If you are in the habit of tuning into Fox News, you will know that, for some years now, Bill O’Reilly has been calling attention each December to what he labels the “War on Christmas.” O’Reilly has in mind the various efforts “to diminish the celebration of Jesus’s birthday,” from department stores instructing their employees to say “Happy Holidays,” to public officials banning nativity scenes, to atheist organizations erecting billboards telling children to skip church on Christmas Day.
Critics from the left have responded with a smirk and a sneer. The smirk has come mainly from the late-night comedy shows, which have had a field day lampooning O’Reilly and mocking Fox News. No surprise there. Their goal is to get laughs, and they cater to an audience that views political and religious conservatives as silly or stupid.
The sneer comes from more substantive responses in venues like the New York Times, the Huffington Post, and a variety of academic blogs. These purport not to entertain us but to educate us, primarily by teaching us some history. If the comedians try to make O’Reilly look silly, the intellectuals try to make him look ignorant. And they succeed, at least to a degree.
When O’Reilly laments to his loyal viewers, “I cannot understand for the life of me why anyone would bother trying to diminish the federal holiday of Christmas,” he opens himself up to charges that he is woefully uninformed about the American past. As any number of O’Reilly’s academic critics are quick to point out, there is a long tradition of Christian criticism of Christmas in American history. It was most prevalent among New England Puritans during the seventeenth century, but widespread suspicion of Christmas lingered at least as late as the Civil War.
I first really became aware of this while conducting research for my book The First Thanksgiving; What the Real Story Tells Us about Loving God and Learning from History. The famous landing of the Pilgrims near Plymouth occurred on December 22, and in his History of Plymouth Plantation governor William Bradford makes clear that the entire party worked all Christmas Day.
This was due to principle as much as necessity. The Pilgrim Separatists were a subset of the larger phenomenon of English Puritanism, a movement of English Protestants who believed that the Anglican Church (or Church of England) needed to be “purified” of lingering “Popish” corruption. They determined to be people “of the book” and sought to imitate the early church by doing nothing not clearly stipulated in Scripture. This led them, most notably, to denounce the persistence in Anglicanism of a measure of Catholic ritual and ceremony, as well as the survival of an elaborate hierarchy of priests and bishops. But it also prompted them to condemn the numerous holy days on the Anglican church calendar. The only regular holy day prescribed in God’s Word was the weekly Lord’s Day, they maintained. All other holidays–including both Christmas and Easter–were mere human inventions.
One of the most humorous passages in Of Plymouth Plantation relates an episode from the Pilgrims’ second Christmas in New England. When the day arrived in 1621, Governor Bradford called the men out to work as was their routine. Only a few weeks earlier several “strangers” had arrived in the ship Fortune, sent to Plymouth by the London financiers who were underwriting the venture. These men were “lusty” enough, as Bradford described them–he meant they were physically hearty and capable of hard work–but they did not share the Pilgrims’ Puritan convictions. When called from their beds, these informed the governor that “it went against their consciences to work on that day.” Bradford elaborates,
So the Governor told them that if they made it matter of conscience, he would spare them until they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them. But when they came home at noon from their work, he found them in the street at play, openly; some pitching the bar, and some at stool-ball [a game something like cricket] and such like sports. So he went to them and took away their implements and told them that was against his conscience, that they should play and others work. If they made the keeping of it a matter of devotion, let them keep their houses; but that there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.
Christian opposition to Christmas continued for much of the rest of the century in New England. Next door to Plymouth, the Massachusetts Bay Colony officially prohibited the celebration of Christmas in 1659. The ordinance below continued on the books of the colony’s General Court until 1681:
It is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offense five shilling as a fine to the county.
Puritan ministers like Cotton Mather and Increase Mather likewise denounced celebration of the holiday, noting that nowhere does Scripture identify the date of Jesus’ birth nor instruct Christians to celebrate it. They observed that the holiday as celebrated in England made a mockery of Christian piety and was little more than an excuse for every form of carnal excess and indulgence. Such sentiments were slow to fade, and Boston schools were open on Christmas Day for much of the nineteenth century.
So what do we make of all this? Our temptation will be to embrace or dismiss this evidence from the past based purely on its utility. This is because Christmas has become just another front in the culture wars, and to win wars requires ammunition. Conservatives condemn liberals, liberals mock conservatives, and both sides reach for whatever weapons are at hand, including historical ones. If the facts of history can be used against our enemies, wonderful. But if the facts refuse to enlist on our side, we will be tempted either to change them or ignore them.
One of the great potential blessings of studying history is the opportunity to see our world with new eyes by entering into conversation with those who have gone before us, men and women not shaped by the cultural values that we take for granted. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge said that most of us live like “bats but in twilight,” blindly guided by forces that we never see. Although I suspect that he means well, when Bill O’Reilly marvels that any American would wish to diminish the celebration of Christmas, he is unwittingly encouraging American Christians not to think deeply about the holiday.