By Jeff Westover
Some historians are quick to label the “War on Christmas” as a fairly recent phenomenon born of political debates rooted in constitutional arguments of separation of Church vs. State. The truth is that the so-called War on Christmas has been an ongoing struggle for ages.
Many in modern society decline to recognize the war on Christmas and for good reason: Christmas is as popular as ever. How can there be a war on Christmas when Christmas only seems to grow in popularity?
Definition of the war on Christmas is probably the first step in understanding it. And like Christmas itself there seems to be shifting opinions about what the war on Christmas is actually all about.
Simply put, the war on Christmas is a disagreement between those who celebrate Christmas and those who do not. It is sometimes defined as a rift between those who see it as a sacred observance versus others who keep it as a secular festival. The war on Christmas is also a skirmish in the broader battle over free speech versus the imposition of religion.
If it seems like these debates are endless it is because they are.
They date back before the days of television pundits, school board meetings and the ACLU. They pre-date the Civil War, the Revolutionary War and even the colonization of the American continent.
The war on Christmas has been waged in countries around the world and in times that even pre-dates Jesus Christ. These debates even came before the Bible.
How can that be?
The back-and-forth of Christmas is actually all about religion and sacred belief.
The common history out there is that pagans celebrated a year-end holiday fraught with symbolism related to fertility, good luck and eternal life (oh, and something to do about the Mother Goddess giving birth to the Sun, who would save all mankind).
In some societies, that holiday also degraded into debauchery with riotous revelry complete with cross-dressing, drunkenness, and all manner of mischief.
Historians tell us that when the times of Christ came along the church leaders of the Christian faith “hijacked” the pagan season and morphed it into a religious celebration of the birth of Christ, hoping to define what had become a raucous celebration into one of spiritual peace.
That is a nice theory -- but it just does not hold water.
The Bible is comprised of the Old and New Testaments, the old being a record of peoples and prophets before the time of Christ, the new a record of Christ’s ministry and the workings of the Apostles after the crucifixion.
The Old Testament, which pre-dates Christ by thousands of years, clearly contains both prophecy and records of the coming of the Messiah of Jewish tradition.
Ever hear the words “For unto us a Child is born, a son is given…”
Those words come from Isaiah, written, celebrated, told and retold for generations long before the time of Christ’s birth.
Where do historians think pagans got their ideas of gods, fertility, eternal life and good fortune? (Or, of the Mother Goddess giving birth to the Son of God – a common pagan belief?)
Some people tend to think of “pagans” as all one way, that religion and spiritual thought had one central disorganized core before the time of Christ.
The Old Testament and clear ties to ancient prophets such as Abraham
shows rather plainly that there was anciently more unification in spiritual matters than modern historians suppose.
This idea that pagan societies evolved from centralized spiritual thought dates back to the Biblical pronouncement of a “war in heaven
”, where the divinity of Christ was debated “before the world was”.
That the war was fought and one side found victory (Christ’s) – “the sons of men shouted for joy” – indicate that the celebration of a Messiah coming into the world is a very old idea that evolved in different times to different people in different ways.
(How this can happen has been illustrated nicely in Christianity itself as it has fractured countless times in 2000 years of recorded history).
An argument can be made that the story of Cain and Abel is one of the earliest examples of divergent thought relative to Christmas, in this case Christmas being the belief that Christ would come into the world to save it versus Satan, who rebelled against God’s plan of a promised messiah coming into the world (Isaiah 14:12-15) so he could take such glory upon himself.
The Bible tells us that Cain had a little brother named Seth. Recent historical finds about Seth point to a very ancient tie to support the idea of Christmas celebrated before Christ.
In 2008 an ancient text titled “Revelation of the Magi”
buried deep in the archives of the Vatican was translated into English by Dr. Brent Landau of the University of Oklahoma. The text tells the story of the Nativity from the perspective of the wisemen and it reshapes completely many elements of the Christmas story known to most Christians.
Modern historians have long labeled the three wisemen as mystics or magicians, hence the name Magi.
Some identified them as men of Persia, due to its proximinity to the Holy Land. Though the Bible supports the idea that they weren’t Jewish there is no actual evidence — until now — that the Magi had any actual connection to Christ.
This manuscript declares that the term “Magi” is actually a title bestowed upon an ancient order dating back to the time and family of Seth.
Seth was Adam’s third son, a righteous high priest known to be close to God. The book indicated that Seth’s family were called and set apart to escort the Messiah into the world and to witness his birth.
This pre-New Testament Christmas tale is just a fraction of the evidence available out there that continues to surface of Christmas before Christ.
So Christmas is in fact an ancient debate that has seen the season, the observance and the celebration shift one way or another based upon how it was viewed and how it was celebrated.
It has always been so.
The fight has famously surfaced off and on through-out history.
Constantine the Great, that Roman emperor who saw the vision of Christ’s cross and interpreted it to mean “in this sign you shall conquer” did much to blend the worlds of pagan traditions with Christian sensibilities. He may, in fact, be the father of modern Christmas controversy.
Though born almost 300 years after the time of Christ and only a Christian himself after being baptized on his death bed, Constantine fueled the early controversies of the season within the Church – and without – by unifying Christmas as both a sacred and secular observance.
Of course, “conquering” is a literal term for war – meaning weapons, death and destruction of an enemy. Many people lost their lives for either believing or not believing in Christ and the celebration of his birth.
St. Nicholas, the famed Bishop of Myra, was in attendance at the Council of Nicea, where Constantine’s efforts to unify the Church on doctrine took place. Nicholas was famously tossed into jail and stripped of his priestly robes for slapping another attendee who dared to question the divinity of Christ. Legend says that Nicholas’ robes were restored to him and his freedom regained by a vision of heavenly visitors who declared it his mission to preach Christ.
In 1067 William the Conqueror reversed a trend of Christmas tributes, a practice where on Christmas money was giving to the Pope. This controversial practice caused great discord and many refused to celebrate Christmas while it was expected.
In 1551 the British Parliament passed the Holy Days and Fasting Act where it was required of all citizens to walk to Church on Christmas day – Christmas being considered a holy day which required certain pious behavior of the populace (which widely came to be resented).
In Scotland, they got tired of the competing practices of Christmas and banned it altogether in 1583. That ban was not lifted for 400 years.
In 1647 the Puritan’s banned Christmas in a power play fueled by control of the Church of England. King Charles ended that ban in 1660.
Puritans in America had a fight on their hands too, banning Christmas in Boston in 1659 until that was overthrown in 1681.
In 1664 New Amsterdam was conquered by the British and renamed New York. One of their first acts in taking over the settlement was to ban St. Nicholas and tear down his statue, a very unpopular event in the eyes of disaffected residents. New Yorkers responded by making Christmas about merry making, a tradition that would stay out of hand well into the 18th century.
New York City Christmas in even post-Colonial periods was a time of rioting in the street, of vandalism and property destruction. It took decades of promotion, media coverage and local law making to turn Christmas in pre-Victorian era cities in America into peaceful celebrations.
Many historians claim Christmas was not greatly celebrated in the United States before the time of Charles Dickens. That is not true – Christmas was diversely celebrated and in some places completely ignored or frowned upon in early American history.
George Washington famously celebrated Christmas and is largely credited as the inventor of American eggnog. Lewis and Clark celebrated Christmas, A Visit from St. Nicholas
was published in 1823 (nearly two decades before A Christmas Carol) and the first prominent Christmas trees in the country served as a symbol for freedom in the fight against American slavery.
Christmas was declared a U.S. holiday in 1870 but not because it was considered a sacred event that the government required all to observe -- in fact, quite the opposite. The government was responding to complaints from federal workers who had to work Christmas while their private sector peers did not.
But even though Christmas was a national holiday, some 30+ years later President Theodore Roosevelt refused to put a Christmas tree up in the White House (his kids had to sneak one in).
In 1906, more than a decade before the ACLU was founded, Jewish families in New York City staged a one-day boycott of public schools in the city because of Christmas celebrations in the schools.
In particular, a committee of Jewish leaders told the city board of education, they objected to “the singing of denominational hymns” and “the use of the Christmas tree.” Such rituals are “inflicting repugnant religious convictions on the school children,” they argued.
Indeed, a Yiddish newspaper added, school Christmas programs represented “shmad shtick” — that is, an effort to convert Jews. Another paper argued that the New York state Constitution required a separation of church and state; by the same token, Christmas celebrations violated it.
And when the school board turned a deaf ear, Jews turned on their heels. On Dec. 24, the day before Christmas, New York Jews declared a one-day school strike. On Manhattan’s Lower East Side, the city’s most densely populated Jewish neighborhood, an estimated 25,000 children stayed home.
Just a few years later, in 1912, the trend for SPUGS – The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving – enjoyed popularity as Christmas believers attempted to elevate Christmas beyond the commercial levels in had descended in modern American society.
In 1984 the Supreme Court ruled that Nativity scenes could be erected on public property. In the nearly 30 years since there have been countless media stories of local debates on that very same issue.
This was more than a decade before Fox News and there are countless documented stories of Christmas debates on everything from saying the word Christmas in schools to calling a Christmas tree a holiday tree.
There is now a rush to declare “war on happy holidays
” as pro-Christmas believers take offense to anything NOT using the word Christmas.
The war on Christmas is very old. Back and forth it goes. It will never stop.