If you believe the pundits pushing the notion of a godless "War on Christmas," you might be shocked to learn that America's history of Christmas isn't especially Christian. In order to turn Christmas into the kind of historical rah-rah Jesus festival many Christians would like to believe in, you have to do some very creative rewriting. But then, many of these folks are the same ones who will try to sell you on America's founding as a Christian nation. So... there's that.
Ironically, the only successful "War on Christmas" was waged by Christians. An ultra-orthodox contingent of Puritans took control of England under the often brutal leadership of Oliver Cromwell, who outlawed Christmas in England in 1645. A quarter of a century before that, a group of separatists even more conservative than Cromwell had left for America. They never celebrated Christmas, and in fact, outlawed it in Boston from 1659-1681.
Why did the Puritans ban Christmas? Well... because it's not Christian. It's a Pagan holiday, and they knew it. So they outlawed it.
Christmas caught on very slowly in America. The first Congress was busy at work on December 25th, and thought nothing of it. It wasn't until 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday. Most Americans were fine with this arrangement, since there was lingering anti-British sentiment coupled with distrust of the old Pagan customs which so dominated the celebration.
Washington Irving's poetic re-interpretation of Christmas was the first step towards the holiday we know today. The thing is, it had nothing at all to do with Christianity and everything to do with class warfare. The early 19th century was littered with riots during the brutally cold months. In 1828, there was a particularly nasty Christmas riot at West Point that brought out New York's finest in force. It wasn't over a manger in the park, though. It was over whiskey.
The early 19th century was a period of intense class conflict, with skyrocketing unemployment, gang riots, and a general abundance of disenfranchisement. Washington Irving's idillic portrayals of traditional English Christmas, with carols, family meals, and all the trimmings had more to do with an effort by the upper classes to tame the seething masses than anything else. It was about horrific working conditions, and an immense gap between the haves and the have-nots. His idealization of Christmas, and his outright invention of "ancient traditions" that never existed was a response to this socio-economic turmoil.
Believe it or not, Christmas was also part of the Civil War. Continuing with the real Christmas tradition, most northern states viewed the holiday as sinful. Three southern states -- Alabama, Louisiana, and Arkansas -- had the gall to flaunt their Pagan ways and make Christmas legal! Our modern conception of Santa Claus can trace its roots back to scathing political cartoons by Thomas Nast, a political cartoonist who published war propaganda for the United States. What were the cartoons about? Not Jesus. One of the most famous depicted Santa unable to bring toys to southern children because of the war.
After the war, Christmas began to catch on across all the states, but it wasn't until the brilliant marketing scheme of Coca-Cola in 1931 that it became an "All-American Holiday." While Coke didn't invent the modern image of Santa, it did have the foresight to buy it from Haddon Sundblom, a commercial illustrator whose images arguably did more to popularize Christmas than all the tintinnabulation emanating from all the churches in American history.
The Christmas pantheon -- the royal couple, the elves, the reindeer -- have their roots in older mythology, but they didn't really take cultural hold until Coke decided to buy Christmas. Since then, it's true that Christmas has been as American as baseball and apple pie, but it hasn't been especially Christian. Here's a list of the top 20 Christmas songs of all time:
- 1 White Christmas Bing Crosby
- 2 The Chipmunk Song The Chipmunks
- 3 Rudolph, The Red Nosed Reindeer Gene Autry
- 4 I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus Jimmy Boyd
- 5 Jingle Bell Rock Bobby Helms
- 6 The Christmas Song Nat King Cole
- 7 Snoopy's Christmas The Royal Guardsmen
- 8 Here Comes Santa Claus Gene Autry
- 9 Little Drummer Boy Harry Simeone Chorale
- 10 Donde Esta Santa Claus Augie Rios
- 11 Rockin' Around The Christmas Tree Brenda Lee
- 12 You're All I Want For Christmas Brook Benton
- 13 Baby's First Christmas Connie Francis
- 14 Santa Claus Is Coming To Town Bruce Springsteen
- 15 Home For The Holidays Perry Como
- 16 Santa Claus Is Coming To Town Four Seasons
- 17 Do They Know It's Christmas Band Aid
- 18 Happy Christmas (War is Over) John Lennon and Yoko Ono
- 19 May You Always Harry Harrison
- 20 Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer Elmo and Patsy
Not very Christian, is it? The Little Drummer Boy mentions Jesus, but Santa sure gets top billing as popular songs go. What about movies?
- 1 A Christmas Story
- 2 It's a Wonderful Life
- 3 Miracle on 34th Street
- 4 Scrooged
- 5 White Christmas
- 6 Elf
- 7 Christmas in Connecticut
- 8 Home Alone
- 9 Babes in Toyland
- 10 National Lampoon's Christmas Vacation
What do all ten of these movies have in common? No Jesus. Sure, there are a couple of manger scenes in store windows here and there, and It's a Wonderful Life has an angel, but there's no Jesus. He's just not a central character or plot device in any one of these movies. Not one. And sure, this is just some guy's list of the best movies, but try Googling "Top Ten Christian Christmas Movies." Here's one link on a Christian site that recommends the theologically gripping "Polar Express."
The truth is that Christmas is no more owned by the Christians than is the American government. Sure, there's some genuine Christian content to the holiday. Originally celebrated as early as 354 AD by the Christian church, it most definitely is a Christian holiday -- to Christians. Even so, modern Christians may not want to spend too much time pushing their own holiday's historical context. Through most of the Middle Ages, Christmas might have been a celebration of Jesus' birth in name, but it was a celebration of booze and debauchery in practice. It wasn't until the 19th century that it became a child-focused family holiday
In a broader perspective, there has always been the needling realization by Christians in various times and places that very, very few of the traditional celebratory practices or images are about Jesus. They are much older, much more Pagan, and ultimately, at odds with the prevailing message of the Christian Christmas story.
To the Christians who claim there's a War on Christmas, here's the bitter reality: The only war is the one being waged by Christians trying to rewrite history -- again -- to make it seem like Christmas has always been some kind of love-fest for Jesus. American Christmas in particular has been almost the polar opposite. It was largely ignored until it became remade into a good story line for a children's movie -- not a movie about Christ's sacrifice, but a movie about a magical gingerbread house in the North Pole, and Jolly Old Santa, and Rudolph, and Frosty, and the Grinch.