An Abbreviated History of Christmas

By Jeff Westover
My Merry

The many voices battling the war on Christmas each claim different things about the history of Christmas.

These claims are wrong in nearly every sense. Let’s set the record straight.

Christmas existed before Christ. It was a religious celebration that at the time was absent of Christmas trees, carols, Santa Claus, gifts, food, decorations or any of the other traditional trappings we now associate with the season.

Christmas has existed in many forms since that time — both as a religious festival and as a secular season most commonly associated with winter.

The so-called War on Christmas can be traced back to the earliest settlers to hit the shores of North America. In the early 17th centuries there were two types of immigrants: pilgrims and puritans. The Puritans came to these shores to escape the religious persecution they had endured under the British crown. So too did the Pilgrims.

The Puritans settled Massachusetts Colony. The Pilgrims settled Jamestown. For the purposes of our discussion here the only difference between these two groups is that the Pilgrims celebrated Christmas and the Puritans did not. They both had their reasons and, in both cases, they were religiously motivated decisions.

Over the course of the next 200 years Christmas was celebrated in nearly every way that it is celebrated today. In fact, as immigrants of many nationalities came to American shores they brought their Christmas with them. Over the course of time those traditions merged just as other elements of society merged. Food, music, fashion, and even language morphed over time. Christmas was no exception.

Several historians note the emergence of A Christmas Carol, written by Charles Dickens, and the influence of Queen Victoria of England in driving the fashionability of Christmas through the growing modern print media of the mid-19th Century. Christmas trees, Christmas carols, Christmas cards and other popular elements completely disconnected from Church surfaced during these years in establishing Christmas as a societal celebration beyond all religious aspects.

In American popular culture Christmas was also fueled by the evolving image of Santa Claus, a figure born of many foreign figures of gift-bringing that gained enormous popularity thanks to the poem A Visit from St. Nicholas written by Clement Clarke Moore and reprinted in the leading newspapers nationwide beginning in the late 1820s.

All of these elements, foreign and domestic, transformed Christmas from a period of casual family celebration to one of vast community involvement. Still, celebrated or not, it didn’t stop commerce and did not get recognition as a national holiday in America until 1870.

Holidays overall were very much on the mind of war-torn Americans in the 1860s and 1870s.

Today’s participants in the War on Christmas would be wise to note the difference in the establishment of two of today’s grandest holidays on the national calendar: Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Way back in 1827, Sarah Josepha Hale, an editor of a major media publication of the time, Ladies Magazine, began a 30+ year crusade of advocating a national day of Thanksgiving, a tradition begun in 1789 by President George Washington, who called for a national day of thanksgiving and prayer.

Hale’s campaign was waged through letters sent to congressmen, senators and presidents. She published stories, recipes and articles supporting the idea continually in her publications and her efforts were finally recognized. On October 3, 1863, buoyed by the Union victory at Gettysburg, President Lincoln proclaimed a national Thanksgiving Day, to be observed every year on the fourth Thursday of November.

In so establishing Thanksgiving as a National Holiday, Lincoln said: “I do, therefore, invite my fellow-citizens in every part of the United States, and also those who are at sea and those who are sojourning in foreign lands, to set apart and observe the last Thursday of November next as a Day of Thanksgiving and Praise to our beneficent Father who dwelleth in the heavens.”

Any president making such a statement invoking God these days would be railed upon by Church and State separatists and courts alike. But that’s what he said and that is what remains about the one holiday on the calendar of which there is no dispute: Thanksgiving.

Compare that to the rather bland declaration making Christmas a national holiday in 1870:

Be it enacted by the Senate and House of Representatives of the United States of America in Congress assembled, That the following days, to wit: The first day of January, commonly called New Year’s day, the fourth day of July, the twenty-fifth day of December, commonly called Christmas day, and any day appointed or recommended by the President of the United States as a day of public fast or thanksgiving, shall be holidays within the District of Columbia, and shall, for all purposes of presenting for payment or acceptance of the maturity and protest, and giving notice of the dishonor of bills of exchange, bank checks and promissory notes or other negotiable or commercial paper, be treated and considered as is the first day of the week, commonly called Sunday, and all notes, drafts, checks, or other commercial or negotiable paper falling due or maturing on either of said holidays shall be deemed as having matured on the day previous.

Why was Christmas, an observance with so many traditional and clear connections to religion historically, treated so in naming it a national holiday?

Because it was NOT a Church versus State issue in 1870. Nobody thought of Christmas in those terms. It was many things to many people and the government recognized it as such. That’s why they made it a holiday!

Christmas was the same then as it is now: Christmas was celebrated as a sacred event in some parts of the world then and purely as a secular event in others.

The only common ground was that everyone, especially those working for the federal government, wanted the day off.

Either way it was called Christmas, a fact that didn’t concern the government then, or even now. They just wanted to solve the labor issue — so they made it a holiday.

The real rub comes from the word Christmas itself, a term commonly tied by historians to Jesus Christ.

There are even disputes today about the origin of the word Christmas. Most historians assume the word is a mash-up of the words Christ and mass. But evidence exists of an Egyptian origin of the word, with Christ meaning God and mas meaning birth.

Either way, the use of such a word by the government so rankles some that the real aim in the “War on Christmas” isn’t Christmas itself it is, in fact, a war on religion.

Where things get really sticky in this whole debate is when discussion turns to the U.S. Constitution and whether or not there is a separation of church and state.

Clearly one of the purposes of the American revolution and even the establishment of the American colonies before the Revolutionary war was to escape the imposed religious dogma by oppressive governments that would not at the time allow freedom of religion.

Crafted within the founding documents of the republic was a provision prohibiting the establishment of any religion by the government.

But nowhere is the mere mention of a religious term or even a reference to God forbidden.

But that is the aim of some — to erase God, religion…and by extension, Christmas…from anything associated with government or the public.

We contend, if contend we must, that the modern “War on Christmas” is merely an extension of a very, very old argument — one that predates time itself.

It is a spiritual battle and one that can have only one conclusion.

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