The First War Against Christmas Was Fought by the Pilgrims
Well, it is that time of year and the annual “War on Christmas” hysteria is being ginned-up yet again.
Fox News’ self-serving media hound, Bill O’Reilly has been hyping the “war on Christmas” to boost his ratings and the sale of the book The War on Christmas by John Gibson.
O’Reilly and his followers have branded the phrase, ‘Happy Holidays” as a “hate crime against Christianity.”
There is a war going on all right, but from where I sit it looks like it’s a war being waged by the far-right against history, diversity and religious tolerance.
When we consider the rhetoric of the far-right we need to keep in mind that the first war on Christmas in America was fought by the darlings of the Christian Right – the early Puritans and the first Pilgrims.
History teaches us that Christmas was anything except merry in colonial Kingston and early New England.
Looking at our early history, you would think the Grinch family once ruled. Only instead of stealing Christmas, the Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed the very celebration of Christmas.
New England’s antagonism toward Christmas has a long history and dates back to at least 1621. On Christmas morning of that year, Governor William Bradford chanced upon a group of settlers who were taking the day off. Bradford scolded the men and threatened them with punishment if they did not return to work.
That pretty much set the official tone on the question of Christmas for the next ten generations and the birthday of Jesus remained just another ‘workday’ for well over two hundred years. To understand how all this came to pass, we need to examine the actual history of Christmas.
While nobody knows for sure when Jesus was born, we can be certain his birthday was not on December 25th.
According to the Gospels of Saint Luke and Saint Matthew in the New Testament an angel appeared to shepherds tending their flocks in fields outside the town of Bethlehem and proclaimed the news of Jesus’ birth.
During winter months shepherds did not spend nights tending their flocks – it was too cold. Nighttime grazing was reserved for periods of warmer weather (late spring and summer).
It was more than 300 years after the birth of Jesus that the first mention of December 25 as his birthday appeared in early Roman calendar. Church historians note that the choice of this date was most likely influenced by the plethora of held around this time of year.
Early Christians adopted the strategy of co-opting popular pagan celebrations rather then suppressing them. But, even so, the process of inventing Christmas was slow and gradual and it still took several centuries before the date was generally accepted.
From its inception, Christmas has been a blend of the sacred and the secular as the new teachings of Christianity were incorporated into pre-existing pagan practices.
The winter solstice was one of the most important religious celebrations in the pre-Christian calendar. Ancient Romans held year-end celebrations to honor Saturn, their harvest god; and Mithras, the god of light.
Throughout the British isles and northern Europe, villages held joyous festivals in mid-December to celebrate the end of the harvest season and the lengthening days.
Many of these pre-Christian celebrations contained the seeds of modern Christmas practices and included such features as special foods, homes decorated with greenery, and general festivals of singing and gift giving.
With the conversion of the holiday to Christian teachings the most popular customs were incorporated into the Christmas celebrations we know today.
The popularity of Christmas continued to grow until the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s. At this point there was a ‘Christmas backlash’ by many Christian leaders who considered the popular celebration of Christmas to be too heavily influenced by pagan and nonreligious customs. Public festivals were outlawed.
The ‘Christmas push-back’ by leaders of the Protestant Reformation continued in the new world. In the early Bay Colony laws were passed to keep Christmas from becoming a holiday of celebration, and violations were punishable by fines or banishment. In 1659, the Puritans of Massachusetts went so far as declaring that the observation of Christmas would be treated as a criminal offense. Puritan officials passed into law the notorious “Five-Shilling Anti-Christmas Act” which decreed:
“Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas, or the like, either by forbearing labor, feasting, or any other way upon such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for each offense five shillings as a fine to the country.”
In the 1650’s, five shillings was a hefty sum of money and represented more than a week’s wages for the average working man.
As late as the 19th century Christmas trees were an oddity in America. The first record of a Christmas Tree on display in the United States was in the 1830s when German settlers in Pennsylvania setup trees following a German tradition that had been around for hundreds of years.
Although Pennsylvania German settlements had erected community trees as early as 1747 the rest of America viewed the practice as un-Christian. Even as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were still seen as pagan symbols and were often denounced from the pulpit by preachers. It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrim’s second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out “pagan mockery” of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell (1599 to 1658) preached against “the heathen traditions” of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that in his mind desecrated “that sacred event.”
As recently as 1870, a child absent from Boston public schools on Christmas day would be punished and possibly dismissed. Workmen missing work could be fired.
Christmas did not evolve into the kind of holiday of celebration we know today until fairly recently. Only after the authority and power of the early Puritans was diminished by waves of new emigrants did the holiday flourish.
Back when Kingston was founded, church and state were one and the same. Congregationalist churches worked so closely with civil governments in every colony except Rhode Island that no other type of church establishment was allowed.
Colonial New England, like Iran and Saudi Arabia today, was a theocracy – a government ruled by or subject to religious authority.
In the Massachusetts and New England theocracies, religious leaders interpreted “sacred commandments” relating to general human conduct. These divine interpretations were written into laws, which were in turn enforced by local officials acting with the authority of the state. Enforcement was strict and frequently vicious – in Massachusetts alone, more than 30 people were put to death for religious crimes including: denying the “true God”; blasphemy; sodomy; adultery; and witchcraft.