The early American origins of the War on Christmas


This holiday season Sarah Palin became the most recent in a long line of shameless conservative pundits to cash in on the so-called War on Christmas. Her book, “Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas,” was released at the end of November to the delight of poorly informed Fox News-viewers everywhere. The book, and its companion audio book, sold like hotcakes to terrified American conservatives who, over the past several years, have been conditioned to believe that, because their local grocer says “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” Christian death camps must be just around the corner. I’ve yet to read the book, but I have heard some of the audio from the recorded version, and it’s pretty incredible. I particularly enjoyed the part where Palin says, “The war on Christmas is the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture and make true religious freedom a thing of America’s past.”

I want to put all of this in the context of American history, but, before we move on, there are a few quick things I need to say… First, it’s absolutely laughable to suggest that Christians are in danger of losing their majority in America. According to the most recent data I’ve been able to find, up to 80% of Americans self-identify as Christian, and there’s absolutely no evidence that their majority is in any danger… Second, if there were a war on Christianity, people wouldn’t be saying “Happy Holidays.” They’d be saying, “The god of your Christian bible does not exist,” or, better yet, “Fuck Christmas”… Third, even if you could make the case that saying “Happy Holidays” somehow undermined the dominance of Christianity, it seems impossible to me that you could infer, as Palin has, that this would somehow be bad for “religious freedom” in a general sense. By not using the vocabulary of the majority religion, if anyting, it would make it easier for true freedom of religion to blosum. But, of course, by “religious freedom,” folks on the right never mean the freedom to practice religions other than Christianity… And, fourth, no one at Fox News – the for-profit entertainment network masquerading as a news organization that first introduced America to the War on Christmas – really believes this nonsense. Not even Palin. It’s just good for business. They know that the middle aged and elderly white viewers of their faux news network love feeling as though they’re part of a persecuted minority, and they know that their ratings spike every time Bill O’Reilly “reports” from the front lines of the War on Christmas. It’s that simple. All you have to do is follow the money.

Now let’s talk history. According to research by Yale PhD student Michael D. Hattem, there really was, at the very beginning of our country’s history, a legitimate war on Christmas, and it was fought not by god-hating secularists, but by conservative American Christians. Following is a clip from Hattem’s article, which ran a few days ago on the early American history group blog The Junto.

…(T)he real war on Christmas was not waged by 21st-century godless, liberal secular humanists and the ACLU but by 17th-century New England Puritans, particularly the clergy.

Every Christmas season, articles appear in rather mainstream news outlets either about the Puritans’ attitudes toward Christmas or about the actual patchwork pagan origins of the holiday. Saturnalia was a pagan Roman festival held annually from December 17-25. Its customary celebrations were both chaotic and violent and, hence, were popular amongst lower-class Romans. In the fourth century, as the Catholic Church sought to bring the pagan masses into the Christian fold, the Church adopted the final day of the festival as Jesus’s birthday, which the New Testament does not indicate and on which, until this time, there had been no widespread consensus. The Church effectively killed two birds with one stone. Throughout the centuries, the most violent aspects of the celebration (including human sacrifices) fell away, but the customs of near-lawless revelry persisted, and indeed defined the celebrations in the early modern period.

Yet, at the start of the early modern period, the holiday was not yet the priority it has become, as Easter dominated the Catholic calendar. But the Reformation had a significant impact on the perception of Christmas, both positively and negatively. The holiday celebration customs were continued by the Church of England. The often uninhibited revelry of the holiday (which Puritans derisively referred to as “Foolstide”) appealed to the English lower classes while the gentry celebrated with “eating and drinking, [and] banqueting and feasting.”

In addition there was a distinct class aspect to one of the customs, in which the poorest man in the town was named “The Lord of Misrule” and treated like a gentleman. Another custom, known as “wassailling” involved lower-class persons going to the homes of wealthy individuals and “asking” for food and drink, which they would then use to toast that individual. Due to the penchant for disorder, immodesty, gluttony, and the (temporary) breakdown of the social order, it should come as no surprise that in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, English dissenters began to take a very dim view of the holiday. Indeed, the hotter the Protestant, the stronger the aversion to Christmas. But their opposition to Christmas was not just due to the overtly social nature of its celebration. Puritan faith derived wholly from scripture, and, in 1645 and again in 1647, the Long Parliament declared the abolition of all holy days except the Sabbath, which was the only day described as such in the Bible.

And so the first English dissenters who settled New England in the early seventeenth century were, like their brethren back home, decidedly anti-Christmas. Puritans were keenly aware of the holiday’s pagan origins, as Increase Mather wrote in A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New England:

“In the pure Apostolical times there was no Christ-mass day observed in the Church of God. We ought to keep the primitive Pattern. That Book of Scripture which is called The Acts of Apostles saith nothing of their keeping Christ’s Nativity as an Holy-day… Why should Protestants own any thing which has the name of Mass in it? How unsuitable is it to join Christ and Mass together? …It can never be proved that Christ’s nativity was on 25 of December… (They) who first of all observed the Feast of Christ’s Nativity in the latter end of December, did it not as 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…”

On May 11, 1659, according to Hattem, the Massachusetts General Court even passed legislation forbidding the observance of Christmas. Here’s the text.

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.

And, for what it’s worth, even though these laws may have may have been rescinded, these feelings about Christmas continued for some time. As Hattem also notes, the United States Congress, for several years after the Revolutionary War, was still in session on December 25th. In fact, Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870.

So, when you read headlines on the Fox News site like this one – “Once again this holiday season, the right to celebrate Christmas is under attack” – I’d encourage you to keep in mind that things could be worse. No one, after all, is seeking to fine people for celebrating Christmas. No, that hasn’t been attempted since the days of our founding fathers.

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  1. anonymous
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 12:42 pm | Permalink

    I know Christmas is past, but does anyone want to go wassailling with me in Rick Snyder’s neighborhood tonight?

  2. Posted December 30, 2013 at 1:03 pm | Permalink

    I would recommend “The Battle for Christmas” by Stephen Nissenbaum for further information on this subject.

  3. Chelsea
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 1:52 pm | Permalink

    Thank you for serving as the voice of reason, Mark. Happy holidays.

  4. Meta
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 4:18 pm | Permalink

    In related news:

    One in three Americans doesn’t believe in evolution, according to new survey results from the Pew Research Center.

    The results, released Monday in report on views about human evolution, show that 33 percent of Americans think “humans and other living things have existed in their present form since the beginning of time.”

    Read more:

  5. Eel
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 9:23 pm | Permalink

    The only time in the last decade that Bill O’Reilly was legitimately honest was when he was telling that Fox News intern about how he wanted to accost her with a falafel.

  6. John Galt
    Posted December 30, 2013 at 9:55 pm | Permalink

    You know who else didn’t like Christmas.

  7. Rick Cronn
    Posted December 31, 2013 at 1:28 pm | Permalink

    Happy Anniversary America! 2014 years old tomorrow!

    And the Earth too! What a coincidence!

  8. Posted December 31, 2013 at 7:39 pm | Permalink

    There are too many big words in this. Americans worried about the death of Christmas won’t be able to read it.

  9. Maria Huffman
    Posted January 2, 2014 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    I’m so glad you wrote founding fathers and not founding Framers….

  10. Robert
    Posted January 2, 2014 at 3:30 pm | Permalink

    Has EOS left for good this time?

    God bless us, each and every one! Merry Christmas! Happy New Year!

  11. O Father Time
    Posted January 4, 2014 at 12:53 am | Permalink

    Hi Mark,

    I feel you’ve done well to illustrate that xmas is just another shared cultural holiday with a checkered past. It’s not a war, but it does feel odd that one we can say:

    -happy 4th of July
    -happy Labor Day
    -happy Halloween
    -happy New Year

    I don’t have trouble with anyone wishing me “happiness” any day on the calendar. But we’re caught in something that I think we should snap through. We can be in the checkout line at Walmart buying candy canes, Rudolph inflatables and an edible Christmas cresche, and the cashier, wearing a sweater with Santa frenching the virgin Mary will say, “Happy Holidays.”

    It’s Christmas, for fuck’s sake, why can’t we say “Merry Christmas” when we’re clearly buying Christmas crap?

    I think it might be the word “merry.” The Constitution gives us the right to pursue “happiness” but “merriment” seems a little … excessive. But I do long for someone to give me the permission to be full-bellied merry.

    I propose two paths to end the perceived war on Christmas:

    1. Instead of “merry Christmas” we make a minor adjustment to put the holiday in line with the others and say, “happy Christmas.”


    2. We adopt “happy holidays” to all our special days. “Trick or treat!” Followed by, “Happy Holidays!” At the Labor Day parade … “Happy Holidays!” Heritage Festival … “Happy Holidays!”

    By making Christmas the main holiday we can’t mention by name, well, that seems to make it special. Unspeakable. Sacred almost. I think the most secular thing to do to Christmas may be to speak it’s name and wish folks well.

    Truth be told, I’m just tired of being wished a banal “Happy Holidays.” It’s sickly. It’s not festive. It’s a long walk from merry. It’s a lousy, impotent tagline for even the worst day of the year.

    (I don’t buy the war on Christmas, but do wish I could wish and be wished a Merry Christmas … thanks Robert, you too, belated.)

  12. O Father Time
    Posted January 4, 2014 at 1:14 am | Permalink

    Oh, and Robert, an ecstatic, ejaculate New Year! (Belated.)

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