The Puritan War on Christmas Was the Best War on Christmas

The real American crisis over the holiday happened centuries ago. And back then, the attackers were the Puritans. 

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Every December, the War on Christmas begins. And every December, Christmas, along with the Holiday Season, continue to happily co-exist. This is because of two little-discussed features of the War on Christmas: First, it's imaginary outrage. And second, it's boring. If Bill O'Reilly, Sarah Palin, and the other generals in the war really want a fight, they should start now on the construction of a time machine and and brush up on their Calvinism. The real American crisis over the holiday happened centuries ago. Back then, the attackers were the Puritans — they hated Christmas, especially the fun parts. And they were experts at fighting it. 

Today's War on Christmas: Atheists want to ban Christmas decor

"I will keep an eye on the situation," Bill O'Reilly promised his fans in an op-ed kicking off his annual focus on the Great War. As he is every year, O'Reilly is concerned that atheists will ban Americans from celebrating Christmas by "banish[ing] any mention of Jesus in the public square." He adds: "they are the oppressors." The Wire had trouble finding actual evidence that there's a war on beyond the narratives of O'Reilly and others who claim to fight against an attack on the holiday. Those narratives focus on a series of debates on the separation of church and state, usually pertaining to religious displays in town centers, or religious songs in public schools. (In general, religious content is allowed in public schools for educational, not devotional, purposes, as is explained by The Washington Post).

And then there is, of course, the debate over whether one should wish another a Merry Christmas or a Happy Holiday, both of which seem like perfectly pleasant things to say to a stranger. Not so, apparently: the American Family Association releases a "naughty" and "nice" list for retailers, based on how aggressively "Christmas" appears in their marketing. Municipalities have debated enacting laws to "protect," the word Christmas, though it's not really clear that there's a demonstrated need for those ordinances.

This year, Fox News is tracking the war across the country on an interactive map. However, not all of the entries seem to get at the real meaning of (the War on) Christmas, no matter what you do or don't believe:

Source: Fox News 

The Puritan War on Christmas: Actually ban Christmas 

If you're going to fight a war on Christmas, an all-out ban on the holiday seems like a pretty solid goal. It's also something the Puritans actually accomplished, in multiple countries, for decades, putting today's Christmas haters to shame. From 1659 to 1681, Bostonians faced a five-shilling fine for celebrating Christmas, a law that followed a similar ban in England during Oliver Cromwell's rule, when the Parliament was controlled by a Puritan majority. Puritan Parliament there even decided to make Christmastime a period of "fasting and humiliation," for all of the sins of celebrations of Christmas past.

The New England anti-Christmas sentiment was a de facto reality from pretty much the beginning of the Plymouth colony, too. On Christmas Day in 1621, at the brand-new Plymouth Colony, Governor William Bradford asked settlers — both Puritan and otherwise — to spend the day working on a shelter. Here's how Bradford described Plymouth's first Christmas in his journal:

 ON the day called Christmas-day, the Governor called them out to work, (as was used) but the most of this new company excused themselves, and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it 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, he 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 matter of devotion, let them keep their houses, but there should be no gaming, or revelling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly

While the English ban proved tricky to enforce, and was dissolved after the Restoration, anti-Christmas culture dominated New England until the mid-19th century. Christmas became a national holiday in 1870. 

Today's War on Christmas: Liberals want to take the Christ out of Christmas

Sarah Palin's Bible for 
the War on Christmas

As you might have heard, Sarah Palin is on a book tour this season to defend the religious history of Christmas as a holiday. So we'll turn to her narration of the War, for lack of any better evidence. In a recent event at the Christian Liberty University, Palin gave a talk on Christmas and the Constitution. Christmas, like the Constitution, she argued, is a holiday by and for religious people. And Christmas, like the Constitution, is something atheists are incapable of understanding. She then spoke for Thomas Jefferson on the subject:

"[Jefferson] would recognize those who would want to try to ignore that Jesus is the reason for the season, those who would want to try to abort Christ from Christmas. He would recognize that, for the most part, these are angry atheists armed with an attorney. They are not the majority of Americans.”

The Puritan War on Christmas: What are you doing, Christ has nothing to do with Christmas

The Rev. Increase Mather
Joan van der Spriet, 1688

For the Puritans — in England and in the New England colonies — Christmas was a, well, un-Christian imposition on what should be a perfectly normal December 25th, thank you very much. Sure, the Sabbath was holy, Puritans believed, but there was no scriptural basis for celebrating or resting on Christmas Day. It wasn't a real religious holiday.

Here's why. Increase Mather, who was the Puritan Michael Jordan of hating Christmas, grumbled in 1687 :

The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.

Pagan holidays are pretty fun, and Saturnalia was an absolute bonanza of revelry. So you can see why Western society was keen on keeping it around by aligning a celebration of the birth of Jesus with the existing winter feast. But not Increase. 

Particularly upsetting to Increase Mather was the tradition of inversion associated with the holiday. Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas goes into this in much more detail, but essentially, English Christmas at the time was all about class inversion, as was the pagan Saturnalia festival. Children served as bishops, servants as masters, that sort of thing. That inversion carried over into the exchange of goods (presents) from the rich to the poor, as a much more aggressive prototype of what we might recognize as charitable giving — think drunk, adult, trick-or-treating. And of course, there was feasting and drinking. It was fun, different from the everyday, and could get a little bit scary. In a way, Increase and his ilk were right: the rituals of Christmas had little to do in particular with Christianity.

Today's War on Christmas: Jon Stewart will make fun of it

The War on Christmas has one silver lining these days: Jon Stewart has his own annual tradition of getting righteously angry over why this is a thing on television, and he talks about it on the Daily Show. Here's this year's entry:

The Puritan War on Christmas: Josiah King will make fun of it

OK. So this might be the one category where the modern war wins out, as humor rarely survives broad changes to the English language. But it's important to note that the Puritan war produced its own satire, namely the The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas by Josiah King. It was just one in a genre of pamphlets dramatizing the Puritan bans on Christmas in England and the colonies (King's went public just after the Christmas ban was lifted). 

The Examination and Tryal, as you might guess, satirized the Puritan hatred of Christmas with a mock trial of its personification, Father Christmas. The episode involves a bunch of Dickens-worthy Puritan names, including Mr. Starve-mouse, Mr. Love-none, and Mr. Gruntch-meat. Here are the charges against Christmas, as read by the fake judge: 

Christmas thou art here indited by the name of Christmas, of the Town of Superstition, in the County of Idolatry, and that thou hast from time to time, abused the people of this Common-wealth, drawing and inticing them to Drunkenness, gluttony, & unlawful Gaming, Wantonness, Uncleanness, Lasciviousness, Cursing, Swearing, abuse of the Creatures, some to one Vice, and some to another; all to Idleness: what sayest thou to thy Inditement, guilty, or not guilty?

He pleaded not guilty. The jury agreed, finding that "he who would not fully celebrate Christmas, should forfeit his estate."
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.