A Christmas tree in the main aisle of a shopping mall. (Credit: John MacDougall/AFP/Getty Images)
  • Print
  • Cite

Introduction

The War on Christmas begins around the same time each year, when stores start peddling plastic Christmas trees and giant Santa Claus inflatables. Depending on which media talking head is speaking, the war is either a subversive effort by left-wing liberals to erase all traces of Christianity, or a histrionic, right-wing attempt to force religion down every American’s throat. But most people don’t realize Christians battled one another over the holiday centuries before news media kept the War on Christmas in the headlines.

The Puritans were Protestant English Reformists who gained distinction in the 16th and 17th centuries. After King Henry VIII broke away from the Roman Catholic church and created the Protestant Church of England, Puritans sought to further reform his newly-founded church.

For centuries, people had been celebrating Christmas by going to church, closing businesses, singing carols and enjoying goblets of wassail with family and friends. Since most people of medieval England had little to celebrate, they looked forward to the Christmas season and a break from daily hardships.

The Puritans, however, felt life should be lived solely according to the Bible. In their opinion, the Bible didn’t reference celebrating Christ’s birth at all, let alone recommend drinking and merrymaking; they lobbied to ban Christmas.

In 1642, King Charles I agreed to a request from Parliament to make Christmas a subdued period of fasting and spiritual reflection instead of a boisterous holiday. In January 1645, Parliament produced a Directory for the Public Worship of God, laying out new rules of worship.

Sundays were set aside for worship, but all other church services, festivals and religious revelries—including Christmas—were banned.

Parliament didn’t stop there. In 1657, they made it illegal to close businesses on Christmas or attend or hold a Christmas worship service.

But the English people decided they wouldn’t let go of their festivities without a fight. Riots ensued, and many people celebrated Christmas privately in their homes if not their places of worship.

After Oliver Cromwell, a staunch Puritan, ordered the execution of King Charles I and became Lord Protector in 1653, he upheld the ban on Christmas, despite its unpopularity.  But when the monarchy was restored in 1660, so was Christmas.

Some Puritans, unhappy with the Church of England, emigrated to the New World and settled in Massachusetts. They embarked on a hard life shaped by their staunch Christian beliefs and brought along their conviction that Christmas was a holiday for sinners and shouldn’t be observed.

Celebrating Christmas was discouraged but didn’t become a punishable offense until 1659. By 1681, colonial revelers could no longer be fined but were charged with disturbing the peace if caught celebrating in public.

The Puritans managed to force Christmas underground in much of New England, but they couldn’t compel other New World colonies to do the same. Christmas celebrations were commonplace in Virginia, Maryland and other colonies where immigrants brought their holidays traditions intact from the Old World.

Still, the Puritans held Christmas at bay, decade after cheerless decade, until Massachusetts finally made Christmas a legal holiday in 1856—almost 200 years after it was banned. President Ulysses S. Grant made it a federal holiday in 1870.

The enormous popularity of Clement Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”—with its famous opening lines, “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse”—was arguably the catalyst for meshing the religious and secular sides of Christmas.

As Christmas became more popular over the years, it also became more commercialized. Christians and non-Christians alike put up Christmas trees, anticipated visits from Santa Claus and shopped for gifts to buy for family and friends.

And buy they did: To meet the demand, many retailers began hawking their holiday wares before Halloween candy left store shelves.

Black Friday, the Friday after Thanksgiving and official kick-off of the Christmas shopping season, gave way to stores opening their doors on Thanksgiving evening. Not to be left out, online retailers created Cyber Monday to entice online shoppers to buy more.

Estimates vary, but U.S. consumers are now estimated to spend more than $655 billion annually in holiday retail purchases—$1.3 billion on Christmas trees alone.

But this shopping juggernaut had its detractors: A Vancouver artist, fed up with the mass consumer orgy of Christmas, created Buy Nothing Day, which is also held the Friday after Thanksgiving.

Started in 1992, it encourages people to skip the Black Friday madness, put away their credit cards and not fall prey to Christmas consumerism and over-consumption in general.

Despite the commercialization of Christmas, it was still considered mainly a religious holiday for much of the 20th century. Over the last decade or so, secularists, humanists and atheists became more vocal about the separation of church and state.

Multiple lawsuits were filed by private citizens, the ACLU, and other organizations against federal and local governments to remove nativities and other Christian symbols from public places. Legal action has also been taken to remove Christian references, songs and the word “Christmas” from school plays and programs.

Many Christians, however, consider this an attack on their freedom of speech and religious freedom. They assert America was founded on Christian principles and Christmas is a federal holiday celebrating the birth of Christ, so Christian Christmas displays should be left alone no matter where they reside.

When some popular retailers stopped using the word Christmas in their promotional materials and supposedly instructed their employees to avoid saying, “Merry Christmas,” it lit a fire under many Christians.

It also fired-up several cable news hosts such as Bill O’Reilly and Sean Hannity, both of whom many believe took charge of the modern-day War on Christmas and made it a grass-roots campaign. As word got out, hordes of Christians signed petitions and boycotted the stores, forcing some to change their stance. Other stores continued to use general terms to refer to December 25.

When conservative Pat Buchanan called the secularization of Christmas a hate crime and pastor Jerry Falwell accused leftists of wanting to create a godless America, many liberals claimed the War on Christmas was rubbish. They claimed no one was taking away Christians’ right to celebrate, however, they drew the line at religious public displays.

Proponents on both sides of the debate got plenty of air time, keeping the war in the headlines year after year. The rhetoric amped-up in July 2017 when President Donald Trump announced during a speech at the Celebrate Freedom Concert, “…I remind you that we’re going to start saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again.”

America’s First War on Christmas. PRI.
Christmas in Puritan New England. Salisbury Historical Society, New Hampshire.
PBS.
The Puritan Beliefs. Gettysburg College.
What’s Really Behind War on Christmas? CNN.
Are you celebrating Black Friday or Buy Nothing Day? USAToday.
Statista.
Buchanan, Falwell joined in war-on-Christmas hype: “We are witnessing … hate crimes against Christianity.” MediaMatters.
Trump brings up the war on Christmas—in July. Washington Post.