At the time of this writing, it’s Christmas Eve in Chicago, and hundreds of Catholic Churches around the Chicago area are preparing for their Christmas celebrations. The Archdiocese of Chicago alone notes there will be over 400 area churches in the Archdiocese holding Christmas masses. It usually kicks off with midnight masses commencing in a few hours. In the past, I’ve written about secular efforts to suppress Christmas celebrations and censor the mention of the holiday. One such event I covered this year was the ongoing fight to place a Nativity scene on display in the Arlington Heights Park District (the pro-Nativity scene forces won that one) To give the devil his due, not all anti-Christmas sentiment can be blamed on the secular humanists, atheists, or the liberal media. In fact, there was a time when Christmas was outright banned in parts of America. Who was responsible for such a thing? Why, that would be Christians.
Christians banned Christmas?! Yes, you read that right, although it’s hard to imagine such a thing today. To understand why there would be an anti-Christmas mentality among some Christians, we have to look back at the history of the holiday.
In 350 A.D., Pope Julius I proclaimed December 25th the official celebration date for the birthday of Jesus Christ. Of course The Bible doesn’t record what day Jesus was born, so Christians argued over the matter for centuries, until they finally resolved the matter by making December 25th the official calendar date to commemorate the event. By no coincidence, this date was already being used to celebrate a pagan God (Sol Invictus) in the Roman Empire. Christians no doubt wanted to compete with that by having people celebrate Jesus instead, though it’s doubtful they adapted the date directly to cash in on the “Sol Invictus” celebrations. Christmas was then celebrated annually on December 25th by Christians as early as 354 A.D., mostly as a communal feast.
Although it remained a Christian feast day for centuries, it was not considered to be the extremely important holy day that it is today. Rather, Christmas Day was often overshadowed by the Feast of the Epiphany on Jan. 6, since that day focused on the revelation that Jesus was the messiah, rather than on his physical birth. In eastern Christianity, Christmas was often still celebrated on Jan. 6th as part of the Epiphany celebrations, rather than moved to a separate date. In the western world, Christmas was still a minor prelude to the bigger Epiphany celebration. By the 12th century, the “Twelve Days of Christmas” (December 25 – January 5) began to become a liturgical tradition.
Christmas Day became increasingly popular after the Pope crowned Charlemagne as Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire on Christmas Day, 800. European Kings (Edmund the Martyr, William I, etc.) began to traditionally assume the throne on Christmas Day, and Christmas became a big public festival in the middle ages with eating, drinking, dancing, singing, sporting, and card playing. It particularly escalated in England, and included lavish dinners, elaborate masques and pageants.
In response to the ever-indulgent and embarrassing Christmas celebrations, Christian groups sprung up that opposed them. Namely, it was protestant “reformers”, starting the 1600s. (It should be noted that not all protestant denominations opposed Christmas, as Episcopalians and Lutherans always celebrated Christmas alongside Catholics, and the founder of Lutheranism, Martin Luther (1483-1546), was reportedly the first person to decorate a Christmas tree – according to legend, he was so moved by the beauty of the stars shining between the branches of a fir tree, he brought home an evergreen tree and decorated it with candles to share the image with his children.)
The most outspoken critics of Christmas were the Puritans. By the mid 1600s, they began efforts to legally suppress Christmas, arguing that December 25th was a false, “unbiblical” date created by “papists”, whose holiday traditions were borrowed from pagan peoples, including yule logs and decorations such as candles, holly, and mistletoe. Christmas trees were also seen as pagan in origin. (Cited as “proof” was Jeremiah 10:3-4, which states, “For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan. People deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.”) The Advent season and gift giving were also called “pagan inventions”. Furthermore, they made a convincing argument that the rowdy, drunken Christmas parties and festivals were an insult to Jesus.
Puritans dominated the Parliament of England in 1644, and passed legislation to ban all Christmas related activities, including dancing, seasonal plays, games, singing carols, and cheerful celebration – especially drinking – which was deemed blasphemous and sinful. England’s Puritan rulers then banned Christmas outright in 1647. Their counterparts in “the new world” soon followed suit. From 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in Boston. Anyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings. The Plymouth colony likewise made celebrating Christmas a criminal offense, according to “Once Upon a Gospel” (Twenty-Third Publications, 2008). Christmas trees and decorations were considered to be “unholy pagan rituals”, and the Puritans also banned “traditional Christmas foods” such as mince pies and pudding. Puritan laws required that stores and businesses remain open all day on Christmas, and government messengers walked through the streets on Christmas Eve calling out “No Christmas, no Christmas!” as a warning to anyone who might be feeling jolly.
Christmas remained legal in other parts of America, and was still allowed to celebrated openly in states like New York and Virginia, but for much of the pre-Victorian era, it was largely frowned upon. Until the 1840s or so, Americans who celebrated Christmas were suspected of being Catholics or at least Catholic sympathizers, since Catholics were the only ones persistently fighting to celebrate the holiday. Cotton Mather, New England’s most influential religious leader, told his flock in 1712 that “the feast of Christ’s nativity is spent in reveling, dicing, carding, masking, and in all licentious liberty…by mad mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude reveling”
The attitudes about Christmas began to change by the publication of Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol”. The holiday increasingly focused on gift-giving and the happiness of children, than the old Dutch and English traditions of rowdy young men going around town demanding alcohol and food. By the Civil War, Christmas celebrations were mostly constructed around family-centered generosity and church-centered observations. Thanks to the newfound popularity of Christmas, several states passed laws making Christmas state holidays.
Christmas was not proclaimed an American holiday until it was passed by Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870. In fact, until 1870, many American public schools continued to hold classes on December 25th. The bill to make Christmas a national holiday was introduced into the House of Representatives by Congressman Burton Chauncey Cook, a Catholic Republican from Ottawa, Illinois. (today, he is interred in Oakwood Cemetery in Chicago, Illinois) After both houses had agreed on the wording for the act, it was signed into law on June 28, 1870, and went into effect that December.
So it seems, my faithful readers, that America not only has Catholics to thank for the holiday of Thanksgiving (see my November column as the origins of that holiday), but also for Christmas as we know it today. It was Catholics who continued to keep the spirit of Christmas alive and celebrated the holiday during the time it was suppressed and strongly discouraged in America. Still, the increasing commercialization of Christmas and efforts to remove Jesus from the celebration remind of us why there was an original “war on Christmas” waged by Christians themselves during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Christmas needs to be about Christ. Without that, it’s just another day to party. So, Chicago Catholics; here’s hoping you’re put the Christ back in Christmas!