Hannibal Hanschke / Reuters

This year’s battle in the War on Christmas is being fought over “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” According to some, the song’s lyrics promote date rape. According to others, including a radio station in Kentucky playing the tune on continuous loop, it’s a harmless ditty and a Christmas classic. Commentators on Fox News, who look forward to the War on Christmas more eagerly than children await actual Christmas, put the controversy in heavy rotation on their airwaves. “Do we get to a point where human worth, warmth, and romance are illegal?” Tucker Carlson wailed on his television show.

In some ways, the “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” squabble is as contemporary as it gets: an outgrowth of the #MeToo movement on the one hand, and of the right’s anti-PC hysteria on the other. But it also fits into the long history of censoring and scrutinizing Christmas songs, and the much larger debate over who gets to control the holiday.

Like so many early Christian rituals, singing carols was a holdover from the winter feast celebration of Saturnalia, when people sang and danced in a ring. Now celebrants danced and sang around nativity scenes, though often with the same drunken abandon that had been a part of the pagan festivities. Because of those origins, some church leaders tried to prohibit carol singing while others sought to tame and solemnize it. In the year 129, for example, Bishop Telesphorus of Rome exhorted believers to gather inside churches to sing “Gloria in Excelsis Deo” on Christmas Day. Centuries later, both St. Francis of Assisi and later Martin Luther emphasized carol singing as central to Christian worship at Christmastime.

The rise of the Puritans brought a halt to carol singing of all types in England and North America. Puritans argued that the celebration of Christmas had no biblical support, condemned the holiday’s pagan roots, and blamed the Catholic Church for embellishing the day with excessive ritual and pageantry. Opposed to feast days for both reasons of theology and social control, the Puritans banned Christmas altogether in the 1640s, imposing strict penalties on anyone found celebrating it. (Talk about a War on Christmas … ) For Puritan authorities, singing carols was one of the gravest offenses because the practice could be traced to singing songs to the Roman goddess Ceres and because caroling also usually involved heavy drinking and louche conduct.

In Scotland, Calvinist authorities cracked down on carol singing especially hard. Those who invited holiday singers into their homes could be fined five pounds. In the city of Aberdeen, more than a dozen women were arrested one Christmas for the crime of “singing of filthy carols on Yule Day.” At least one Calvinist minister denounced the singing of carols as on par with the sin of fornicating.

Even once the Anglican Church restored Christmas in the late 17th century, religious authorities still allowed only a subdued observance of the holiday, and carols remained on the list of prohibitions. The Anglican minister Henry Bourne decried carols as a “disgrace” because they were “generally done, in the midst of Rioting and Chambering”—a euphemism for fornication—“and Wantonness.”

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the religious ban on carols enhanced their popularity, especially among the lower classes. Indeed, battles over carol singing in the 17th and 18th century in England and the American colonies revealed fractures not only between religious authorities and secular citizens, but also between upper-class city dwellers and poorer country folk. Bourne attacked Christmas carols as a “sin against Christ” and a custom of the “common People.” On both sides of the Atlantic, the rise of the Callithumpian parade— where boisterous revelers traveled in packs singing songs, banging pans, and making scatological sounds—was felt by many to be an assault on the genteel refinement of upper-class neighborhoods. That was exactly the point. Christmas offered the rare occasion to invert the social hierarchy and challenge societal constraints. The targeting of wealthy neighborhoods through raucous songs provided, for them, the holiday’s chief pleasure.

Upper-class folks complained bitterly about having their sleep disrupted for nights on end. One 19th century Englishman lamented that the carolers “make night hideous for three weeks before Christmas with wretched performances of indifferent melodies.” They also objected to singers demanding, often with violent threats, that their unwilling audiences give them food, drink, and money in order for them to move on. Though probably written many years later, the lyric from “We Wish You a Merry Christmas” announcing “We won’t go until we get some” referred to how revelers used Christmas carols to extort what they wanted from the wealthy.

In the 19th century, the Church (with help from business interests) managed to remake Christmas, transforming it from an unruly public affair into a quiet domestic occasion. Accordingly, carols, now sung in churches and homes as often as in the streets, became more reverent than rebellious. Think “The First Noel,” “O Holy Night, “We Three Kings,” and “Silent Night,” all products of this era.

Thanks to commercial capitalism, this quiet period was short lived. In the late 19th and early 20th century, retailers, advertisers, and artists created a holiday of conspicuous consumption. This reimagining of Christmas gave it yet another public expression, although one more built around shopping than drinking and carousing. (Of course, the boozy dimensions of Christmas never went away, as scores of office parties and the annual SantaCon fiasco still attest.)

In this context, carols and songs accelerated Christmas’s commercialization, although not without controversy. Songs like “Santa Claus Is Comin’ to Town” (1934) and “Nuttin’ for Christmas” (1955) emphasized the holiday’s materialistic motives and helped push products. The classic “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” embroiled in its own controversy this year, began as a story to promote Chicago’s Montgomery Ward department store in 1939 before being turned into the popular song a decade later. That version, recorded by Gene Autry, climbed to the top of the Billboard pop-singles chart for the week of Christmas 1949 and sold 2.5 million copies in its first year.

The explosion of commercial-oriented Christmas songs in the 20th century was good for the music business, but arguably bad for the faithful: It made many Christian leaders worry that the holiday’s real meaning—especially for children, who were advertisers’ chief targets—was being lost. Religious authorities who once condemned Christmas carols for paying homage to pagan gods and celebrating libidinous pleasures now fretted that Americans were really worshipping the great god of consumerism through the songs they sang about Santa, presents, and the Christmas tree.

Nowhere has the debate about Christmas songs been more fraught or fierce than in the nation’s public schools. While conservatives often depict disputes over public-school holiday programs as a recent development in the “post-Christian” era of political correctness, parents, teachers, and communities have butted heads over the contents of these school assemblies since public schools first started holding Christmas pageants in the late 19th century. In one early example, 20,000 Jewish students stayed home from the New York City public-school system in 1906 to boycott their being forced to take part in a required holiday program that featured only Christian content. “We wonder what the Christian population would say,” The Jewish Daily News observed at the time, “if there were introduced in the schools … Chanuca [sic] exercises in commemoration of the Maccabean victory.”

For decades, Jewish objections to Christmas carols sung in public-school music classes and assemblies provoked more backlash than policy changes. In 1921, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitic publication, The International Jew, for instance, blasted “the Jews” who “make such demands as that Christmas carols should be suppressed in the schools, as ‘offensive to the Jews.’”

But when the Supreme Court banned prayer in public schools in the early 1960s, educators finally adjusted their Christmas programs, especially their musical content. Although the Court rulings did not concern religious performances or forbid specific songs, schools protected the events by tipping the balance away from religious hymns to secular songs and incorporating a Hanukkah song or two. In fact, schools defended these programs as cultural events rather than religious exercises specifically by pointing to diverse musical offerings. The superintendent of the Arlington, Virginia, school system told The Washington Post in 1972 that their schools honored “the traditions of Christmas but don’t emphasize the religious aspects of it … the music in the schools represents the ecumenical nature of Christmas.”

Such accommodations kept holiday traditions alive in schools while keeping most parents and students happy—even as they elicited pushback from some conservative Christians. In 1994, a Christian Coalition executive complained to the Los Angeles Times that the public-school system harmed students when it de-Christianized its school program and limited Christmas carols. “We’re allowing our children to grow up without the beauty, the warmth—Christmas is such a beautiful thing,” she said. A whole cottage industry of War on Christmas diatribes, including books by Sarah Palin and the Fox News anchor John Gibson, have pointed to the overshadowing of Christmas hymns by secular songs in public schools as one of the most insidious attacks made against the holiday.

That’s why the defense of “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” by Christmas warriors is particularly odd. For one, the song makes no mention of Christmas or any holiday. And its message is decidedly sensual and secular, not sacred—the very stuff that many long worried threatened the holiday. In the longer history of Christmas, the song would most likely have been banned or, at least, despised by the same sorts of people who now seek to protect and promote it. But as the moral authorities of American society shift, so too do the objects of derision. For centuries, cultural and religious conservatives worried that Christmas celebrations, especially its songs, were an affront to society and demeaned true religion. Now, they are affronted that anything about Christmas could possibly offend.

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