Web Essays

The War on Christmas

A brief history of the Yuletide in America

By Charles Ludington | December 28, 2020
Kevin Dooley (Flickr/pagedooley)
Kevin Dooley (Flickr/pagedooley)

I can’t remember many good political moments in the Trump years, but one thing that did make me happy was when President Trump declared that the “War on Christmas”—that is, the annual American tradition of insisting that there is one—was over, because his side, the side that did the insisting, had won. In December 2016, the president assured an adoring crowd in Salt Lake City that “Christmas is back, bigger and better than ever before,” and a few days later, standing outside the White House, told a weary nation, “We can say Merry Christmas again.” Thank God, I thought. We won’t have to hear about the supposed “War on Christmas” ever again. That was then, but now I’m in despair, because while campaigning this past October, President Trump told supporters that if Biden “comes in, … the Christmas season will be canceled.” We now know that the Christmas season was not canceled, but the belief that it will be will surely be resurrected.

I make that claim with certainty because the fake “War on Christmas” has been around for a long time, and it serves a particular white Christian nationalist purpose. The “war” was begun in the 1920s by notorious anti-Semite Henry Ford, who reacted angrily when Jewish organizations had the temerity to ask that the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Constitution be enforced, thereby disallowing Bible readings and Christmas pageants in public schools, a common practice at the time.  The centripetal forces of the Depression and World War II silenced the conflict for a generation, but the war recommenced in the 1950s when the John Birch Society accused communists (and the United Nations) of conspiring to secularize Christmas for the purpose of socializing America. More recently, in 2004, Fox News’s Bill O’Reilly declared that Christmas was under threat and rallied his troops every Yuletide, right up through President Trump’s December 2016 declaration of victory.

Mission accomplished?

No, for the grievance that has fueled the supposed War on Christmas is still very much present. Indeed, for white Christian nationalists, the conflict speaks to the fear that their hold on American society is slipping, whether to Jews, communists, Blacks, Hispanics, secular liberals, or any other group that strives for the cultural equality of all Americans, regardless of ethnicity or creed. Put another way, the War on Christmas is a struggle over two very different visions of America’s past, present, but mostly future. On the one side is a white Christian nation, with minority groups playing bit parts, if they must; on the other is a nation that, for now, happens to be mostly white and Christian, with other groups rapidly growing in size and influence.

The War on Christmas is a meme, a political cudgel that is itself real, but no one is scheming to abolish our yuletide celebrations. Yet there once was a real war on Christmas, and one of my ancestors was directly involved. William Luddington left the village of Turvey, in Bedfordshire, England, in the 1630s and immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, where he settled in Charlestown, now a part of Boston. The reasons for his departure from England are unclear, but likely one of them was his disagreement with those who wanted to celebrate Christmas. Luddington was emphatically against it.

He was born into the Church of England in 1611, and his father was a warden in Turvey’s Parish Church, known as All Saints. Perhaps Luddington’s piety exceeded his father’s, at least in his own eyes, or maybe, at the age of 25, he simply had more energy than his father to leave England behind and start over in a new land. Either way, Charlestown, where Luddington settled in the New World, was a godly town full of like-minded Christians, John Winthrop among them. But eventually even Charlestown was not godly enough for Luddington, who moved on to the New Haven Colony in 1660. New Haven had been founded by English settlers from the Massachusetts Bay Colony who believed that Boston had been ruined by commerce. In their eyes, Boston had squandered the opportunity to become the Christian “City Upon a Hill” of which Winthrop had dreamt; in fact, their “New Haven” for God’s chosen people, was purposely located so as not to take full advantage of the magnificent natural harbor, and thereby keep its citizens’ minds on what truly mattered.

To put all this in more familiar terms, Luddington was a Puritan, someone who believed that the Anglican Church needed to be purified of its Roman Catholic vestiges. Bishops, therefore, were to be abolished from the church hierarchy; elaborate priestly vestments had to be jettisoned in favor of plain black garments; making the sign of the cross could not be tolerated; and Christmas had to be outlawed. Yes, the Puritans, whom we collectively celebrate every Thanksgiving, and whom some see as the very founders of what would become the United States, detested Christmas. It was, after all, a Mass for Christ, an early church ceremony that had been invented in order to Christianize the raucous Roman holiday of Saturnalia. Add candle lighting, caroling, and wassailing (toasting and drinking to someone’s health, repeatedly)—all common practices at Christmastide (the 12 days from Christmas until Epiphany) that had survived the Reformation in England, and Puritans saw a clear-cut case of papist idolatry. It’s no wonder that righteous Puritans like Luddington would have wanted to get away from England and go to a place where almost everyone agreed that December 25 was just another gray, winter day.

As fate or God would have it, Luddington’s decision to leave England was premature, because in 1647, after the Puritan members of Parliament and their army of “Roundheads” defeated King Charles I and his “Cavaliers” on the battlefield, Christmas celebrations were outlawed by parliamentary ordinance. Moreover, for Puritans, things got better still; wily King Charles secured military support from the Presbyterian Scots (who had already banned Christmas celebrations in 1640), but the king’s combined Anglo-Scottish force was once again defeated in battle in 1648, and this time Bible-based Puritans were in no mood to apply Jesus’s injunction to “love your enemies.” Instead, King Charles was tried and convicted of tyranny, treason, and murder, and was beheaded on January 30, 1649. A commonwealth was quickly declared, which England brutally coerced Scotland and Ireland into joining; however, this republican government could not pay the army that had brought it to power. As a result, in 1653, army leaders, themselves mostly Puritans, created a new government under a “Parliament of Saints.” In other words, a theocracy.

Alas, for the theocrats, London did not become the New Jerusalem and Jesus did not arrive in England on a white charger brandishing a sword of peace—as the millenarians insisted he would. Insteadan angry army deposed the theocratic government and turned to their own godly leader, Oliver Cromwell. The British Isles were now governed by a written constitution in a state known as the Protectorate, which was fundamentally authoritarian, with a large army cum police force and a heavy dose of Puritan bigotry.

In Cromwellian England, Anglicans who tried to celebrate Christmas were arrested or harassed, as evidenced by John Evelyn’s diary entry for Christmas, 1657.

I went to London with my wife to celebrate Christmas-day, Mr. Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel. … Sermon ended, as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament, the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and assembly surprised and kept prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away …

In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others from Whitehall to examine us one by one; some they committed to [a court], some to prison. When I came before them, they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made, that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteemed by them), I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the Mass in English…

These were men of high flight and above ordinance, and spoke spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity. As we went up to receive the Sacrament, the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of Communion, as perhaps not having instructions what to do, in case they found us in that action.

So I got home late the next day, blessed be God!

Christmas celebrations returned with the monarchy and the reconstitution of the Church of England in 1660; however, in New England, Christmas celebrations remained anathema. The Puritan settlers in Massachusetts and Connecticut had long done their best to prevent Christmas celebrations, and in 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony made such celebrations illegal. The ban on Christmas was repealed in 1681, but Christmas remained an unpopular “popish” holiday throughout colonial New England. Indeed, even in the early years of the American republic, Christmas was celebrated almost exclusively by Anglicans (Episcopalians), Methodists, Lutherans, and Catholics, as well as regionally—southern states observed it more than northern ones. But throughout the country, self-proclaimed sola scriptura Christians avoided it as there was no mention of the day of the Nativity in the Bible. Christmas did not become a federal holiday until 1870, but many Congregationalists, Baptists, and obscure sects continued to shun Christmas on principle.

How, then, did Christmas finally triumph in America over so much Christian opposition? [The answer to this question can be found in a combination of Anglophilia, German immigrants, and commercialism.]  Despite and because of our beginnings as a nation, American Anglophilia has a long history, but in the mid-19th century, it was perhaps best exemplified and spread by the popularity of writers Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. Irving was America’s first best-selling author and is now most famous as the author of the short story, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”; however, the vast majority of stories from his most popular collection, The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. (1819–20) are set in England, where Irving lived for 17 years. Of the 34 stories in the book, no fewer than five express Irving’s fondness for a “traditional” English Christmas—that is, the type of Christmas celebration he witnessed among the English gentry in the early 19th century.

Irving’s depiction of Christmas as a celebration of gentle paternalism and social harmony was in turn one of many influences upon his friend Dickens, who almost singlehandedly invented both the form and emotions of modern Christmas in Sketches by Boz (1833), The Pickwick Papers (1837), and most famously of all, A Christmas Carol (1843), all of which were widely pirated and read in the United States. For Dickens, Christmas was a celebration of domesticity and the nuclear family, which he, like many early Victorians in both Britain and America, saw as the bulwark of stability, warmth, and love against the cold indifference of the marketplace. What else are the Cratchits if not Dickens’s ideal, loving family and the one he wished he had had? And what else is Ebenezer Scrooge—a man with no family who lived only for money—if not the embodiment of callous capitalism? It is Christmas, and all that it symbolizes for Dickens, that eventually transforms Scrooge from a niggardly taskmaster into a warm and generous patriarch, a virtual second father to Tiny Tim. But Dickens’s argument that there are higher values than profit-maximization was hardly a blow to commercialism. After all, how does Scrooge respond to his own spiritual self-awakening? By giving gifts, of course! So, while Dickens’s idea of Christmas (like his Ghost of Christmas Present) is a rebuke to the values of the marketplace, it simultaneously helped lay the foundation for making Christmas the most commercial of all Christian holidays. Indeed, for many Americans, the holiday is, above all, about buying and selling.

Gift-giving is a relatively recent Christmas invention within the Christian timeline, as it is sometimes attributed to Martin Luther. As a critic of the cult of saints, Luther sought to end the celebration of St. Nicholas’s Day (December 6) on which gifts were given, especially to children, and transfer the focus to Christmas, and therefore Jesus. But the custom of giving small gifts—often baked goods, roasted meat, or candy—to friends and family on Christmas day did not extend much beyond Lutheran Northern Europe until the mid-19th century. In the English-speaking world, this custom began to pick up in 1840, when Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, a German and a Lutheran, arrived in Great Britain to marry Queen Victoria. Along with establishing gift-giving as an obligatory Christmas practice within his fast-growing family, Albert also introduced the British to the Christmas tree, which gradually replaced the more traditional yule log as the ne plus ultra of Christmas decor in the English-speaking world.

Both gift-giving and Christmas trees had already arrived in the United States with German immigrants in the 18th century, but these practices were not widespread until the post-Civil War era, when they began to be embraced by Christian-Americans of all ethnic backgrounds. Indeed, some of this change had to do with the continuously popular Dickens, who made two extended speaking tours to the United States, the first in 1842 and the second in 1867–68, where he spoke to sell-out crowds. But more important than even Dickens himself, the Civil War had sent American manufacturing into overdrive, and now in a time of peace, America was fast becoming a producer and consumer of manufactured goods like never before. In this environment, the growing American retail industry, could hardly fail to see the commercial potential of expanding Dickens’s notion that the joy of Christmas lay in giving small gifts to children, to giving gifts to  family and friends of all ages. Add to this that by 1890, every U.S. state or territory had made Christmas a holiday, and shopping for gifts now had its season.

Together, Irving and Dickens invented the sentimental aspects of modern Christmas, but it was retailers who introduced many of the traditional American Christmas icons and images we have come to know. Clement Moore popularized the idea of Santa Claus in his poem, “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (first published anonymously in 1823), but in the 1930s, Coca-Cola standardized Santa’s image as a portly, white-haired, white man, adorned in the company’s signature red and white. Montgomery Ward, the department store, invented Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer as a sales ploy to draw children into their stores. And in our own era, any American who watches television or shops in the weeks between Thanksgiving and Christmas—that is, just about every American—knows that the “holiday shopping season” is the pinnacle of the consumer calendar. We even have a phrase for the first day of the season: Black Friday.

A December 2017 study released by the Pew Research Center found that nine out of 10 Americans celebrate Christmas, overwhelming evidence that the War on Christmas is a straw man. The same study showed that 46 percent of Americans celebrate Christmas as a religious holiday and nine percent as a religious and cultural holiday. But 33 percent celebrate Christmas primarily as a cultural holiday. Put another way, for more than 40 percent of Americans, Christmas is a celebration of consumption wrapped in the warm glow of family, friends, food, and booze. It is retail therapy on steroids, and like steroids, it makes us feel good.

For many practicing Christians, shopping and wassailing (by whatever name) are not what Christmas should be about. The Christian novelist C. S. Lewis allegorically proposed to separate the day of worship from the day (or more) of revelry, and maybe that’s good advice. But let’s also remember that Christmas was Emperor Constantine’s attempt to Christianize a pagan holiday that was all about conviviality, cavorting, and sex. The early Church did its best to control those Christmastide activities, but it could never eradicate them, nor could the more formalized Catholic Church, or the Protestant sects that emerged from the Reformation. People weren’t spending their time contemplating God’s gift to the world; they were having profane fun. In other words, Christmas never strayed far from its pagan roots.

Indeed, it was this overtly pagan behavior surrounding a made-up date and season that made Puritans like William Luddington hate Christmas so much. But I’m happy to say that he lost the real war on Christmas. The winners are those who want to celebrate Christmas as the birth of Christ (because, after all, you have to pick a date) and those who want to celebrate Christmas because the darkest days of the year (in the northern hemisphere, at least) are a really good time to enjoy family, friends, food, a warm fire, and maybe some alcohol. So, the real war on Christmas is in fact over, and the good guys won.

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