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The Real "War on Christmas"

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'Tis the season to once again draw nigh and engage in our annual ridiculousness over the "War on Christmas," it seems. My fellow Huffington Post blogger Jeff Schweitzer has a rundown on what this all means, for anyone unaware that such a conflict is happening in America -- or, at the very least, in the minds of some Americans.

But just because the modern-day "War on Christmas" may not, in fact, exist does not mean that such a war never existed in America. The subject of Christmas was indeed at the heart of a previous bitter political dispute, but you've got to go pretty far back in time to find it. All the way back to the New England Puritans.

The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded, as we all know, on religious intolerance. Yes, you read that right. Contrary to what we are all taught as schoolchildren, the colony was not, in fact, founded on the principles of tolerance in worship. Far from it. In fact, the Puritans were actually fleeing such religious tolerance in the Netherlands (because they were, quite rightfully, afraid their children would be so influenced by this tolerance that they'd leave their parents' stiff and intolerant religious sect -- which the children simply wouldn't be able to do in the New World). To make sure they wouldn't be tempted by such intolerance in their new home, they went about legislating their version of Christianity to rule over the colony.

Part of this effort was the banning of Christmas celebrations. Once again, yes, you read that right. In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay General Court banned Christmas. The ban explicitly disallowed "forbearing of labour" and "feasting" on Christmas, and included a fine of five shillings (a not-inconsequential sum of money, back then) for whomever "shall be found observing any such day as Xmas or the like." Guess they didn't get the memo that some folks are now offended by the term "Xmas," either. The celebration of Christmas remained illegal until 1681, when the law was overturned, but the controversy continued for years afterwards.

Why, you might wonder, did these ultra-conservative, ultra-devout Christians frown on celebrating the day of their Savior's birth? Well, in the first place, they were a dour lot. They frowned on pretty much any expression of any joy whatsoever. Indeed, H. L. Mencken once famously described the Puritans as "haunted by the fear that somewhere someone might be happy."

On top of this, the Puritans of the seventeenth century were a lot closer in time to the establishment of Christmas as a Christian holiday. This happened through the Catholic Church's tried-and-true method of appropriating widely-celebrated pagan holidays, filing the serial numbers off of them, and then reselling them from the pulpit as Christian celebratory days. Thus, the flock could still celebrate all their favorite pagan rites during the year, with a Christian veneer pasted on top of it to keep the clerics happy (see, for instance: the history of Hallowe'en and All Saints Day, to say nothing of Mardi Gras). Christmas was the appropriation of the Winter Solstice festival (or, more properly, "Saturnalia") by the Church, and this was a well-known fact back in the 1600s. The Puritans banning Christmas also had a tinge of anti-Catholicism to it, in fact, a common thread throughout much of the Protestant world at the time (Protestants, as a rule, were much more restrained in their Christmas celebrations).

In fact, Christmas wasn't the only holiday the Puritans cracked down on. The history of Merrymount, Massachusetts is probably the best example of the Puritans' intolerance toward merrymaking. Merrymount was a town down the coast from Boston, founded by Thomas Morton as a non-Puritan settlement. In 1627, Merrymount put up a Maypole and had a spring festival complete with lots of drinking and dancing and other non-Puritan-approved entertainments. The following year, the Puritans sent Captain Miles Standish (he of Thanksgiving fame) with a force of men over to destroy the competition. They chopped down the Maypole and burned it, uprooted the settlement, arrested Morton, and eventually deported him to England. Dancing, where men and women touched each other, would also soon be banned.

These were not fun neighbors to have, to be blunt (see: the founding of Rhode Island). But let's get back to Christmas. From a peasant's point of view, Christmas is just about the best time of year to hold a festival, other than the weather outside being frightful. The harvest is in, there is little agricultural work to be done, the beermaking is done, and the pantry is full of food. What better time to kick back and enjoy life?

Unfortunately for them (and everyone), the Puritans simply did not see it this way. So the closest integration of church and state ever to be seen in America (Massachusetts Bay Colony) -- the most rigidly fundamentalist Christian government in our history, to put it another way -- actually banned Christmas. Massachusetts pointedly held official functions such as court sessions on Christmas Day into the eighteenth century -- long after the law had been repealed and the colony's ultra-religious charter overturned by England.

Think about that the next time you see some Currier and Ives image of a small New England town covered in snow, as a representation of some gauzy historic ideal of how one is supposed to celebrate Christmas.

Today's "War on Christmas" is supposedly being secretly waged by secularists who want to ban Christ from the winter holiday season. How far we've come, eh? The ultra-religionists have now apparently swapped sides in this war, and are now fighting for the celebration of Christmas -- the more public and gaudier the better.

If there really is a struggle over Christmas today, I'd have to say it's the one being waged by church leaders across the land who desperately try to remind everyone that Christmas is supposed to be about something other than going shopping and Santa Claus. Call it a war on the consumerist end-of-year orgy. This war is more subtle and complex, which is likely why right wing talk show hosts don't generally rant on the subject much.

Or perhaps it is another, more deadly war -- the war on drunken Yuletide excess. We've made strides in combating this in the past few decades, making drunk driving absolutely not acceptable any more. This was a key component of the original Puritan War on Christmas, it bears mentioning.

Which is why I'm closing with the lyrics to a song by a rock group who (coincidentally enough) took the name of an agricultural genius of the 1700s (one of the Steve Jobses of his day): Jethro Tull. In 1968, they released a song which goes to the heart of this problem (which was much more intense in England, it bears pointing out). The song is, quite simply, named "Christmas Song." And it bears a message for us all, during whatever revelry we participate in: "I'll defend to the death your right to celebrate Christmas in whatever way you personally choose; but that right ends the moment you get behind the wheel while drunk -- because I don't want you killing me, my family, or, in fact, anyone." Because this is a real Christmas battle we can all join in fighting.

Once in royal David's city stood a lowly cattle shed,
Where a mother laid her baby.
You'd do well to remember the things He later said.
When you're stuffing yourselves at the Christmas parties,
You'll laugh when I tell you to take a running jump.
You're missing the point I'm sure does not need making;
That Christmas spirit is... not what you drink.

So how can you laugh when your own mother's hungry
And how can you smile when the reasons for smiling are wrong?
And if I messed up your thoughtless pleasures,
Remember, if you wish, this is just a Christmas song.

[Spoken:] Hey, Santa, pass us that bottle, will you?

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:
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