If you believe the pundits pushing the notion of a godless “War on Christmas,” you might be shocked to learn that America’s history of Christmas isn’t especially Christian. In order to turn Christmas into the kind of historical rah-rah Jesus festival many Christians would like to believe in, you have to do some very creative rewriting. But then, many of these folks are the same ones who will try to sell you on America’s founding as a Christian nation. So… there’s that.
Ironically, the only successful “War on Christmas” was waged by Christians. An ultra-orthodox contingent of Puritans took control of England under the often brutal leadership of Oliver Cromwell, who outlawed Christmas in England in 1645. A quarter of a century before that, a group of separatists even more conservative than Cromwell had left for America. They never celebrated Christmas, and in fact, outlawed it in Boston from 1659-1681.
Why did the Puritans ban Christmas? Well… because it’s not Christian. It’s a Pagan holiday, and they knew it. So they outlawed it.
Christmas caught on very slowly in America. The first Congress was busy at work on December 25th, and thought nothing of it. It wasn’t until 1870 that Christmas was declared a federal holiday. (LINK) Most Americans were fine with this arrangement, since there was lingering anti-British sentiment coupled with distrust of the old Pagan customs which so dominated the celebration.
Washington Irving’s poetic re-interpretation of Christmas was the first step towards the holiday we know today. (LINK) The thing is, it had nothing at all to do with Christianity and everything to do with class warfare. The early 19th century was littered with riots during the brutally cold months. In 1828, there was a particularly nasty Christmas riot at West Point that brought out New York’s finest in force. It wasn’t over a manger in the park, though. It was over whiskey. (LINK)
The early 19th century was a period of intense class conflict, with skyrocketing unemployment, gang riots, and a general abundance of disenfranchisement. Washington Irving’s idillic portrayals of traditional English Christmas, with carols, family meals, and all the trimmings had more to do with an effort by the upper classes to tame the seething masses than anything else. It was about horrific working conditions, and an immense gap between the haves and the have-nots. His idealization of Christmas, and his outright invention of “ancient traditions” that never existed was a response to this socio-economic turmoil. (LINK)