Nel's New Day

December 22, 2011

Conservatives Confused about ‘Christmas’

‘Tis the season for all conservatives to complain about “liberals” taking Christ out of Christmas because that stupid part in the Constitution calling for separation of church and state. This year Fox News and Sarah Palin are incensed about the official White House holiday card because it “makes no mention of the word ‘Christmas’ and instead focused on Bo the First Dog based on the wishes of the First Family.” Palin wondered why the card didn’t highlight traditions like “family, faith and freedom.”

Most conservatives are under the mistaken impression that the people who founded this country believed Christmas celebrations—including the greeting “Merry Christmas”—were a vital part of life. An example of their ire is The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday Is Worse Than You Thought from Fox’s John Gibson. The history of this holiday shows a different picture from the revisionists’ perceptions.

Many Christmas celebrations came from pagan traditions. The tradition of Mummers, costumed singers and dancers going from house to house to entertain neighbors, began in ancientRomeand evolved into caroling. Kissing under the mistletoe began as a fertility ritual because it was a sacred plant, and evergreen trees were important in pre-Christian times because it reminded people that crops would grow again. They were also totems of good luck, also representing fertility while hollyberries were a food of the gods.

The date chosen for “Christ’s birth” was influenced by three popular Roman pagan festivals on or near December 25: Saturnalia with its reputation of excessive partying; the New Year’s celebration; and the winter solstice dated December 25 by calendars of the time, the birthday of Sol Invictus, the Unconquered Sun. Scholars agree that Jesus was born between March and October, a long time before–or after–the December date.

In the colonies, Christmas, with its pagan connection, was forbidden for the first century of European settlement, starting in 1620 when Gov. William Bradford forbade any holiday celebrations. Caroling, games, and even mince pies, considered vulgar holiday luxuries, were outlawed. A 1659 law that fined people five shillings for feasting or other merriment on December 25 was not repealed until 1681—and then the repeal came from English-appointed Gov. Sir Edmund Andros. The ending of the ban didn’t change Puritan patterns; the majority of colonists still abstained from celebrations.

Puritans avoided the term “Christmas” because it meant “the mass of Christ” which smacked of Roman Catholicism. It has also been suggested that the Puritans viewed Santa Claus as the Anti-Christ.

Christmas may have been legal after 1681, but evergreen decoration continued to be expressly forbidden in Puritan meeting houses and discouraged in New England homes. Merrymakers were prosecuted for disturbing the peace.

Quakers also eschewed Christmas celebrations because, in the words of seventeenth-century Quaker apologist Robert Barclay, “All days are alike holy in the sight of God.” Although they never tried to legislate against Christmas celebration in Pennsylvania, they urged their members in local meetings 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.

Not until two and a half centuries after the Europeans began to settle America did Christmas become a legal holiday. Many prominent figures, including the most famous preacher Henry Ward Beecher of the 1800s, failed to embrace Christmas celebration. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Samuel Goodrich recalled the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and “training day” as the only “great festivals” of their childhood in the early nineteenth century. As late as 1847, no college in New England had a Christmas holiday, and New England did not make it an official holiday until 1856. As late as 1870, the year when December 25 became a federal holiday, Boston public schools held classes on Christmas Day, punishing students who were absent that day.

It was actually the Civil War that brought Christmas to the entire United States. Because the southern states were not settled by religious groups, their people adopted what conservatives now recognize as traditional Christmas celebrations. They saw Christmas as an important part of their social season and were the earliest to make December 25 a legal holiday: Alabama in 1836, Louisiana and Arkansas in 1838. After the Civil War was settled, the U.S. government created December 25 as a federal holiday to create a bond between the two parts of the country.

Because Fox seems to be an authority on the appropriate content of “Christmas” cards, I’m including an image of the greeting card that people received from Fox News. The symbolism (sheep?) is outstanding.

The next time that conservatives grump at you about how “liberals” are taking Christmas away from the country, explain to them that the date is based on pagan festivals and the celebrations are based on pagan traditions. And show them Fox’s card! Happy Yule!

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