Christmas in the post-War United States (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
Religion Today is contributed biweekly by the University of Wyoming's Religious Studies Program to examine and to promote discussion of religious issues.
Who Was Against Christmas?
By Paul V.M. Flesher
Picture the following scenario. Crowds of Americans rioting in the streets. Two opposing groups shout loudly, vying to have their messages heard and heeded. The groups meet. Confrontation ensues. Fistfights break out. Church windows are smashed. What are these rioters fighting about? Christmas. One group favors celebrating Christmas, the other opposes all Christmas observances. This isn't an imaginary event, it is history. It happened in Boston on Christmas day in 1706.
In America's increasing love-affair with Christmas (both the Christian and commercial versions), we have forgotten that there was a time when much of European and American Christianity thought that Christmas should not be celebrated. In the riot described previously, the anti-Christmas group consisted largely of Congregationalists (Puritan descendants), Baptists, and Presbyterians, while the pro-Christmas group comprised mostly Anglicans (Episcopalians). The notion that Christians of any stripe should not want to celebrate Christmas is so foreign to our present concept of the holiday, that we need to review some history to understand it.
Prior to the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Roman Catholicism celebrated the "Christ Mass." It was one of many special masses and feasts of the Catholic Church celebrating key events in Jesus' life or the birthdays of saints. The three main Protestant movements that ultimately came to America had three different reactions to this situation.
First, although the Anglican Church developed a Protestant theology, it kept much of Catholic liturgy, including festivals celebrating aspects of Christ's life and the feast days of many saints. It gave special emphasis to the celebration of Christmas.
Second, after Martin Luther nailed his "95 Theses" to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, special liturgical observances began to be frowned upon. The Lutherans thought that the celebrations of saints' days were too much and so cancelled them. But they still emphasized observing events in Jesus' life, and so continued with joyous Christmas festivities.
Third, the Calvinists in Switzerland banned all Christian holy days not mentioned in Scripture. That approach meant that the Sabbath was acceptable, but nothing else. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other celebrations were to be treated as normal days with nothing special about them.
The Calvinist position came to be quite influential in Great Britain, even though it never altered the position of the Anglican Church. John Knox brought Calvinism to Scotland as Presbyterianism where Christmas was banned in 1583, while the Puritans brought Calvinism into England, where it became influential in circles both within and outside of the Anglican Church. During the Civil War in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed Christmas observance. It was brought back in 1660 at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II.
From England, both sides brought their Christmas beliefs to America. The Puritans (later becoming the Congregationalists) were joined by Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists (despite their founders' pro-Christmas predilections), and Baptists on the anti-Christmas side, while the Anglicans dominated the pro-Christmas side, and were later joined by the Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed.
In Boston, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in 1659. Although the ban was lifted in 1681 when the British government took control of the colony, an armed guard had to protect the governor on his way to church on Christmas of 1686. When the colony reverted to local control in 1689, Christmas again fell out of favor.
The objection to Christmas by Americans was two-fold. First, for Calvinist theology, it reflected the pagan character of Catholic worship. Christmas was not a biblical holiday and had not even become a Christian festival before the late 300s; it was a creation of the church, not of Christ. Second, the holiday was accompanied by extensive reveling. Celebrations were not primarily worshipful, but involved feasting, game playing, heavy drinking, shooting, and gambling. For the over-indulgers, it brought out the worst of their excesses. Since the holiday celebrated the Savior's birth, such immoral behavior was seen as sacrilegious.
During the 18th century, Christmas observance began to be more accepted. Church-goers turned their attention to purifying the holiday of its excesses, rather than rejecting it altogether. By the 1750s, even New England hymn books contained Christmas carols. By the early 1800s, Christmas was observed with an emphasis on family and children.
In 1836, Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. Other states followed suit; even Massachusetts legalized Christmas in 1856, almost 200 years after its ban. But the last state, Oklahoma, did not join in until 1907. So next Christmas, 2007, will be the centenary of Christmas being the first religious holiday whose celebration across the United States is sanctioned by law.
Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the Web at www.uwyo.edu/relstds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.
Excerpts from Fox News John Gibson's Book "The War on Christmas...."
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 Presbyterians did 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.