Christmas's self-proclaimed defenders are rewriting the holiday's history. They claim that the "traditional" American Christmas is under attack by what John Gibson, another Fox anchor, calls "professional atheists" and "Christian haters." But America has a complicated history with Christmas, going back to the Puritans, who despised it. What the boycotters are doing is not defending America's Christmas traditions, but creating a new version of the holiday that fits a political agenda.
The Puritans considered Christmas un-Christian, and hoped to keep it out of America. They could not find Dec. 25 in the Bible, their sole source of religious guidance, and insisted that the date derived from Saturnalia, the Roman heathens' wintertime celebration. On their first Dec. 25 in the New World, in 1620, the Puritans worked on building projects and ostentatiously ignored the holiday. From 1659 to 1681 Massachusetts went further, making celebrating Christmas "by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way" a crime.
The concern that Christmas distracted from religious piety continued even after Puritanism waned. In 1827, an Episcopal bishop lamented that the Devil had stolen Christmas "and converted it into a day of worldly festivity, shooting and swearing." Throughout the 1800's, many religious leaders were still trying to hold the line. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on Dec. 25 because "they do not accept the day as a Holy One." On the eve of the Civil War, Christmas was recognized in just 18 states.
Christmas gained popularity when it was transformed into a domestic celebration, after the publication of Clement Clarke Moore's "Visit from St. Nicholas" and Thomas Nast's Harper's Weekly drawings, which created the image of a white-bearded Santa who gave gifts to children. The new emphasis lessened religious leaders' worries that the holiday would be given over to drinking and swearing, but it introduced another concern: commercialism. By the 1920's, the retail industry had adopted Christmas as its own, sponsoring annual ceremonies to kick off the "Christmas shopping season."
Religious leaders objected strongly. The Christmas that emerged had an inherent tension: merchants tried to make it about buying, while clergymen tried to keep commerce out. A 1931 Times roundup of Christmas sermons reported a common theme: "the suggestion that Christmas could not survive if Christ were thrust into the background by materialism." A 1953 Methodist sermon broadcast on NBC - typical of countless such sermons - lamented that Christmas had become a "profit-seeking period." This ethic found popular expression in "A Charlie Brown Christmas." In the 1965 TV special, Charlie Brown ignores Lucy's advice to "get the biggest aluminum tree you can find" and her assertion that Christmas is "a big commercial racket," and finds a more spiritual way to observe the day.
This year's Christmas "defenders" are not just tolerating commercialization - they're insisting on it. They are also rewriting Christmas history on another key point: non-Christians' objection to having the holiday forced on them.
4 years ago