Remembering the real war on Christmas

Santa won the war. Our popular image of Santa Claus in America was created in part by Thomas Nast, the crusading political cartoonist in the 1800s.

Santa won the war. Our popular image of Santa Claus in America was created in part by Thomas Nast, the crusading political cartoonist in the 1800s.

For reasons completely unrelated to the Holidays, and the Christmas season, I’ve been deep-diving of late into the history of England and the American Colonies in the 1500s and 1600s.  It’s a fascinating time, full of amazing larger-than-life characters.  One finds deeply flawed men like Henry VIII and Thomas Cromwell, and powerful, daring women like Queen Elizabeth and her mother Anne Boleyn.

But woven through the drama of that period is something that took me by surprise — the savage depth of religious animosity and violence that swept England for more than seven decades.   To put that weary, bloody chapter in context, our own Civil War lasted for only about five years.

How this involves Christmas, I’ll get to in a moment, but first some needed context.

Why Christian Englishmen started killing their Christian neighbors

The festering religious trouble in England came to a head in 1529 when Henry VIII embraced a clumsy sort of half-Protestantism, after breaking with the Pope.  Henry wasn’t on board with the Lutheran reformation that was sweeping parts of Europe.  He just wanted control over the Church in England and he desired the freedom to marry and divorce on his own whim.

But that power play was enough to send shock waves through a society that had been solidly Roman Catholic for centuries.  In the decades that followed, a brutal level of Christian-on-Christian violence defined the age.

In Peter Ackroyd’s history of the Tudor dynasty, he describes mobs of Christians looting one-another’s churches and shrines.  They burned Bibles, they destroyed altars, they desecrated holy statues and icons.  The great abbeys of England were broken up, their land and treasures looted.

Eventually, the violence escalated to the point where Protestant leaders were killing Catholic priests and monks.  When Roman Catholic leaders took the throne once again, they in turn murdered Protestants.  Wikipedia’s list of Protestant “martyrs” put to death under Queen Mary runs to nearly 300 names.

Most of those killed were made to suffer horribly.  We think of witch burnings as a strange aberration in English society — and in the English colonies of America.  But in fact during this shameful period it was commonplace for Christians to set fire to those fellow humans whose beliefs differed from their own. It was considered an act of particular mercy to allow the “heretic” being burned alive to dangle a bag of gunpowder around their necks in order to hasten the moment of death.

Christmas condemned as “Papist idolatry”

Most of the killing done during those terrible decades didn’t involve the celebration of Christmas.  Most involved other doctrinal differences, including the question of whether the bread and wine served during the Catholic mass actually transformed into the body and blood of Jesus Christ.  (Catholics believed yes, most Protestants, no.)

But Christmas did eventually become a violent flashpoint for the different Christian sects.  Roman Catholics loved Christmas and made much of its celebration.  But in much of England and Puritan America, the celebration of Christmas was made illegal under law.  Christians in America, in an effort to break firmly with the “idolatry” of the Catholics, even banned the celebration of Easter.

According to accounts of the period, Christmas remained formally outlawed or taboo in much of New England for the better part of 200 years.  A law passed in Massachusetts in the 1650s imposed a civil fine on anyone wicked enough to celebrate the day. This was part of a larger pattern.  During this period, Christians in North America regularly killed or banished one another for holding non-conformist views about faith.  Rhode Island came into existence as a separate colony in large part because religious leaders in Massachusetts needed somewhere to dump those inconvenient souls who didn’t share their religious views.

How we rediscovered and reinvented Christmas

So when did we Americans begin to embrace the Christian holiday?  Surprisingly late.  Some historians suggest that even up to the Civil War, in the 1860s, Christmas remained a marginal holiday at best in much of the US, especially in New England where Puritan influences remained.   But in the 1800s, more and more Roman Catholics immigrated to the U.S.  At the same time, popular stories by Washington Irving and Charles Dickens began to spread the notion that Christmas — even with all the pagan and supernatural elements that so infuriated some Christians — could be celebrated and enjoyed without doing harm to one’s soul.

It is a particular irony, given the long centuries of Christian persecution of Christmas, that secularists are now so often blamed for making war on the holiday.  In fact, much of the holiday’s charm was invented or at least augmented by non-Christians, or by Christians working under distinctly non-Christian motivations — usually trying to make money.  Indeed, many of the trappings of this holiday season were cooked up in the 19th or 20th centuries by jingle writers, ad men, journalists, and popular fiction writers — certainly not by clergy or by Christians driven by devoutness.  Many of their most popular inventions were exactly the kinds of non-Christian fun and fluffery that would have infuriated Christians during the times of persecutions.

Santa Claus himself, in his modern guise, is a “jolly old elf” — not a stern, Catholic saint — one whose image has been burnished by commercial illustrators, beginning with Thomas Nast and continuing with the classic Coca Cola illustrations of the 1930s and 40s.  One source that I found on-line (I’m on sketchy ground here, but here’s the link) argues that as many as 12 of the top 25 favorite American Christmas songs were actually written by non-Christians, most of them Jewish.

So is there a war on Christmas in modern times?  I can’t find any evidence that there is.   This is debatable, of course, but the whole mess seems like a particularly cynical act of staged political theater, one which requires its audience to have very little understanding of American history, of Christmas traditions, or of Christianity itself.  One thing is clear, however.  One faction in the real Christmas Wars that raged among Christians from the 1500s through the 1800s won decisively.  The Roman Catholics and their allies who loved and celebrated Christmas from the start eventually charmed the rest of us over.  They made the holiday so inviting and fun that even many of the dourest churches — and even lots of non-Christians — eventually joined in with a glee that would make our Puritan ancestors shudder.

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23 Comments on “Remembering the real war on Christmas”

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  1. Jim Bullard says:

    And a very merry Christmas to you Brian. :-)

  2. Judith says:

    a concise, thoughtful history & reflection on today. thank you & merry, happy, joyous festivus to you & yours!

  3. Robin says:

    Very interesting piece, thanks. That date in the fourth paragraph should be 1529, not 1629, though!

  4. Brian Mann says:

    Corrected, Robin, thanks.

    –Brian, NCPR

  5. Michael Greer says:

    Those Puritans! They came to the New World to find the religious freedom to persecute any who differed with them. I often think that their presence here at the pre-founding of this country fostered the creation of our form of particularly rabid capitalism, not to mention the Native American genocide, slavery, and environmental pillage. Their ideals burden us to this day with stodgy, conservatism and have prevented social change, leaving America in a slide toward third world status compared to other more progressive places.

  6. Pete Klein says:

    Good piece, Brian

  7. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    Seems like the real war of Christmas started even longer ago when the leaders of the early church decided to move the date of Jesus of Nazareth’s birth to coincide with pagan solstice holidays in order to co-opt the festivities. But the celebration of Christmas has escaped the grasp of organizers and everyone can celebrate in their own way. I know plenty of non- Christians who really enjoy Christmas – Jews, Muslims, Hindus, even agnostics and atheists – as a holiday to enjoy family and friends and goodwill to all, plus maybe a Tom and Jerry or two, or three…

    I find it hard to believe Jesus would have a problem with people enjoying family, friendship and goodwill. He might even like giant blow up lawn decorations, but that is probably going too far.

  8. Two Cents says:

    seems like status quo as far as human history…and for me, religion spoils everything in it’s own wondrous way throughout that history.
    as a side note, writing one Christmas song can be very profitable, regardless of faith. one could live off the royalties for years.
    i always liked the “nast” santa, feels right. always wondered what’s in his pipe though

    a joyous winter with all the trimmings to all.

  9. Peter Hahn says:

    The modern parallel is the Muslim Shia Sunni doctrinal wars.

  10. Jim Bullard says:

    Christianity has inspired some really wonderful art, architecture and music but, like the drugs they advertise on TV around the evening news, it often also had some really bad side effects including death. At this time of year I prefer to take Christmas along with a dose of secular joy and tolerance to mitigate the harsher side effects.

  11. Kent Gregson says:

    There’s no war like religious war. Perhaps that’s because of the difference between govt. and religion. Religion is based on belief, not provable fact. Government functions in the realm of fact and by it’s nature cannot function on beliefs since people believe differently but are subject to the same facts as everyone else. This, by the way, is not universally understood. That is why there are religious wars and governments get dragged into them. All this was understood by our founding fathers who were like George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and Ben Franklin not Christian but deists. They gave us separation of church and state. We need to maintain this separation for the good of our religions and government. Meanwhile, we will always celebrate this time of year as we have since before any religions we know now existed.

  12. mervel says:

    I would argue that it is not government or “outside” forces that have put somewhat of a damper on this Christian Holiday, but our own rampant materialism and secularism, which is our true national faith. Brian makes a good point though about the strange issues which have divided us, and what real wars are about.

    I love Advent and Christmas, its such magical time. Certainly it makes sense that the Light of the World would be celebrated in the darkest time of the year, so thank you Pagans!

  13. mervel says:

    I am always suspect of anyone who is “angry” this time of year over Christmas, either about some sort of fake war or about Christians celebrating the Birth of our Lord and Savior. You don’t really know Christmas if you are angry all of the time anyway.

  14. Two Cents says:

    if you’re not angry, then you’re not paying attention.

  15. Mervel says:

    Well it depends on what you are paying attention to. Paying attention to the constant din of this culture and media is part of the problem in my opinion. As Merton points out we live in a society whose goal is to excite every nerve and sense and emotion in our lives, the point is to keep people continually grasping, what use do contented people have to those trying to sell us things, be it ideas or goods or “success”.

  16. Peter Hahn says:

    In those days there was no separation between government and religion. Religious wars were civil wars.

  17. Mary-Nell Bockman says:

    Brian, you might enjoy the book, “The Battle for Christmas” by Stephen Nissenbaum. He gave a lecture at the Lyceum at the Whallonsburg Grange last year around this time; entertaining, interesting and enlightening. Just like all the lectures we host!

  18. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    While the Puritans over in New England burned ‘witches” and acted like Scrooges, here in New Amsterdam the Dutch influence of tolerance and decency held sway. Much of our modern view of Christmas came from heavily Dutch New York city and the Hudson Valley. Thomas Nast was a New Yorker and The Night Before Christmas or “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was first published in Troy, NY. Then there are the reindeer – Dancer and Prancer and Vixen would not be welcome in New England. Also, who hung their stockings (or shoes) by the chimney? The Dutch. Nearly all of our modern view of Christmas is filtered through the lens of Dutch New York. Washington Irving and so many newspapers and other institutions that influenced our culture – right through Madison Avenue advertising.

    The Germans had plenty of influence too, but being here in New York we should be celebrating the moderating influence of our Dutch forebears in the victory of Sinterklass over Father Christmas. Of course there is the unfortunate Zwarte Piet to contend with. I guess racism finds its way into nearly every sort of discussion, but I don’t mean to suggest in any way that Zwarte Piet and Sinterklass started the war on Father Christmas. And thank Dunder and Blixem that Father Christmas does not carry a gun – even a toy gun – except possibly concealed in a sack, which I believe he has a special concealed carry permit for.

    By the way, St Nicholas Day was December 6th, so most of us missed out on the correct day to hang our stockings by the chimney with care. Lumps of coal all around.

  19. not really says:

    knuckleheadedliberal: ummm – I don’t think He would like “Christmas” – nor Sunday as church day. Why? As He stated many times – He only did what His father did. His father said over and over and over through many prophets and hundreds of years not to take pagan ways and use them to celebrate Him. Jesus (Yeshua) was firmly Jewish… He only celebrated Jewish holidays… The Romans had “fun” times to gather with their family and friends – such as the winter solstice celebration that “Christmas” was adopted from… He wasn’t a partaker… The only winter celebration He went to was recorded in John chapter 10… It was the “feast of dedication” – what we know as “Hanuka”.

  20. knuckleheadedliberal says:

    I didn’t say “Christmas”, I said: “I find it hard to believe Jesus would have a problem with people enjoying family, friendship and goodwill.”
    And if He had a problem with that then He should go read what he said about loving thy neighbor and stuff. Of course, He had some unique family issues that could make family gatherings awkward.

  21. not really says:

    knuckleheadliberal – loving your neighbor has absolutely nothing to do with reinvented religious holidays. There are many times He congregated with his people and family. There are many holidays in the Bible. That has nothing to do with the issue. The words he said to the Samaritan woman are more appropriate. “Loving your neighbor as your yourself” was a direct quote from Leviticus 19… That’s a whole book about what celebrations are approved and not..

  22. HarlansHollowFarms says:

    And the controversy continues!

  23. Mervel says:

    Ahh so we have a Christian Christmas denier!

    Jesus didn’t celebrate His own birthday? Hmmm? We have a pretty good idea that it was a special time given the amount of time St. Luke spent describing this wonderful day.

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