Note: This article was originally published December 21, 2015
Another Christmas, another string of outrages about the supposed “War on Christmas.”
In November there was the social media furor about Starbucks’ red cups, as Ed Simon relates here in RD.
Then this month, 36 Republican U.S. House members introduced a resolution “that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas.”
And in the most recent CNN-sponsored debate among Republican presidential candidates, Wolf Blitzer’s closing Merry Christmas wish prompted two Fox News hosts to declare victory, claiming that their side had won the War on Christmas:
Whatever the recent skirmishes, this kind of controversy is not new. American disagreements about the celebration of Christmas reach back to the nation’s colonial beginnings—where ironically, it was a Christian group, Puritans, that offered the discouraging words.
When the Church of England broke away from Roman Catholicism in the 1500s, Calvinist reformers (those Puritans) felt that the new English church did not go far enough in removing Catholic elements. One practice the Puritans opposed was the annual December celebration of Christmas, which they saw as a Catholic innovation not justified by scripture. They claimed that the earliest Christians had no such observance (which was true, because it took more than two hundred years after Jesus’ lifetime before Christians began an annual observance about the nativity of the Christ child).
Puritans also disapproved of the wild partying that seemed widespread on Christmas Day in England. Thus, during the Puritan Revolution in England in the 1600s, Puritans banned special church services on December 25 and mandated that businesses remain open.
In the American colonies the result was more complicated. Puritan New England actively discouraged Christmas: for a few years the Massachusetts General Court threatened fines for anyone found feasting, or absent from work, on Christmas Day. The long term result was that English-speaking dissenters from the Church of England, in the colonial era and in the early years of the new nation, tended to either actively oppose or at least ignore Christmas—that included Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers.
However, other colonists came from parts of Europe not affected by Puritan opposition, and they brought their Christmas celebrations with them, unhindered: Germans, Scandinavians, and the Dutch who founded New Amsterdam (later New York). So Lutherans, Catholics, and the Dutch Reformed celebrated Christmas, along with the Church of England that continued restrained Christmas observances.
As a result of this mixture, in the American colonies and then in the new nation, there was no national consensus supporting Christmas, and the disagreement was between Christians.
American Christmas wouldn’t come roaring back, becoming nearly universal, until the mid-1800s, but it was not because of any campaign by churches. Most credit for the return and advance of Christmas goes to major cultural influences like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the morphing of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. Dickens’ famous story did not reflect the Christmas of his time but instead was an attempt to resurrect and reinvent Christmas, and it was incredibly successful. A Christmas Carol contains very little direct reference to religion and says nothing about a baby in a manger—but it does promote a spirit of giving and care for others that can be embraced by almost anyone.
The point here is that the Puritan suppression of Christmas created a vacuum, and when Christmas re-emerged and flourished in the 1800s its new form had less of a religious emphasis and was centered more on family and generosity. Christians could embrace those themes gladly, as very consistent with their values and beliefs, but others could also embrace that kind of a Christmas spirit without being especially religious.
In a sense, what emerged were two kinds of Christmas: a Christian Christmas and a cultural Christmas. In modern-day expression of Christianity, some are able to combine the two seamlessly, but others strongly emphasize one or the other. What has been called the secularization of Christmas might also be described as an emphasis on the cultural Christmas, with less interest in the religious version. The outworking of this two-fold Christmas continues to this day, and it is part of what enlivens the ‘War on Christmas’ debates.
But it was the Puritans who started it.