Christmas season is here, and that means Fox News is again hyping whatever examples it can find of an alleged "War on Christmas." A Fox segment blasted Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee for dedicating a "holiday" tree instead of a "Christmas" tree, prompting more than 3,000 calls to his office. Fox News personality Gretchen Carlson ranted earlier this month about a public school in Stockton, California that banned poinsettias and Santa Claus.
If incidents like this are war, it's a pretty wimpy fight. It makes the wine-sipping French generals who always lost to the Germans look like Genghis Khan.
The Puritans who landed at Plymouth Rock knew how to wage war on Christmas: They banned it. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum documents in his 1997 book, The Battle for Christmas, from 1659 to 1681, celebrating Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts, punishable by a fine of five shillings. In 1621, just one year after arriving in the New World, some of those Puritan Pilgrims tried to take Christmas Day off and governor William Bradford forced the slackers back to work.
The Puritans banned Christmas because back then, it was a much different ritual. It was a rowdy celebration, a time when the poor and oppressed were allowed to demand hospitality from their social and economic betters. Its roots were in medieval England, when the lord of the manor was visited by his minions, who expected him to offer them some of his finest refreshments. Wassailing, going from house to house and demanding food and alcoholic drink, was a common practice. (A variant of that tradition lives on today, in the trick-or-treating that children do at Halloween.)
Here's how famed fundamentalist preacher Cotton Mather described Christmas in 1712, according to Nissenbaum: "The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty . . . by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling."
"The Puritans were correct," Nissenbaum writes, "when they point out -- and they pointed it out often -- that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer."
Colonial-era Christmas was a socially-sanctioned season of excess, a safety valve that diffused tension over grossly unequal economic conditions. For one brief period each year, the low were mighty, and vice-versa, and that helped preserve the social order for the rest of the year.
Cotton Mather realized it wasn't practical to ban Christmas. He wanted to transform the Carnival-style occasion into a purely religious celebration, but he and his fellow religious leaders never succeeded. What cleaned up Christmas, Nissenbaum writes, was turning it into a commercial extravaganza.
With industrialization in the early 1800s, people were moving to cities, where there was more economic opportunity and material goods were more widely available. Nissenbaum credits elites in New York city, including Clement Moore, author of the iconic (ital) 'Twas the Night Before Christmas (ital), with popularizing the more sedate version of the holiday.
By the 1820s, Christmas was starting to focus on family and gift-giving, especially to children. So much so that stores were open Christmas Day. Nissenbaum found a newspaper story 1841 reporting that Philadelphia's Chestnut Street was jammed with 40,000 shoppers and celebrants on Christmas.
Those huge crowds were targets for the flash mobs of their day -- bands of youths roaming the streets, being drunk and disorderly. In Philadelphia, "concern over riotous holiday nights was constant from the 1830s on," according to a historian Nissenbaum cites, Susan G. Davis. To protect merchants and shoppers, the carnival, out-of-control aspect of Christmas had to end.
The rowdy history of early Christmas helps explain why it didn't become a legal holiday until well into the 1800s. Massachusetts did so in 1855, according to Nissenbaum, and most states did likewise by 1865. However, Texas waited until 1879, and Florida until 1881.
Commercialization brought complaints that would be familiar to viewers of A Charlie Brown Christmas. People were questioning the materialistic aspect of the holiday a 100 years before Linus and Charlie did so.
Nissenbaum notes that in 1850, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a short story with a character saying: "every shop and store is glittering with all manner of splendors...There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got." If there had been bumperstickers on horse carriages in the mid-1800s, you might have seen one saying "Put Christ back in Christmas."
Fox's Bill O'Reilly, in a broadcast last month, boasted to his viewers he's a "passionate defender of Christmas traditions in America." The Christmas our country knew during its first 200 years was probably not what O'Reilly had in mind.
Matthew Zencey is former assistant editorial page editor of the Philadelphia Inquirer. His book, Unlikely Liberal, Sarah Palin's Curious Record as Alaska Governor, will be published by Potomac Books in 2012. He lives in West Chester, Pa. Email firstname.lastname@example.org.