The war on Christmas, the prequel.

Religion, spirituality, and sacrilege.
Dec. 21 2005 7:16 AM

The War on Christmas, the Prequel

When the holiday was banned.

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Book Cover

Complaining about Christmas is one of the most enduring of Christmas traditions. It's not so much the holiday itself that bothers us. It's the way other people insist on celebrating it. In his new book The War on Christmas, Fox News host John Gibson argues for a more Christian Christmas, one that includes crèches and carols in public schools and city halls. "Christians are coming to retake their place in the public square, and the most natural battleground in this war is Christmas," he writes. With their campaign for the phrase "Merry Christmas" in stores and their brief boycott of Target, religious advocacy groups like the Alliance Defense Fund and the American Family Association are trying to prove him right.

Gibson begins his book with an ode to the Christmas of his youth and says that he's defending traditional public celebration of the holiday from bullying ACLU lawyers and other secularists who are perpetrating a "Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday," as the subtitle of his book puts it. As a matter of American history, however, some of the strongest complaints about the public celebration of Christmas have been lodged from within the Christian tradition—by devout Christians who had little use for the holiday. For a surprising number of American believers, the chief concern wasn't putting Christ back into Christmas. It was taking Christmas out of Christianity.

Liberal plots notwithstanding, the Americans who succeeded in banning the holiday were the Puritans of 17th-century Massachusetts. Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were outlawed in the colony, and the law declared that anyone caught "observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings." Finding no biblical authority for celebrating Jesus' birth on Dec. 25, the theocrats who ran Massachusetts regarded the holiday as a mere human invention, a remnant of a heathen past. They also disapproved of the rowdy celebrations that went along with it. "How few there are comparatively that spend those holidays … after an holy manner," the Rev. Increase Mather lamented in 1687. "But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in Mad Mirth."

After the English Restoration government reclaimed control of Massachusetts from the Puritans in the 1680s, one of the first acts of the newly appointed royal governor of the colony was to sponsor and attend Christmas religious services. Perhaps fearing a militant Puritan backlash, for the 1686 services he was flanked by redcoats. The Puritan disdain for the holiday endured: As late as 1869, public-school kids in Boston could be expelled for skipping class on Christmas Day.

The Puritans are the most cited example of anti-Christmas spirit, but not the only one. Quakers, too, took a pass, reasoning that, in the words of 17th-century Quaker apologist Robert Barclay, "All days are alike holy in the sight of God." The Quakers never translated their dismissal of Christmas into legislation in their stronghold in Colonial Pennsylvania. But local meetings, as the Quakers call their assemblies, urged their members to disdain Christmas and to be "zealous in their testimony against the holding up of such days." As late as 1810, the Philadelphia Democratic Press reported that few Pennsylvanians celebrated the holiday.

Observance of Christmas, or the lack thereof, was one way to differentiate among the Christian sects of Colonial and 19th-century America. Anglicans, Moravians, Dutch Reformed, and Lutherans, to name just a few, did; Quakers, Puritans, Separatists, Baptists, and some Presbyteriansdid not. An 1855 New York Times report on Christmas services in the city noted that Baptist and Methodist churches were closed because they "do not accept the day as a holy one," while Episcopal and Catholic churches were open and "decked with evergreens." New England Congregationalist preacher Henry Ward Beecher remembered decorative greenery as an exotic touch that one could see only in Episcopal churches, "a Romish institution kept up by the Romish church."

Naturally, some celebrants of the holiday complained about the abstainers. In 1867, Reformed Church minister Henry Harbaugh protested that Presbyterians in his Pennsylvania neighborhood "spend the day working as on any other day. Their children grow up knowing nothing of brightly lit Christmas trees, nor Christmas presents. God have mercy on these Presbyterians, these pagans." You can hear the echo of that sentiment today, in the criticism of the megachurches that have announced that they will be closed on Christmas, because their leaders think congregations and church staff would rather remain home with their families. "Our culture does not need any encouragement to be more self-centered or narcissistic, or to stay at home on Sunday," Bible scholar Ben Witherington III wrote on Beliefnet last week. "Shame on you, megachurches."

Gibson briefly refers to the Puritan ban on the holiday but otherwise avoids any mention of division within the Christian tradition over how to celebrate it. His "war on Christmas" is purely a clash between secularists and believers. It's worth remembering, however, that in past American battles over Christmas, the combatants on both sides were Christian soldiers.

Andrew Santella's essays and reviews have appeared in the New York Times Book Review and GQ.