Monday, November 26, 2012

The War on Christmas is Real

Or at least it was, 350 hundred years ago. In the midst of all the hand wringing that we can expect to occur as Christmas rushes toward us, especially among the Religious Right and their advocates at Fox News, something seems to be going overlooked: Christmas was illegal in the American colonies, at least among the Puritans, generally considered some of the most devout readers of the Bible and stringent followers of its commands. Regardless of what one may think about their attitudes toward life, it cannot be denied that they were deep thinkers. Their printing presses and bookstores were second only to London's, and the highest literacy rate in the world belonged to them. The Bible was required reading seven days a week, in addition to sermons, tracts and moral stories. Yet Christmas was a specific holiday that these religious people banned.

"Your conscience may not let you work on Christmas but my conscience cannot let you play while everybody else is out working."

- Governor William Bradford, Plymouth Colony

A little background is perhaps necessary to understand why Christmas was both socially and legally anathema. Bradford and the Pilgrims were Separatists, members of a religious order that sought to distance themselves from the Church of England and its influences. This had something to do with Catholicism, which was a constant evil in the mind of Englishmen. Catholics owed allegiance to a foreign power, the Pope, and could not be trusted. However, Catholics also used rituals, pomp and processions that some found to be extravagant and in contradiction to the Bible's teachings. These same forms of rituals had followed and tainted the English church. This produced Puritan groups that sought to purify the church of things that were unbiblical, again having to do with the extravagance of ceremonies as well as allegiances to men instead of God. However, some sought to distance themselves from the church entirely.

These were the Separatists, who were so committed to purifying their own communities that they departed a relatively intolerant English religious landscape for the Dutch Republic, a region generally renowned for its high level of tolerance for religious individualism. However, even here, some were unsatisfied and fearful of the taint of polluted religions. So, the Pilgrims became Separatists from the Separatists. They departed to New England and settled around Plymouth Bay. This group was later followed by the Puritan immigration. The two were linked in many ways by theological perceptions and fears of a tainted church, though the Puritans made explicit their hope to purify the church in England by becoming a shining light in their New World, a "City on a Hill".

However, part of that purity meant adherence to the Bible in ways foreign to modern believers, and the abolishment of practices associated with indulgence. Christmas is nowhere to be found in the Bible as a holiday to be celebrated, and so it had no Scriptural foundation. It was also rooted in paganism and non Christian faiths, something that apparently Christians were far more aware of centuries ago than they are now. The Church of England would celebrate the Feast of the Nativity, which the Puritans identified as a form of idolatry and a connection to the Catholic Church with extravagance and non Biblical practices.
Technically speaking, the Bible only sanctioned the Sabbath as a holy day and day of rest. So, from a theological ground, it had no basis. Culturally though, the Puritans found many reasons to object to it. First, it was an amalgamation of Christian beliefs with Roman holidays and practices that were non Christian. Perhaps their largest protest against it, though, was the fact that Christmas had become a day of such indulgence and foolish behavior that it was not worth celebrating. Behaviors such as those demonstrated on Black Friday, or those seen by mass consumerism and drunk driving that leads to death, would have all been justifications for the Puritans to ban it as a holiday.

Banned it was, actually. Legally it was banned in Massachusetts and Connecticut for a stretch of time, which coincided with a banning of holy days in England. However, once holy days were restored in England and Puritans were forced to legally allow them, they still shunned its practice. It was practically uncelebrated in New England for at least a century as governors and preachers rejected it and no formal motions were practiced to gather people for its recognition.

The trait most highly prized among Puritans was a strong work ethic, and so on Christmas Day they worked. The first Christmas in America was spent erecting buildings. William Bradford excused those who said they objected to working on the day, but when he found them playing sports and games later on, he had all their possessions confiscated and ordered any celebration they might have confined to their homes. This was the beginning of a long period in which Christmas was never recognized.

So to the Fox News pundits bemoaning the war on Christmas and traditional religious values, maybe there should be a moment of recognition that Christmas was never an inherent religious value prized by some of the most well read and work driven Christians in American history. They recognized it was neither a Christian holiday, and that it could actually spawn indulgent behaviors that were offensive to the community. Maybe Bill O'Reilly can take a moment to recognize that events like Black Friday were exactly why Puritans feared holy days becoming secular excuses for indulgence, and that they knew Christmas was never a Christian day sanctioned Biblically. It was a secular holiday.

So seriously Fox News, lighten up. Nobody's losing Christmas. It wasn't celebrated in the first place and didn't really get going as a holiday until the middle of the 1800s. Christians knew Jesus wasn't born in December, that it was a Roman festival inherently, and that there was nothing specifically spiritual about it except the facade erected over it by the church. So maybe we should all just let each other celebrate whatever we want, however we want, whenever we want, without getting into a bind that the government and media is trying to make Christmas a non Christian holiday. It never was.

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