'Tis the season. The darkest time of the year in the northern hemisphere, December finds people of various religions across the United States celebrating light. Christmas, Hanukkah, Diwali, Kwanzaa, and Winter Solstice all invoke returning light.
This season also prompts social media declarations that Christians are prohibited from wishing anyone "Merry Christmas." Such complaints are occasionally coupled with the idea that this prohibition is doubly outrageous, given that the United States is a Christian nation.
Whatever the case now, or at the time of the founding, at one moment in the past America's most Christian leaders made Christmas greetings illegal. In 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony in New England declared Christmas unlawful. They characterized the holiday as one of the "festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries."
According to their assessment, such festivals contributed "to the great dishonor of God and offence of others." Although these godly magistrates did not specifically forbid Christmas greetings, they ordered everyone to avoid commemorating the day in any way. Specifically they forbade taking the day off work or feasting -- two of the many ways Americans today mark the holiday. Those who feel that modern American society circumscribes their expressions of Christmas joy should be relieved that they didn't live under this strict Christian rule.
It's ironic, given the current link between Christian nationhood and Christmas, that the men who passed the law against Christmas aimed to safeguard Christianity. Their society came as close to any in American history to embracing an explicitly Christian identity. Civil officials worked closely with clergy to promote godliness. Together, they defined how to be a proper Christian and guided their community to live according to that definition.
To that end, they based their legal system in large part on the Bible. In one famous example from their law code, they consulted the Mosaic commandment to "honor thy father and thy mother" to determine the death penalty for any child who struck a parent. They objected to religious diversity, even executing four Quakers who insisted on conducting missionary work in the colony. Not wanting to force anyone's conscience, they created an early version of "don't ask, don't tell," informing those who held alternate religious views that they were free to believe whatever they wanted as long as they kept their beliefs a secret. With such policies, they worked hard to uphold their vision for Christian government and society.
So why did the one government in American history that most conforms to the idea of a Christian nation outlaw rather than promote the celebration of Christmas? They associated observing Christ's nativity with Roman Catholicism, a version of Christianity that they believed to be misguided at best and anti-Christian at worst. They saw the Catholic calendar of holy days -- including Christmas -- as a pagan holdover, based on annual rituals acknowledging cycles of death and rebirth. They sought to suppress those who celebrated it -- like Roman Catholics and members of the Church of England. Wanting to block such people from their colony, they thought of Christmas festivities as an entering wedge for all kinds of sin and error.
To them, Christmas represented Christianity gone wrong, not a holiday to be defended. Feeling that Christmas shifted the focus away from the Christian message of repentance and salvation, they objected to Christmas on grounds parallel to the contemporary Christian's complaint that commercialization has shifting the focus away from the message of Christ's nativity. Whereas modern believers would be satisfied with a Christmas celebration focused on baby Jesus, their earlier counterparts wanted to excise the infant Christ altogether. Before Christians defended Christmas, some of them vehemently opposed it.
So if you feel uncomfortable wishing Merry Christmas to random individual who may celebrate the season in another way or not at all, be glad, at least, they you won't be fined five shillings every time you do so.