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By Paul V.M. Flesher
Picture the following scenario: Crowds of Americans rioting in the streets. Two opposing groups shout loudly, vying to have their messages heard and heeded. The groups meet. Confrontation ensues. Fistfights break out. Church windows are smashed.
What are these rioters fighting about? Christmas. One group favors celebrating Christmas. The other opposes all Christmas observances. Is this an imaginary future event? No, it is history. It happened in Boston on Christmas day in 1706.
In America’s increasing love-affair with Christmas (both the Christian and commercial versions), we have forgotten that there was a time when much of European and American Christianity thought that Christmas should not be celebrated.
Who thought this? In the riot described above, the anti-Christmas group consisted largely of Congregationalists (Puritan descendants), Baptists and Presbyterians, while the pro-Christmas group comprised mostly Anglicans (Episcopalians). The notion that Christians of any stripe should not want to celebrate Christmas is so foreign to our present concept of the holiday that we need to review some history to understand it.
Before the Protestant Reformation in the 1500s, Roman Catholicism celebrated the “Christ Mass.” It was one of many special masses and feasts of the Catholic Church that celebrated key events in Jesus’ life or the birthdays of saints. The three main Protestant movements that ultimately came to America had three different reactions to this situation.
First, although the Anglican Church developed a Protestant theology, it kept much of Catholic liturgy, including festivals that celebrated aspects of Christ’s life and the feast days of many saints. It gave special emphasis to the celebration of Christmas.
Second, after Martin Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the door of the Wittenberg Cathedral in 1517, special liturgical observances began to be frowned upon. The Lutherans thought that the celebrations of saints’ days were too much and cancelled them. But they still emphasized observing events in Jesus’ life, and so continued with joyous Christmas festivities.
Third, the Calvinists in Switzerland banned all Christian holy days not mentioned in Scripture. That approach meant that the Sabbath was acceptable, but nothing else. Christmas, Easter, Pentecost and other celebrations were to be treated as normal days with nothing special about them.
The Calvinist position became quite influential in Great Britain, even though it never altered the position of the Anglican Church. John Knox brought Calvinism as Presbyterianism to Scotland, where Christmas was banned in 1583. The Puritans brought Calvinism into England, where it became influential in circles both within and outside of the Anglican Church. During the Civil War in 1647, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan followers outlawed Christmas observance. It was brought back at the restoration of the monarchy under Charles II in 1660.
From England, both sides brought their Christmas beliefs to America. The Puritans (who later became the Congregationalists) were joined by Presbyterians, Quakers, Methodists (despite their founders’ pro-Christmas predilections), and Baptists on the anti-Christmas side, while the Anglicans dominated the pro-Christmas side. The Baptists were later joined by the Lutherans and the Dutch Reformed.
In Boston, the Puritans outlawed Christmas in 1659. Although the ban was lifted in 1681 when the British government took over the colony, the governor still had to be protected by an armed guard on his way to church on Christmas 1686. When the colony reverted to local control in 1689, Christmas again fell out of favor.
The objection to Christmas by Americans was two-fold. First, for Calvinist theology, it reflected the “pagan character” of Catholic worship. Christmas was not a biblical holiday and had not even become a Christian festival before the late 300s. It was a creation of the church, not of Christ.
Second, the holiday was accompanied by extensive revelry. Celebrations were not primarily worshipful, but involved feasting, game playing, heavy drinking, shooting and gambling. For the over-indulgers, it brought out the worst of their excesses. Since the holiday celebrated the Savior’s birth, such immoral behavior was seen as sacrilegious.
During the 18th century, Christmas observance began to be more accepted. Church-goers turned their attention to purifying the holiday of its excesses, rather than rejecting it altogether. By the 1750s, even New England hymnbooks contained Christmas carols. By the early 1800s, Christmas was observed with an emphasis on family and children.
In 1836, Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday. Other states followed suit; even Massachusetts legalized Christmas in 1856, almost 200 years after its ban. But the last state, Oklahoma, did not join in until 1907. In this way, Christmas became the first religious holiday in which its celebration is sanctioned by law across the United States.
Flesher is director of UW's Religious Studies Program. Past columns and more information about the program can be found on the web at www.uwyo.edu/RelStds. To comment on this column, visit http://religion-today.blogspot.com.