Warring Over the ‘War on Christmas’

Despite America’s over-the-top, month-long celebration of baby Jesus – topped off with a government holiday ignoring the Constitution’s separation of church and state – Fox News and the Right have conjured up a “war on Christmas,” now as much a tradition as eggnog, Nat Parry notes.

By Nat Parry

It’s that time of year again. Time to dig out those decorations, deck the halls and trim the tree. Time to brave the stores in search of that perfect gift. And of course, time to turn on Fox News Channel and crank up the outrage over the “secularist” assault on the “sacred” Christian holiday celebrating the birth of Christ.

Every year, as we do our best to muster up some holiday spirit, we are bombarded with a steady barrage of anger-inducing horror stories over humanism run amok embodied by the so-called “War on Christmas,” and 2013 is shaping up to be no different. Fox News has even set up an interactive website for users to submit their tales of religious persecution by godless civil libertarians bent on stripping Christmas of its quintessential Christian character.

The 2012 National Christmas Tree with the White House in the background. (U.S. Government photo)

The 2012 National Christmas Tree with the White House in the background. (U.S. Government photo)

One submission from College Park, Georgia, complained that a charter school’s “holiday program” would feature popular seasonal music (with songs such as Jingle Bells, Feliz Navidad and Santa Claus is Coming to Town), but that religious songs would not be included.

“It’s okay for boys and girls at The Main Street Academy to jingle bells, but expressing joy to the world is forbidden,” fumed Todd Starnes. “It’s a classic case of Christmas censorship.”

The site also highlights a number of “victories” in the “war” over Christmas traditions, including an apparent capitulation by Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, who has reportedly decided to start referring to the Statehouse “Christmas tree” rather than “the holiday tree.” Chafee acknowledged that his previous choice of words – a nod to the state’s religious diversity and its founding as a haven of religious tolerance – had generated too much anger (likely whipped up by Fox News).

“He caved,” State Rep. Doreen Costa gloated. “This is fabulous news – a small victory for us who fight the war on Christmas.”

The funny thing about these annual controversies – other than the obvious fact that they fly in the face of the U.S. constitutional separation of church and state – is that it seems to be lost on both sides of the dispute that what we consider the celebration of Christmas has very little to do historically with Christianity. It is actually a pagan tradition that predates the birth of Christ by hundreds of years.

In fact, there has been a midwinter festival of one sort or another in Europe, Scandinavia and the Middle East for millennia, and it wasn’t until the fourth century that the Christian Church claimed this holiday as “Christmas,” arbitrarily selecting December 25 as Jesus’ birthday. For what it’s worth, it’s highly unlikely that Jesus was even born on this day, as it was the cold rainy season in Judea and not a time when shepherds generally tended to “watch their flocks by night” as described in scripture.

Pagan Roots

Rather than a celebration of the savior’s birthday, the roots of the holiday are the pagan traditions of Winter Solstice (also known as Yule, or “Wheel,” which is what Christmas is still called in the Nordic countries). In the north, where the days grow depressingly dark at this time of year, the seasons and weather played a central role in the lives of ancient peoples, who spent most of their time outdoors. The Norsemen of Northern Europe therefore had a special reverence for the sun, which was seen as a wheel that changed the seasons, hence the Scandinavian name for Christmas, Yule.

In Britain, the Druids also celebrated the Winter Solstice, in part by cutting the mistletoe that grew on the oak tree and offering it as a blessing. Oaks were seen as sacred and the mistletoe was a symbol of life in the dark winter months.

Also taking place this time of year was the ancient festival of the Romans to celebrate the rebirth of the year, a time of general debauchery known as Saturnalia. Starting on Dec. 17, the festivities ran for seven days and included men dressing up as women and masters dressing as servants.

It was because of its known pagan roots that the holiday was banned by the Puritan-led English Parliament in 1647, which denounced it as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” The ban, incidentally, led to pro-Christmas rioting in several English cities.

The holiday was also prohibited by the original English settlers of Massachusetts. As the Puritan Reverend Increase Mather of Boston observed in 1687, “the early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.”

Due to its pagan origins, Christmas was forbidden by the Puritans and its observance was illegal in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681. But as Stephen Nissenbaum points out in his book The Battle for Christmas, it wasn’t just the holiday’s pagan roots that led to its forbidden status in early America. Because Christmas revelry was such a rowdy affair, heavily lubricated by alcohol, in which societal norms were turned upside down and established authority openly challenged, it was considered rather threatening by the powers that be.

With popular anger and lust freely and publicly expressed by Christmas revelers, the unruliness was considered not just dangerous but sacrilegious. Reverend Mather deplored Christmas revelers’ celebrations as “highly dishonourable to the name of Christ.”

It is into this rich and complex historical context that the Christmas warriors of Fox News and the religious right wade every year in an attempt to whip up outrage over a purportedly victimized Christian nation beleaguered by forces of secularism and multiculturalism.

At the same time, the civil libertarians and humanists who object to public displays of the celebration of Christmas fall into the same trap, bestowing a religious significance to a holiday that has no real relation to the Christian faith – other than the historical fact that the Church coopted a pagan festivity that had already been celebrated for centuries to mark the return of the sun.

What everyone should take a moment to acknowledge is that this holiday is something of a multicultural mongrel to begin with, combining the celebrations of the ancient Druids, the Norsemen of Scandinavia and the ancient Romans, and only more recently, the Christian Church which simply adopted these pagan traditions in an effort to establish its own relevance.

‘Black Friday’ Riots

What Christmas has become today, however, dominated as it is by an aggressive consumerism most disturbingly on display in the recent melee known as “Black Friday,” bears little relation to the ideals expressed by the historical Jesus. Just last week we saw this ugliness play out in cities across America where people jostled to get a slight upper hand over fellow bargain-hunters in taking advantage of the discounts offered by retailers the day after Thanksgiving.

Outbreaks of violence marred the shopping frenzy nationwide, with Chicago police shooting an alleged shoplifter, a shopper gunned down in Las Vegas by someone who wanted his flat screen TV, and a California cop injured in a fight. One woman used a stun gun on another as a fight broke out at a shopping center in Philadelphia. A man was also stabbed in an argument over a parking space at a Walmart in Virginia.

If the Christian faithful were truly concerned about “putting the Christ back in Christmas,” you would think that these sorts of stories would stir up more outrage than stories of schools failing to include religious hymns in their holiday musicals. But you would be wrong.

The point of excessive consumerism is, however, one that Pope Francis made explicitly in an 84-page apostolic exhortation published on Nov. 26, just as the holiday season got underway this year. Taking aim at capitalism as “a new tyranny” Pope Francis urged world leaders to step up their efforts against poverty and inequality and called on rich people to share their wealth.

“The great danger in today’s world,” reads the document, “pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and an­guish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor.”

In words that almost seemed to predict the Black Friday violence that would break out later in the week, Pope Francis wrote, “Today’s economic mechanisms promote inordinate consumption, yet it is evident that unbridled consumerism combined with inequal­ity proves doubly damaging to the social fabric.”

Rather than zero in on the frivolities of Christmas and the semantics of the holiday season, it is perhaps repairing this social fabric that should be the focus this holiday season. Only then will the “War on Christmas” finally come to an end.

Nat Parry is the co-author of Neck Deep: The Disastrous Presidency of George W. Bush. [This story was originally posted at Essential Opinion.]

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5 comments on “Warring Over the ‘War on Christmas’

  1. Thanks, Nat, for pointing out the true way of putting Christ back in Xmas, and for giving the so-called Christians a little lesson in the history of the holiday.

  2. This may draw a few comments from believers and unbelievers alike, but that’s OK. I am a resurrection believing Christian. That said, as pointed out, ‘Christmas’ never came into the mind of the apostolic church. Ogden Nash’s little quatrain is apropos here: “On this birthday of our Lord; buying gifts we can’t afford; one must wonder who more it pleases; Stanley Marcus or the infant Jesus. I see Christmas as a time for family gathering, so people against Christmas do not bother me. My brothers and sisters think they are being persecuted, but what they are experiencing is blowback from people who feel imposed upon. I for one do not want a return to the Holy Roman Empire, although it would delight the ‘triumphalists’. That said, when I was an agnostic, I did not bristle when someone wished me a “Merry Christmas”. Both sides suffer from a condition called ‘rabbit ears’—an old expression used when an athlete reacted to the taunts of opponents in the stands.

  3. rosemerry on said:

    A lovely article. I am retired, and remember as child the refrain “let’s put Christ back into Christmas”, and look where we are now!
    As usual, Americans overdo things. Surely a “christmas tree” is not terrifying for anyone. If only some of the extremists were really in the least “christian” in charity, tolerance, generosity, aiding the poor, the USA would seem more like the “christian nation” they pretend it is.

  4. ypochris on said:

    A good summary of the origins of Christmas, but let me add two points. First, it is not “highly unlikely” that Christ was born on December, it is simply false. Joseph and Mary are said to have returned to Bethlehem to register in the census. The census was not held in the winter for the obvious reason that it would be too difficult to return to one’s birth town in the winter. Nor did shepherds keep their flocks in the fields at night in the winter. No historian believes that it was possible that Christ was born on December 25; as stated here later Christians simply co-opted the traditional Solstice celebration.

    Another interesting point is the orgins of the Christmas tree. in several northern countries, there was a tradition of the “May King” – a young man would be crowned each year in May and provided with all the pleasures society had available. Then, on the winter solstice, the May King would be sacrificed to ensure the return of the sun. His entrails would be strung up on an evergreen tree. Eventually this was replaced by strings of bright red berries representing entrails, leading to the Christmas tree we have today.

    The bottom line is that we do not have a “War on Christmas”; what we have had for the past couple thousand years is a war on non-Abrahamic religions and the traditional solstice celepration.

  5. Dave Wunker on said:

    I must come to the defense of the conservative Christians a little. Although Christ may not have been born when Christmas is celebrated today makes little difference because, despite its pagan roots, that is when most Christians celebrate it. Most Christians would agree with the Pope that the season, on the whole, is an exhibit of extravagant and perverted consumerism. They do not like the fact that Christmas songs are playing on store sound systems and that decorations are up even before Thanksgiving any more than those who are not Christians. They would rather have a much shorter celebration emphasizing what they consider the real meaning of Christmas – the birth of Jesus, than all the consumer hype and glitz. The fact that this is not the case is more the result of American business marketing than Christian triumphalism. Perhaps we can all agree that the season would be more true to what Jesus taught if there was less marketing and consumerism and more giving and concern for others.