforced by the hard arm of the law, this was a ban that had bite...
This was an age when religious belief could mean the difference between life and a very nasty death....
Scottish Presbyterians, when called on for support by the Puritans of the English Parliament in 1644, did so on the understanding that their allies would in exchange impose the ban on Christmas. For over a decade traditional English Christmas festivities were prohibited
From Scotland, the ban on Christmas spread briefly, as Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army brought the Cromwellian revolution to England. Cromwell's Puritans banned Christmas in England for about a decade but the measure was unpopular. Feelings among pro and anti Christmas advocates ran strong and, after a second enforcement act against Christmas was passed by the English Parliament in 1647,
Again the people rebelled, this time so forcefully that armed officers had to be sent to remove evergreens decorating St Margaret's Church, near the English Parliament itself. Rioting broke out in London, Kent, Oxford, Canterbury and Ipswich, in which several people were killed. A petition with more than 10,000 signatures demanded either the restoration of Christmas or else the king back on the throne...
Even after the bans were revoked in England in 1660, Puritans and other Non-Conformists “ranted against Anti-Christ’s-masse and those Masse-mongers and Papists who observe it”, and were commonly known to “inveigh against New Year gifts and evergreens, or to attack the Pope by refusing to eat plum-broth; or to condemn those who ate mince-pies as Papists and idolaters”. There was even objection to the word Christmas because it incorporated the Popish ‘mass’.
These attitudes were carried to the New World by English Puritans, Quakers, Baptists and Scottish Presbyterians. In America, reprisals were as harsh here as back in Scotland. In Massachusetts a five-shilling penalty was imposed on anyone found feasting or shirking work on Christmas Day, and in 1621 the Governor of Plymouth Colony reprimanded some “lusty young men” whom he found on Christmas “pitching ye barr, and some playing at stoole-ball and such like sports”.
A hundred years later the Quakers were still ranting against the Christmas pie as “an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge podge of superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his works”.
It is a historical rumor that the Cromwellian government was brought down by Christmas as many English men demanded either Christmas or the King.
The idea that Christians and Christmas celebrants were being warred upon was not invented by Mr. O'Reilly, but by a small tract that still haunts the world.
From here. (The International Jew: The World's Foremost Problem)
And it has become pretty general. Last Christmas most people had a hard time finding Christmas cards that indicated in any way that Christmas commemorated Someone’s Birth. Easter they will have the same difficulty in finding Easter cards that contain any suggestion that Easter commemorates a certain event. There will be rabbits and eggs and spring flowers, but a hint of the Resurrection will be hard to find. Now, all this begins with the designers of the cards. And even in this business one comes upon that same policy of declaring Anti-Semitic everything that is Christian. If Rabbi Coffey says the New Testament is the most Anti-Semitic book ever written, what must be the judgement on an Easter card that is truly an Easter card?
By large, it is one of the most anti-semitic tract ever written and still serves as a starting point to attempted genocide. It was published in 1921
The Christian Crusade, founded by a father of the Christian Right - Billy James Hargis, was heavily Christian nationalist, reminiscent of Dominionism (Rousas John Rushdoony), often used the 'war on Christmas' as a bait for the American left, forgetting that the true, historical War on Christmas was a creation of the Protestant right.
According to Billy James Hargis' in 1960 "Crusader" article which was published before the Cuban Missile Crisis, it was the 'egg-headed socialists and atheists that wished to ban Christmas.' He reports that in 1957, New Jersey, and some cities in California and Illinois had outlawed Christmas, even to the point of denying the right to observe the birth of Christ. He blamed Communists for taking away this historic tradition - historic to Christians and Americans. Of course, the idea of a family Christmas as a timeless and American tradition, essential to the Republic, was invented barely a century and a half ago. The idea that Christmas is under attack - the Christmas that is upheld as an American Tradition, and enshrined in the Constitution - is an idea that predates Bill O' Reilly and was essentially initiated by anti-Semites and carried along into the 1960's by those who waged the 'war' against the take over of the United States by 'godless Communists'. In other words, it was a tool of fear used against others to gain power.
More than likely, the 'war on Christmas' is simply a desire by some to end the public demonstrations of religion on the public square, but if there was a war on Christmas, then it has its roots in the Reformation era Religious Right which lost the war to time and commercialism.