There is a War on Christmas—In the History Books

The holiday has been surprisingly strife-torn since America's beginning. But today's controversies don't begin to compare to the colonial-era ban.


A war on Christmas? Has nobody seen Arthur Christmas? The North Pole has stealth technology and fanatical commando elves—you screw with that at your own peril.

But there was a time in America when celebrating Christmas was illegal. For 22 years in the 17th century, from 1659-1681, celebrating Christmas carried a hefty fine imposed by Puritans who viewed the holiday as a borrowing from pagan Roman celebrations. "Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county," ordered the lawmakers of the day.

That this pagan source for the festivities is quite possibly true (let's have a shout-out to Saturnalia) shouldn't be a knock on the day to anybody who appreciates the human need to have a good time, whatever the justification.

Of course, this group doesn't include Puritans. Not a fun bunch. Under their rule, illicitly observing the holiday meant closing the shutters, staying indoors, and showing no particular sign of joy lest the authorities intervene and levy penalties.

Come to think of it, Boston hasn't changed all that much.

Prof. Paul V.M. Flesher of the University of Wyoming has nicely documented the long history of hostility toward Christmas among Christians. Protestant dissenters rejected not just Roman Catholic theology, but many of the trappings that they regarded as frivolous and unfounded in biblical sources.

"[T]he Calvinists in Switzerland banned all Christian holy days not mentioned in Scripture. That approach meant that the Sabbath was acceptable, but nothing else. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other celebrations were to be treated as normal days with nothing special about them."

At different times, bans on Christmas were imposed by religiously minded rulers on the continent, as well as in Scotland and England. And the Massachusetts Bay Colony, of course.

Christmas was technically legalized in Massachusetts in 1681, by a royal governor who shot right past liberalization and made the holiday compulsory (something of a recurring feature in human history).  

Unsurprisingly, given the strong feelings involved, the holiday remained controversial even after the mandatory aspects, pro and con, were removed. Celebrants sometimes risked something that approached real warlike conditions. Anti-Christmas rioters (yes, I just wrote those words) besieged worshippers in King's Chapel on Christmas Day in 1706, smashing windows and throwing fists.

A century later, celebrating the holiday remained dangerous. A watchman was killed when nativist thugs attacked celebrants leaving a Roman Catholic mass at St. Peter's Church in New York City on Christmas Day.

Actually, Christmas rioting has been kind of a thing, to the point of tradition. On Christmas Day 1826, about one-third of West Point cadets got plastered on eggnog and trashed their barracks. But this was less of a war on Christmas than a good Christmas party that turned into a war.

On a less violent and more killjoy note, Boston public schools punished as truants children who stayed home on Christmas up until the day was included in the first batch of federal holidays in 1870.

Modern commentators sometimes react with charges of a "war on Christmas" to attempts to make celebrations non-sectarian or secular to accommodate a society of many religious views, or none at all. Pull a stylized reindeer off your coffee cups or yank Santa visits from the school field trip schedule and you might as well be carpet bombing Bethlehem.

Never mind that corporations have been positioning to appeal to the most, and offend the fewest, customers since day one. And never mind that I had no idea that schools had ever started taking the tots to see the jolly old elf. Isn't that what bored parents are supposed to do in crowded malls on the Saturday after Thanksgiving?

"Yes, Virginia, there really is a war on Christmas," Liberty Institute CEO Kelly Shackelford insisted two years ago, while pointing to a number of restrictions on celebrations at public institutions. As if government officials ever needed an excuse to be ham-handed and over-literal in their interpretations of rules.

As for removing explicitly religious songs from school pageants… It's always a challenge to accommodate religious majorities and minorities in a diverse society. Leaving the religious celebrations out of institutions that everybody is forced to pay for and attend is not necessarily an unreasonable approach.

It's also much less intrusive than that 19th century Boston practice of punishing children who dared to stay home to celebrate the day.

In fact, nothing in the current litany of complaints begins to rise to the level of the outright bans on Christmas celebrations that marked the colonial period, or the official discouragement of the holiday that prevailed in parts of the country much later.  Nor do modern spats over the holiday begin to compare to the sectarian violence that once marked Christmas celebrations. When was the last time that somebody was fined or clubbed for enjoying the holiday in public, let alone on private property?

There is a war on Christmas in America—but it's in the history books.

So enjoy your Christmas, if you are so inclined. Invoke Jesus Christ, or Santa Claus, or ignore the day in favor of another holiday or no holiday at all (I try to indulge in all the fun ones myself).

Just take it easy on the eggnog. West Point is still living that down.

NEXT: Who Will Cry for Lindsey Graham? Not Matt Welch Tonight, on MSNBC's All in with Chris Hayes

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  1. You’ll take my Xmas from my cold dead hand

    1. Hey…. What have you done with Fist?

      1. ‘Anti-Christmas rioters (yes, I just wrote those words) besieged worshippers in King’s Chapel on Christmas Day in 1706, smashing windows and throwing fists.’
        He’s hiding, it’s a bad time of the year for him.

  2. Where have you gone, Cotton Mather? A nation turns its lonely eyes to you.

  3. Modern commentators sometimes react with charges of a “war on Christmas” to attempts to make celebrations non-sectarian or secular to accommodate a society of many religious views, or none at all.

    I think one gets the ‘war on christmas’ label when it’s okay to mention every other holiday that may fall close to the season–except Christmas. When one demands things be renamed to ‘secular’ or ‘non-offensive’ terms when they have no other use than as parts of Christmas tradition or d?cor. When one demands that accommodation can only be a bland homogenization rather than celebration of each tradition.

    And, I’ve gotta say, for people who don’t want to hear anything at all, fuck you. Just because you don’t want to play doesn’t mean the rest of us can’t.

    Another thing–pre-Revolutionary times always seem to get lumped in with post-Revolutionary times. ‘Americans’ didn’t do shit in 16 anything–because there were no ‘Americans’. Christmas wasn’t illegal in America for 22 years–it was illegal in the Plymouth colony.

    1. For someone who wants to quibble over “America”, you do a mighty poor job of it. Try reading your own contribution with a quibbling eye and see your own mistakes.

      Or maybe you’ve had too much eggnog in your rum.

    2. Yes, lets make a law mandating all corporations and government institutions celebrate Christmas. Fuck you duechebag. I went to Catholic school. Not once was I restricted from celebrating Christmas. No government agents storming our school saying we can’t celebrate Christmas or go to daily Mass and I lived in the bastion of liberalism known as Maryland. When did Christians become such fucking crybabies. Say Merry Christmas all you want, no one is going to stop you. But people have a right to say Happy Holidays just as much as you have your right to say Merry Christmas.

      1. First, I’m not saying mandate anything–I’m just pointing out what it is that actually rises to the ‘war on christmas’ level–that it’s not annoyance at having to accommodate the secular (the Happy Holidays song is from 1941–long before the birth of PC), it’s annoyance that this accommodation can only be a bland homogenization rather than celebration of each tradition.

        Why does anyone have to lose out?

        Secondly, Scarechipper, I didn’t make any mistakes.

  4. ‘Americans’ didn’t do shit in 16 anything–because there were no ‘Americans’.

    Ah, so Thanksgiving is totally a British rather than American holiday, then, right?

    1. No.

      George Washington set Thanksgiving as a day for Americans to be thankful for all that they have. He made it a national holiday after he had a nation.

  5. Anti-Christmas rioters (yes, I just wrote those words)…

    I’ve missed 2 Chilly.

    1. Buy copies of his book for Christmas. Great stocking stuffers, even if a bit oversized.

    2. Once I was in a great barroom brawl in Singapore on Christmas.

  6. I like how it took nearly 100 years for us to start declaring federal holidays. Things worked just fine before then, so lets go back to not having them.
    If we are going to recognize BS like Labor Day and Columbus Day but not September 17 Constitution Day or December 15 Bill of Rights Day, why bother?
    Also, if you take all the secular aspects out of Christmas it can no longer be a legal holiday as it would be purely religious at that point, and hence unconstitutional.

    1. We also need to get back to savagely beating progressive hippie garbage. Then we don’t have to worry about things like this.

  7. Most of the Christians claiming there’s a “War on Christmas” don’t like the fact they’ve lost their dominance and are now openly criticized when they try to use government to rub their religion in everyone’s face. They yearn for the days when GLBT individuals stayed in the closet and non-Christians just kept quiet. To them, it’s not enough to have a manger scene at their own church. They need one in every public square.

    Happy Festivus!

  8. Interesting.

  9. So requiring children in Christian families to engage in forced public celebrations of a Saturnalian pagan holiday with even the mollifying effects of a recognition of the religious holiday invented as the substitute, while making the Christian parents pay for it, this is not intrusive?

    Only an atheist “separatist” could see this is avoiding intrusion. Or a libertarian point of view on the subject. And yes, “separatist” is used to satirize the double meaning.

    1. Amended: “without even” instead of “with even”….

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