Christmas as a celebration including fancy gift giving, festive parties, parades, and elaborate meals did not really arise until the mid-1800s. In 1822, a New York City newspaper published the original version of “’Twas the Night Before Christmas”. This poem provided the basis for the modern image of Santa Claus as the portly, red suit wearing, white bearded, jolly ol’ elf. The rise of entire Christmas Season as an extended shopping and celebratory season then fell in line with publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” in 1843. Prior to that time, Christmas remained more subdued in recognition.
In the 1800s, the Yule Log which could burn for the Twelve Days of Christmas had begun to be phased out as the centerpiece of Holiday traditions. Society moved toward decorating Christmas trees as a quite visible symbol of Christmas. Edible Christmas treats still remained the prime gift, but other gift giving began to appear in those stockings, hung with care. Celebrating Christmas as a season unto itself gradually grew in the 1800s. By the later 1800s, Christmas became a mass-marketing event upon which retailers depended.
The Americas and Europe embraced this new Christmas Season concept. Large retailers and local shop owners benefitted with the Christmas trade. With this transition also came some secularizing of Christmas. Even with roots tracing back to St. Nicholas, the newer version of Santa Claus did not readily tie into the birth of Christ. Capitalism embraced Santa and tolerated the religious aspects of Christmas. In fairness, Christian religions still embraced the religious aspects and tolerated the blatant capitalism as folks remained dedicated to religious observances in the Christmas Season. All was good.
So who would declare a War on Christmas? There actually have been multiple Wars on Christmas. Even with a declaration of victory against the War on Christmas in 2016, these Wars on Christmas have been made up affairs intended to serve ulterior purposes of those leading the crusades to putatively save Christmas. Except one. The original War on Christmas actually succeeded for almost an entire generation. This first War on Christmas remains markedly different from all subsequent Wars on Christmas. Let’s work our way in reverse chronological order to touch upon the modern Wars on Christmas and then explore the first, almost successful, War on Christmas. We can then determine the true Grinch who almost beat Christmas.
In 2004, then leading conservative talk show host Bill O’Reilly declared there existed a “War on Christmas”. He actually screamed to his audience that this War threatened the very existence of Christmas. The basis of O’Reilly’s claim that a war was being waged against Christmas included retailers who did not use the word “Christmas” in advertising; retailers who advised their workers to not say “Merry Christmas”; the leftist media which secularized the Christmas holiday; and Democrats, well, just because they were Democrats and therefore should be blamed.
Each year from 2004 until 2016, between Thanksgiving and Christmas, Bill O’Reilly carried on about the continued War on Christmas. His ratings soared each year during that time frame. O’Reilly’s team would search high and low for those who took some action against Christmas, at least in the view of O’Reilly. O’Reilly then railed against these organizations and companies as they were taking Christ out of Christmas.
On the retailer side, favorite punching bags for O’Reilly included Target and Starbucks. Starbucks dared to introduce Holiday cups for its overpriced coffee drinks with those cups not including sufficient Christmas references for O’Reilly. Boycott Starbucks during the Christmas Season! Even worse, Target directed its employees that they could not say “Merry Christmas”. Instead, Target workers could, at best, tell a customer “Happy Holidays”. Boycott Target during the Christmas Season!
Notably absent from O’Reilly’s rants were the facts that Target also instructed its workers not to say “Happy Hanukkah”, “Happy Kwanzaa”, and “Happy Diwali” during the Holiday Season. The facts do not matter when a War on Christmas is being fought!
Bill O’Reilly also directed his ire toward municipalities. He particularly enjoyed finding towns that refused to put up Nativity displays or would do so only if in conjunction with a Menorah or religious symbols from non-Christian religions. Such towns might cite potential challenges to use of municipal funds for religious purposes as violative of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment.
O’Reilly then would bring out his well-worn trope that our Founding Fathers recognized Christmas with Nativity displays and celebrated Christmas as O’Reilly and his followers want the celebration to continue. Ahh. There it is. Celebrating Christmas is fine. Recognizing aspects of a non-Christian Holiday, celebrated by those who do not look like Bill O’Reilly or follow his beliefs, is not fine.
It took the election of Donald Trump in 2016 for Bill O’Reilly to declare an end to the War on Christmas. Why? During the campaign, Trump declared that we will all again say “Merry Christmas” at Christmas time. Once Trump was elected, O’Reilly declared: “How about all those department stores they have the bells and they have the red walls and they have the snow but they don’t have Merry Christmas? I think they’re going to start putting up Merry Christmas.” An official end to the War!
Yet, since 2016, some businesses still direct employees to not say “Merry Christmas”. In fact, the American Family Association publishes its annual list of Christmas friendly and not-so friendly businesses with direction that only the Christmas friendly stores should get your business. Bill O’Reilly established his true purpose in battling the supposed War on Christmas by abandoning the fight entirely in 2016 once Trump was elected. O’Reilly moved the political needle with his efforts and left the cause behind once political objectives were achieved.
Bill O’Reilly is not the first modern champion to take on the War on Christmas. In the 1950s, the John Birch Society declared that America needed to fight a War on Christmas being waged by Communists and the United Nations. In fact, this War included a conspiracy among Communists, both here in the United States and abroad, together with the United Nations to secularize Christmas. The goal of this conspiracy was to undermine American democracy and capitalism while socializing America. America was not terribly long removed from World War II with the Axis of Evil still fresh in the minds of many. The John Birch Society easily tapped into these lingering feelings in setting up a straw opponent challenging a beloved Holiday and its traditions. Through a campaign of fear, the John Birch Society sought to turn this War on Christmas into political gains.
The John Birch Society learned much from Henry Ford. In addition to his auto-making achievements, Henry Ford quite publicly crusaded in the area of anti-Semitism. In 1919, Ford bought a struggling newspaper which he transformed into an outlet for his deeply held anti-Semitic views. The newspaper included one page entitled “Mr. Ford’s Views” through which Henry Ford blamed the Jews for World War I, short skirts on women, and the rise of jazz music. In 1920, on the front page, this newspaper began including a weekly article entitled “The International Jew: The World’s Problem” wherein Ford would present some circumstances or conspiracy theory to “prove” that Jews were seeking world domination. Henry Ford required that his auto dealerships carry this newspaper and display it for customers.
In the 1920s, Henry Ford’s anti-Semitism collided with Jewish organizations who opposed Bible readings during Christmas pageants in public schools. The Jewish groups challenged this practice under the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment. Henry Ford took such objections personally and quite publicly supported the efforts against these organizations. For Henry Ford, these Jewish groups challenged Christmas itself, without deeming it a “War on Christmas”. For Ford, the Jewish people were the immigrant class seeking to displace Christian, white-controlled institutions.
For Bill O’Reilly, the John Birch Society, or Henry Ford, the playbook remained the same. White Christian nationalists needed to find an enemy in order to hold onto the America they desired. The enemies in these Wars on Christmas were Jews, Communists, liberals, or anyone not on the right. These battles were much more political than religious.
Then there were the Puritans.
The Puritans growled, with their Grinch fingers nervously drumming. We must find some way to keep Christmas from coming.
In the first War on Christmas in the Americas, the Puritans actually won for more than two decades. The Massachusetts Bay Colony outlawed Christmas celebrations in 1659. This law lasted on the books until 1681. However, the Puritanical War on Christmas appeared quite different than the modern counterparts. For starters, the Puritans wanted to end Christmas and stop others from celebrating the birth of Christ.
For the Puritans in the 17th century, both in England and in the American colonies, a primary goal remained ridding the church of any of the growing Catholic influence. For these Puritans, life was black and white: if it was not referenced in the Bible, it should not be observed. Christmas is not mentioned in scripture. Therefore, Christmas celebrations must be gone.
Even worse, Christmas as a celebration, appeared to have roots in the Roman pagan ritual of Saturnalia. Saturnalia, falling at the Winter solstice, celebrated the days getting longer. Festivities included candle-lighting, caroling and wassailing. The Catholic Church, as it has done with many pagan rituals, coopted the Saturnalia vestiges into what became Christmas celebrations.
For the Puritans, Christmas suffered on multiple fronts. Foremost, it was not in the Bible so it should never be a religious event. Second, the celebrations arose from pagan rituals. Third, it appeared as a creation of the Pope and Vatican influences. Christmas represented the trifecta of bad acts for the Puritans. To allow Christmas recognition and celebration would amount to Papist idolatry.
Then the Puritans got an awful idea! An awful idea! The Puritans got a wonderful, awful idea!
In 1647, the English Parliament made up of mostly Puritan representatives, outlawed Christmas services and all celebrations which went with them. In 1654, the Calvinist church in Scotland followed suit and banned Christmas. The Calvinists were Puritans in everything except name. The leaders in the colonies took note and outlawed Christmas in the Massachusetts Bay Colony in 1659. In the 1660s, the governments and churches in England backed off these laws. Yet, they remind effective in the Massachusetts Bay Colony until 1681.
While no longer against the law after 1681, in the Americas, celebrating Christmas was left to the Catholics, Episcopalians and Methodists well into the 1800s. In fact, it took until 1870 for Christmas to be declared a federal holiday in the United States. Even then, a number of “Bible-based” Christian religions, most notably Baptists and Presbyterians, continued to shun Christmas recognition and celebrations.
In one sense, the Puritanical War on Christmas appears as the opposite of the modern Wars on Christmas. The Puritans tried to stamp out Christmas entirely while the modern efforts wanted more Christ in Christmas. Nonetheless, all these Wars on Christmas shared a disturbing foundation: fear and hatred of others. Henry Ford openly hated the Jews. The John Birch Society feared the Communists and socialism. Bill O’Reilly perhaps loved ratings more than hating others, but his hurtful undercurrents and disdain still come through in his own War on Christmas. The Puritans both feared and hated the Pope and Catholic influence in the new world order. All of this hatred in the name of Christmas does not strike me as very Christmasy. We should be leery of any further Wars on Christmas.
But this sound wasn’t sad! Why, this sound sounded glad!
The 17th century, fun-loving Puritans succeeded where modern Christmas warriors failed. While difficult to imagine, there could be no legal Christmas celebrations for over twenty years during a period in our history. If the Puritans succeeded, I would not be listening to Christmas music as I pen this article as I am so doing. I would not be looking forward to my wife’s Christmas cookies as I am so doing. And we would not be planning to get together with our three boys over Christmas as we are so doing. As I walk the dog this evening, I will especially admire the Christmas lights placed on my neighbors’ houses and be warmed by the thought that the original Grinch did not succeed in preventing Christmas from coming.
Happy Hanukah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Diwali, and Merry Christmas to you. Happy Festivus to the Rest of Us.