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Pool: Yes, once there was a war on Christmas

By Frank Pool
Dec. 19, 2017 at 4 a.m.


There used to be a real war on Christmas. It wasn't waged in courtrooms or in the media, but in the streets, where blows were exchanged as the authorities suppressed the celebration of Christmas.

I'm not talking about communists or secular humanists or marching phalanxes of Darwinists. No, English governments tried suppress Christmas because of zealous commitment to their version of Christianity.

And it happened here in America too, reflecting politics, religion and an outright civil war back in England.

During the Reformation, Western Christianity split over the celebration of Christmas. Most Anabaptists, Quakers and Presbyterian Puritans opposed the practices and customs that clearly dated back to pagan times.

Anglicans, Lutherans, the Dutch Reformed Church and the Catholics continued to celebrate Christmas. They were supported by many of the common people who enjoyed the mid-winter celebrations, feasts and drinking that went with Christmas.

The Puritans saw Christmas as one more superstitious corruption of true Christianity, along with indulgences, relics, veneration of saints and various folk traditions that incorporated pre-Christian elements.

Two decades before England erupted into civil war in the 1640s, groups of Puritans emigrated first to the Netherlands and later to Massachusetts. We know them as the Pilgrims. They wanted to be able to practice a purer sort of religion; they wanted religious freedom for themselves — not for others.

In Massachusetts, the Pilgrim settlers spent their first Christmas working to construct a shelter. They abolished all holidays except for the Sabbath, election day and Harvard commencement day.

It has been estimated that people in New England worked about 300 days a year compared with about 240 in many cultures ancient and modern. Their slogan was, "They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday."

King Charles I opposed the Puritans but he lost a war, his freedom, and ultimately his head. (Incidentally, he spent much of his genteel confinement playing golf.)

In 1645 Parliament outlawed the celebration of Christmas, along with Easter and Whitsuntide (Pentecost). The statute read, in part: "Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise notwithstanding."

This ordinance was unpopular in many parts of the country and riots broke out. Troops were called in to suppress the people and the churches complied with the demands of the Commonwealth.

In 1660 the monarchy was reestablished, and Christmas returned to England. The same was not true in Scotland, which didn't officially celebrate Christmas until 1958. In New England, Christmas was long looked on with suspicion.

This war on Christmas did not extend to the Southern colonies, where Anglicanism dominated, nor to colonies like New York, which retained vestiges of Dutch influence, nor to Pennsylvania, where the Quakers did not celebrate Christmas but did not wage war over it.

In America today, according to the Pew Research Center, 90 percent of adults celebrate Christmas in some form and half will go to church.

Most people acknowledge there is a decline in the religious nature of the holiday. About 18 percent of people are bothered "a lot" and another 31 percent are bothered "some" by this development, but two-thirds of respondents are either not bothered or do not believe the religious aspect is diminishing.

About half of Americans say they don't care how stores greet them. That hardly seems like war.

Have a Merry Christmas in peace.

— Frank Thomas Pool is a writer and a retired English teacher in Austin. He grew up on Maple Street in Longview and graduated from Longview High School.

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