War on Christmas: The Prequel

Early campaigns to abolish the holiday form a largely forgotten chapter in American history, writes Scott McLemee.

December 9, 2015

Let’s not let the sideshow in Tennessee -- where, pretty much on cue, politicians have been waxing indignant over the call for “inclusive holiday celebrations” at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville -- distract us from the real war on Christmas: the one nobody at Fox News wants discussed.

Early campaigns to abolish the holiday form a largely forgotten chapter in American history. They were part of a larger cultural war, inspired if not actually led by the intellectual elite in Europe. Today the educational system and mass media of the United States make sure that everyone knows that Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims. But they somehow never get around to telling us about the Pilgrims and the other late-year holiday, the one they loathed: the ungodly, blasphemous abomination known as Christmas.

First things first. We need to go back a little farther in history to consider the cutting-edge scholarship of the 16th century. The hot field of the day was chronology, a controversy-laden discipline that you do not hear much about anymore and haven’t for a while. It was in part a response to the flood of new information coming into Europe about other parts of the globe and amplified by the invention of the printing press.

Chronologists scrutinized -- and struggled to integrate -- the historical record available from Jewish and Christian Scripture, the pagan authors of Greco-Roman antiquity, and newly available secular material from the Levant (what today is usually called the Middle East), such as the lists of Egyptian dynasties. The goal was to piece together into a coherent, consistent timeline running from the Garden of Eden down to the present. Chronologists knew they would eventually have to incorporate the records of far-flung civilizations in the Orient and the New World, but the documents at hand by the mid-1500s presented more than enough challenge at the time.

And the stakes were enormous, given the rift in Christendom. There were Catholic specialists in chronology, to be sure, but the painstakingly critical re-examination of the historical record had a particular urgency for reformers. Any established doctrine or traditional religious practice was fair game. If it did not find sanction in Scripture, it was surely a Romish affront to true Christianity -- and the Protestant chronologist could not help noticing that the Gospels were conspicuously silent on the date of Jesus’s birth.

Starting in the third or fourth century, it had been celebrated on Dec. 25. But as Carl Philipp Emanuel Nothaft writes in “From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth-Century Chronological Scholarship,” the chronologists had no great difficulty challenging the date. (Nothaft is a long-term fellow at the Warburg Institute in London; his article appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas four years ago.)

The simplest argument appealed to both classical literature and common sense: “Could one seriously assume,” writes Nothaft in paraphrase, “that such a wise administrator as Augustus would have ordered a census, which forced people to travel long distances, at such a rainy and inconvenient time of the year? And even more strikingly: the shepherds attending to their flocks in the outside was hardly a scene to be expected during winter, when sheep were supposed to stay inside their stables, as Columella (De re rustica 7.3) taught.”

Other chronologists tried to determine the possible date of the nativity through textual analysis and deductive reasoning, some of it fairly convoluted. The Gospel of Luke has the angel Gabriel informing Mary of her unusual conception six months into the pregnancy of her relative Elizabeth, whose husband Zechariah is a priest. Gabriel had visited Zechariah while the latter burned incense and let him know that Elizabeth, despite her age, would give birth to a son named John (aka “the Baptist”).

So if the time and circumstances of John’s conception could be made congruent with the date of Zechariah being in the temple, then there would be sufficient grounds for determining Jesus’s nativity. That is, of course, one big if. Various dates for the incense burning from the Jewish liturgical calendar were advanced through various arguments too complex to digest here.

The upshot is that Jesus was born sometime between September and April -- probably toward the beginning or end of that period, considering the shepherds’ weather concerns. Chronologists could not reach a consensus on the date, but they could at least agree with a statement by Joseph Justus Scaliger (1540-1609), the pre-eminent thinker in their field. A French Protestant scholar of almost appalling erudition, he gave the Jesuits a run for their money in polemical combat. Questioning Dec. 25 as a Christian holiday could get you hauled in front of the Inquisition, he acknowledged, but that was because the pope and his minions had no better argument. “In fact,” Scaliger said, “the basis of their assumption is so absurd that it is astounding that all of Europe has agreed with it.”

Protestant militants had other, less recondite reasons for disliking Christmas and wanting to stamp it out. Nothaft quotes the First Book of Discipline issued by the Church of Scotland’s listing of Christmas as one of the holidays that, “because in God’s Scripture they neither have commandment nor assurance, we judge them utterly to be abolished from this realm.” Not to be too reductionist about it, but all those feast days on the calendar of the medieval church must have been quite galling to the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism. The theological arguments were sincere, but so was the emerging mentality that prized hard work and self-denial.

And indeed, the drunken office party at Christmas has deep roots. Chronologists suspected that the holiday was a holdover from the ancient Roman holiday of Saturnalia, decorated with some Christian trimmings and without the orgies. (This remains one of the more plausible theories of how Christmas began.) Certainly, the holiday had too much of an odor of paganism for the Puritans. One of them, cited by Nothaft, complained that Christmas was just an excuse for “Drinking, Stage-plays, Enterludes, Masks, Mummeries, Dancing, and all licentious dissoluteness.” The road to hell is paved with reminders to have a very merry Christmas.

James P. Walsh’s paper “Holy Time and Sacred Space in Puritan New England” makes clear that Puritan New Englanders not only disdained Christmas (they called it “Foolstide”) but also were pretty aggressive about how utterly nonspecial it really was. The Lord’s command was to remember the Sabbath day and keep it holy -- full stop. When Dec. 25 rolled around, the Puritans approached it with a tactic Walsh characterizes as “profanation.” His account bears quoting:

“In Plymouth, on Dec. 25, 1621, the Pilgrims went off to work, well aware that the date was regarded holy by most Englishmen. On their way to the fields, the Pilgrims encountered a group of their neighbors, recent immigrants, who refused to work on Christmas Day. After a heated discussion, Governor William Bradford grudgingly excused their benighted conformity to ancient custom, and the working party continued on its way. Upon returning from the fields at midday, however, Bradford found the idlers playing. Totally exasperated, Bradford broke up the game by taking away the ball. Samuel Sewall acted in the same spirit when he snooped around Boston on Dec. 25 to make sure that shopkeepers remained open for business.”

In 1659, the General Court of the Massachusetts Bay colony enacted legislation fining those who celebrated Christmas in any manner. An earlier Dec. 25 in Massachusetts Bay was officially observed as “a special day of fasting and humiliation.” I guess you could call that “celebrating Christmas,” but it’s a stretch.

The righteous struggle against Christmas waxed and waned, but it continued in America well into the 19th century. As late as the 1830s, the day was marked in Providence, R.I., only by the tolling of a single church bell on Christmas Eve. A writer who spent his boyhood there recalled that “the airy music of that evening bell, and the cheerful church next morning, dressed with aromatic hemlock sprays, were his only Christmas.”

Resistance to the holiday eventually eroded, for reasons only indirectly related to its religious significance. For one, there was the impact of immigration (e.g., not that many Calvinists coming in from Ireland). Even more, there was the practically irresistible culture-shaping course of mass media and consumerism.

“In the 1820s and ’30s,” according to one account, “the newspapers began their campaign of Christmas advertisements, with an occasional ‘Christmas or Holiday Offering,’ consisting chiefly of clothes, books and the illustrated annuals then popular. …”

I’m not sure whether the expression “Christmas or Holiday Offering” appeared in newspapers of the 1820s and ’30s, or if it was coined by the author of the article just quoted, which was published in 1935. Either way, it seems suspiciously inclusive, at least by the standards of our exhibitionistically aggrieved demagogues who wait all year for the opportunity to act like they’re being persecuted. They would embarrass the Pilgrims -- and not just for making an idol of Christmas. Say what you will about the Puritans, but at least they understood that self-pity is a vice, not a badge of honor.


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