Sorry, Bill O'Reilly. Christians themselves started the 'War on Christmas'... in the 16th Century!
Bruce Wilson printable version print page     Bookmark and Share
Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 08:50:49 AM EST
[dragging this story out of the crypts in honor of the war-on-Christmas spirit so lustily displayed by the would-be Calvinist theocrats of the 16th Century - ed]

As Talk To Action writer Frederick Clarkson observes, proclamations from Bill O'Reilly, claiming the existence of a leftist assault on Christmas, are "part of a transcendent politics of the Religious Right, and a variant of that old time McCarthism -- baiting everyone with whom they disagree as advocating a 'godless' agenda." Indeed, Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade was making the same charges back in 1960 and much earlier in the year - in July in fact.

But how did the "War on Christmas", as a concept, originate ?

As it happens, once upon a time there was a real "War on Christmas" and it was initiated by the theocratic Christian right of its day, Swiss Calvinists and Scottish Presbyterians. Here's a short overview:

The "war on Christmas" traces back, historically, to Calvinist bans on the celebration of Christmas which began in Geneva and then migrated, with the spread of Calvinist theological views, to Scotland, where Christmas was banned in 1583. As Amy McNeese writes, in an article first published in the Church of Scotland magazine, Life & Work that may be one of the best treatments of the War on Christmas, in an historical account of the Scottish ban on Christmas that only was lifted in the 1950's,  

"For almost 400 years, Christmas was banned in Scotland. At the height of the Reformation, in 1583, when anything smacking of Catholicism and idolatrous excess was thrown out with contempt, Christmas and all its trappings was wiped off the official calendar...

...Reinforced by the hard arm of the law, this was a ban that had bite...

This was an age when religious belief could mean the difference between life and a very nasty death....

Scottish Presbyterians, when called on for support by the Puritans of the English Parliament in 1644, did so on the understanding that their allies would in exchange impose the ban on Christmas. For over a decade traditional English Christmas festivities were prohibited

From Scotland, the ban on Christmas spread briefly, as Oliver Cromwell's New Model Army brought the Cromwellian revolution to England. Cromwell's Puritans banned Christmas in England for about a decade but the measure was unpopular. Feelings among pro and anti Christmas advocates ran strong and, after a second enforcement act against Christmas was passed by the English Parliament in 1647,

Again the people rebelled, this time so forcefully that armed officers had to be sent to remove evergreens decorating St Margaret's Church, near the English Parliament itself. Rioting broke out in London, Kent, Oxford, Canterbury and Ipswich, in which several people were killed. A petition with more than 10,000 signatures demanded either the restoration of Christmas or else the king back on the throne...

Even after the bans were revoked in England in 1660, Puritans and other Non-Conformists "ranted against Anti-Christ's-masse and those Masse-mongers and Papists who observe it", and were commonly known to "inveigh against New Year gifts and evergreens, or to attack the Pope by refusing to eat plum-broth; or to condemn those who ate mince-pies as Papists and idolaters"....

These attitudes were carried to the New World by English Puritans, Quakers, Baptists and Scottish Presbyterians. In America, reprisals were as harsh here as back in Scotland. In Massachusetts a five-shilling penalty was imposed on anyone found feasting or shirking work on Christmas Day...

A hundred years later the Quakers were still ranting against the Christmas pie as "an invention of the scarlet whore of Babylon, an hodge podge of superstition, Popery, the Devil and all his works".

From England the Protestant War on Christmas then crossed the Atlantic, migrating with the Puritans who were fleeing the persecution of their political and theological tendency that followed the overthrow of Cromwellian government, to the New World. Under Puritan rule in the  Bay State Colony, Christmas was at one point legally banned for two decades.

Christmas fared worse in Scotland though and was only brought back after four centuries because of the experience of Scottish soldiers during World War Two. As Amy McNeese describes,

Abroad and in the company of English soldiers, many Scots experienced their first proper Christmas dinner. Once tasted, it was never forgotten. On their return home, these servicemen began to celebrate the festival with some style, and gradually their ideas took root.

Early in the 20th Century in America, the notion of a "war on Christmas", which had long been on the wane, got a boost, as Talk To Action contributor Chip Berlet demonstrates, in 1921 with Henry Ford's notorious and highly influential anti-Jewish tract "The International Jew".

By the America of the early 1960's, American Christian right groups such as Billy James Hargis' Christian Crusade, which was at least heavily Christian nationalist if not overtly theocratic, had appropriated the notion of a "war on Christmas" as a means of red-baiting the American left (see section, below). But the true, historical War on Christmas was a creation of the Protestant, theocratic right.

According To Billy James Hargis' 1960 "Crusader" article [below], published during dark days leading up to the Cuban Missile Crisis, during which communism was held to be stealthily advancing via liberal Protestant churches and the machinations of Hallmark Greeting Cards and UNICEF, Christmas was also then under siege from the left. But in 1960, the religious right's war on the alleged war on Christmas got started much earlier in the season than is now customary.

In 1960, the war on the war on Christmas started in July.

Below: December 9, 1960 article from "The Crusader"

Forgetting history is a way of reliving it. Even if it is distorted and on the opposite side of meaning.

by Nightgaunt on Sun Nov 23, 2008 at 02:42:03 PM EST

When did you say he'd be talking about this? Hey, did you see that pig just fly by? Great article, Mr. Wilson. I'm sure BillO and Billy D. would say that those were examples of "True Christians just trying to keep the spirit pure for Jesus birthday, so they get a pass.

by trog69 on Sun Nov 23, 2008 at 04:47:24 PM EST

How ironic that the War on Christmas that O'Reckless preaches about on TV was mostly fought by and against the religious ancestors of his base viewing audience. Too bad for the FOX news network that the American people are too busy trying to survive to waste time on cult-ure war inanity like the War on Christmas. Perhaps even Bill O's job will be up in the air soon.
"People are like the stars. There are bright ones, and there are those that are dim."
by agentS on Mon Nov 24, 2008 at 08:26:57 AM EST

... to see if you were going to post this "classic" post again this year, but I see you already remembered to do it. I was thinking about it the other night while I was watching a show on one of the educational cable channels that talked about the original "War on Christmas."

by Chris Rodda on Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 09:26:33 AM EST
This one should be mandatory reading for the O'Reilly set.

I bet there are many more colorful historical accounts that could be packed into a revised version of this story. I seem to recall there were pro-Christmas riots under the Cromwell regime. And, the Pilgrims were such a spicy lot. There's probably some good material from that quarter.


by Bruce Wilson on Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 09:32:38 AM EST

What a great post, Bruce! You know, I think it is still on the statute books in England that eating plumb pudding is a crime, though it is not enforced.

I think the line about Calvinist theocrats is a good one too, they do tend to be theocrats with a dimn view of human liberty. However, there are Calvinist traditions, such as the Dutch theorist and Prime Minister Abraham Kuyper, who didn't think the state could or should legislate morality. He saw the state's role as promoting justice, not morality. In the 19th century, he decriminalised prostitution, and his views influenced the decriminalisation of homosexuality and the right of same sex marriage.

So, for those who only ever seem concerned with so-called 'theological models', rather than, say, Rawlsian justice models, it's good to be able to use their own prejudices to point them to a much better way to still be Calvinists but also to love justice and follow it with legislation.

Alas, can't say it always works.

by DanielBatt on Thu Dec 24, 2009 at 05:48:18 AM EST

And thanks for your kind words too.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Dec 25, 2009 at 11:31:04 AM EST

If I recall correctly, the John Birch Society also did similar concern trolling about "taking Christ out of Christmas" back in the 1960s, putting them into the company of Billy James Hargis.

Thanks for reminding us that what is old is new again.

by khughes1963 on Wed Dec 23, 2009 at 08:46:13 PM EST

The Birchers are said to be secular, but I'm not so convinced. Bircher concern trolling re Christmas would be very suggestive.

by Bruce Wilson on Fri Dec 25, 2009 at 06:12:10 AM EST

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