This piece first appeared in the Pacific Standard (now defunct) on December 11, 2011 —JF
The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.
Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”
Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.” At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.
According to Palin and her fellow soldiers in the fight, if stores start replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays,” if schools will not let children sing Christmas carols with strong Christian themes, or if city hall is not permitted to display a manger scene, then America’s Christian civilization is eroding. Those who complain about the “War on Christmas” want us to return to a golden age when Christmas was a more important part of American culture.
Did such a golden age of Christmas ever exist in America? Yes. But if the Christmas culture warriors took an honest look at the history of this holiday in America they may not like what they find.
From the perspective of Christian theology, Christmas is about the Incarnation. It is the story of God revealing himself to humankind in the form of a baby. As the Gospel of John describes it, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” But in America, the sacred meaning of Christmas has always existed in tension with the profane.
For those who carried English holiday traditions to North America, Christmas was an important day on the church calendar, but the celebration of the birth of the Christ child always took a backseat to week-long festivities characterized by feasting, shooting guns, playing rough music, drinking to excess, disorderly public activity, and all kinds of raucous behavior. Indeed, this was the golden age of Christmas in early America.
And what did the Puritans, those godly Christians who arrived to New England in the early 17th century to establish what their first governor John Winthrop described as a “city upon a hill,” think about Christmas? Certainly in towns like Boston and Plymouth, the places where defenders of American exceptionalism turn today to find the roots of a “Christian America,” Christmas was revered and respected as a sacred day, a fundamental part of the Christian civilization that these settlers were trying to build?
The Puritans of New England frowned upon the celebration of Christmas and outlawed it for more than half a century. They believed it was necessary, as Christians pursuing pious living, to separate themselves from the sinful behavior associated with the way the holiday was celebrated in jolly old England. And since few of these Christian American forefathers had anything good to say about materialism or commercialism, it is likely they would have similar feelings about the way we celebrate Christmas today.
In the mid-17th century the governors of Massachusetts would have probably banned Palin from the colony because she insisted on defending Christmas. After being banned, there is a possibility that Palin would end up in Rhode Island, a colony that had complete religious freedom and where it would have been anathema to consider making any December religious celebration an official or unofficial holiday.
There is an important history lesson in all of this. When we try to use history to score political points in the present we end up picking the things in the past that suit our needs and ignoring the rest. This is bad history.
The history of Puritan New England works just fine for us if we want to show that parts of early America were founded by Christians with Christian motivations for settlement. Ronald Reagan loved to compare America to a “city upon a hill.” Christian nationalists turn to the Pilgrims to teach their children about the nation’s “Godly heritage.” But the history of Puritan New England does not help us at all if we want to win the “War on Christmas.”
Of course, we are free to think anything we want about how our culture should or should not acknowledge Christmas. But let’s be careful when we use history to make our points.
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