The Real War on Christmas: Pilgrims Outlawed It; Congress Stayed in Session on Christmas Day until the 1850s

Culture warriors who are invested in the idea that there is a secular, anti-American “War on Christmas” should avoid watching the History Channel’s documentary, “Christmas Unwrapped: The History of Christmas.” Exposure to the historical facts about the holiday could well make their heads explode.

And we wouldn’t want that. Not at Christmas.

As is widely known, it is unlikely Jesus was born in December, a time when it was usually too cold in the Holy Land for shepherds to be watching their sheep in the fields by night. In fact, the holiday wasn’t dedicated to Jesus’ birthday until centuries later — and only after early Christians had co-opted popular pagan mid-winter festivals from Roman and northern European traditions. Christmas primarily took the place of the Romans’ Saturnalia, which was a celebration of debauchery.

According to the History Channel’s overview of the documentary:

By holding Christmas at the same time as traditional winter solstice festivals, church leaders increased the chances that Christmas would be popularly embraced, but gave up the ability to dictate how it was celebrated. By the Middle Ages, Christianity had, for the most part, replaced pagan religion. On Christmas, believers attended church, then celebrated raucously in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today’s Mardi Gras. Each year, a beggar or student would be crowned the “lord of misrule” and eager celebrants played the part of his subjects. The poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. If owners failed to comply, their visitors would most likely terrorize them with mischief. Christmas became the time of year when the upper classes could repay their real or imagined “debt” to society by entertaining less fortunate citizens…

In the early 17th century, a wave of religious reform changed the way Christmas was celebrated in Europe. When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence and, as part of their effort, cancelled Christmas.

History-challenged readers should note that Cromwell and the Puritans were Christian radicals who opposed the monarchy (and so would have been liberals in that era) but who believed in theocracy, the melding of church and state. Ironically, these Christmas-haters are direct ideological ancestors of the militantly pro-Christmas right-wing Christian extremists of today.

From the documentary’s narration: “The tension between piety and revelry at Christmas would reach it’s logical and extreme conclusion in Puritan England, when the holiday would be considered so un-Christian, it was done away with altogether.”

Later, under Cromwell, laws were passed forbidding businesses to close and churches to open on Christmas Day.

By popular demand, Charles II was restored to the throne and, with him, came the return of the popular holiday.

The pilgrims, English separatists that came to America in 1620, were even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston.

Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. By contrast, in the Jamestown settlement, Captain John Smith reported that Christmas was enjoyed by all and passed without incident…

Here is the part that will cause the pro-Christmas warriors’ heads to explode:

NARRATOR: “After Independence, all things British fell out of favor in America — Christmas included. In fact, on Dec. 25, 1789, the United States Congress sat in session and continued to stay open on Christmas Day for most of the next 67 years.” (Emphasis added.)

Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.

It wasn’t until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas. Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. But what about the 1800s peaked [sic] American interest in the holiday?

The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season. In 1828, the New York city council instituted the city’s first police force in response to a Christmas riot. This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.

The right wing’s promotion of the War on Christmas over the past decade and a half or so — it started after the launching of the GOP’s Fox channel in 1996 — is a prime example of how they have learned to use both their own Fox propaganda outlet and the “liberal media” to commandeer political discourse with positions that are so anti-factual as to be laughable and really should be unworthy of serious consideration.

The historical fact is that the Christmas traditions we know now are largely re-purposed pagan practices mixed with commercialized Victorian-era sentimentality and a dash or two of religious imagery.

The right wing’s imaginary secular war on Christmas today pales in comparison with the real anti-Christmas practices of the Pilgrim settlers and policies of the Founding Fathers and the American political establishment in the first six decades after Independence.

War on Christmas? Bah! Humbug!

8 Responses »

  1. Kevin Schmidt December 21, 2010 @ 3:33 pm

    Is Jerry Seinfeld waging a war on Festivus? Just like the “War on Christmas”, it’s another war about nothing!

  2. CatBalou December 22, 2010 @ 12:40 am

    Does one earn the label of “liberal” simply by opposing the monarchy? That doesn’t seem quite right, given the Puritans’ conservative behavior in every other respect.

    (Also, it’s “piqued,” not “peaked.”)

  3. Jon December 22, 2010 @ 6:06 am

    CatBalou – The Puritans were not liberals by today’s standards but the monarchy was undoubtedly the bastion of status quo conservatism, so opponents of the crown were more liberal on the political spectrum. This was also true during American revolutionary times.In terms of enlightenment, the Puritans were not like liberals of today. Quite the opposite, in fact.

    Thanks for catching the History Channel’s malapropism.

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  5. Jason Black December 11, 2011 @ 8:05 am

    CatBalou–

    That’s a really good question that I wish I could have been there to answer a year ago.

    Liberalism has changed meaning drastically over the years (as has conservatism, which we saw rapidly change into something entirely different beast in the past 40 years.) Liberalism, as it was meant in those times, would be labeled “classical liberalism”, which to be really honest more closely resembles today’s (neo)conservatism. Opposition to monarchy was one of the hallmarks of classic liberal thought, along with an unyielding belief in the free market.

  6. Jason Black December 11, 2011 @ 8:09 am

    Pre-caffeine typo. That should have read “changed into an entirely different beast.” My apologies. But I definitely recommend reading up on how the terms “Liberal” and “Conservative” have changed meaning over the years; it is absolutely fascinating. I’m really surprised there hasn’t been a documentary (that I know of) yet.

  7. Kris December 11, 2011 @ 10:01 am

    The Crown would have them behave in a strict, imperialist manner – including indoctrinating the People to follow the State Religion; whatever that religion might be.

    They were /extremely/ liberal in the sense that, in their time, one could not choose to dismiss a given religion (the State religion) and choose another.

    They came to America seeking religious freedom – and that concept is absolutely liberal.

  8. Cinemafreak December 12, 2011 @ 9:36 pm

    According to Politifact. This video is wrong and is full of crap.

    http://www.politifact.com/rhode-island/statements/2011/dec/09/jon-stewart/comic-jon-stewart-says-early-congress-met-most-chr/

    This is just going to make the right wing more juice to once again start trying to make claims that the founding fathers were loving Christians and they loved Christmas and Christ and all of this crap by just taking something like this out of context.

    History Channel needs to get their facts straight and apologize for these lies unless they can site sources or prove that Politifact is wrong.

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