The War Escalates
It's December and the Christmas War is raging. This war is very old and still very unsettled. It is fought on battlefields such as town squares, parks, schools, playgrounds, and courts. The Christmas War is actually a debate involving the hearts and minds of Americans. The soldiers for both armies range from scholars, armed with laws and stacks of books, to common people, defending their beliefs with age-old customs and ideals.
Christian "fundamentalists" and non-secularists denounce efforts to remove the mention of Christ from any holiday reference while non-Christians and secularists insist that many aspects of the season predate Christianity and have pagan roots. Every Christmas season seems to elevate the debate to a new level of absurdity. And, then the war escalates throughout America.
Although the central message of Christmas is peace, the season has become more a time of spiritual and historical conflict. As one observer of the confrontation wrote, "Yet just in time for the season of peace all other burning issues are set aside for this one: the dreaded conflict called Christmas. For the month of December they go to battle. There are never any winners or losers — and the war never ends." (defendchristmas.com) It does subside after the first of the year, rests as if to draw renewed strength, then rears its ugly head again to take a bigger bite out of the next year-end holiday season.
What Do Most Americans Believe?
A poll in Newsweek in 2004 conducted by the Princeton Survey Research Associates reported some interesting results. ("The Christmas Miracle. Most Americans Believe the Virgin Birth is Literally True, a Newsweek Poll Finds," Newsweek, December 10 2004 at: http://www.msnbc.msn.com) Here are some findings:
* Fifty-five percent of Americans believe every word of the Bible is literally accurate.
* Seventy-nine percent of Americans believe that, as the Bible says, Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary, without a human father.
* Sixty-seven percent of Americans say they believe that the entire story of Christmas--the Virgin Birth, the angelic proclamation to the shepherds, the Star of Bethlehem and the Wise Men from the East--is historically accurate.
* Twenty-four percent of Americans believe the story of Christmas is a theological invention written to affirm faith in Jesus Christ.
Another more recent sampling of 1,005 adults by The Barna Group (2007) found revealing results. ("Americans Express Their Views of the Virgin Birth of Christ," The Barna Group, December 17 2007 at: http://www.barna.org)
* Seventy-five percent of Americans believe Jesus was born to a virgin.
* Fifty-three percent of the unchurched, and fifteen percent of Agnostics and Atheists believe Jesus was born to a virgin.
* Sixty percent of those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues believe Jesus was born to a virgin.
Regardless of their specific means of celebrating Christmas, the vast majority of American people evidently believe the Biblical Christmas story. This causes many to question why the Christmas War is even occurring at all. The intensity of the struggle seems to lack sufficient secular support for success. Yet, everyone seems to feel a decline in understanding the real meaning of the season.
Some Old Historical Background On the War
So what is the current uproar about Christmas? Alex Altman (www.time.com, December 2009) reported, "Skeptics (of the assault on the holiday) say rumors of a struggle against Santa are an overheated response to the excesses of political correctness, fanned by what commentator Max Blumenthal called a "ratings bonanza for right-wing media."
Although it may surprise many to discover the facts, the first to wage war on Christmas in America were probably the Puritans, who in the 17th century banned Yuletide festivities on the grounds that they didn't "square" with Scripture. Calvinists and Presbyterians were also offended by the Catholic-tainted pageantry of the Christmas holiday. (Bruce David Forbes, "Christmas Was Not Always Like This: A Brief History," Word and World, vol. 27, 2007) For a godless conspiracy, those are some pious roots.
Andrew Santella (www.slate.com, December 21 2005) provided a brief history lesson on early American beliefs.
According to Santella, "Between 1659 and 1681, Christmas celebrations were outlawed in the colony, and the law declared that anyone caught 'observing, by abstinence from labor, feasting or any other way any such days as Christmas day, shall pay for every such offense five shillings.'"The theocrats who ran Massachusetts regarded Christmas as a human invention, simply a remnant of a heathen past. They based their belief on the absence of biblical authority for celebrating Jesus' birth on December 25. And, of course, they disapproved of the rowdy celebrations that accompanied the holiday.
Here is a part of a sermon from New Englander, John Winthrop. (Francis J. Bremer, John Winthrop: America's Forgotten Founding Father, Oxford University Press, 2005)
"In 1659, in an atmosphere of tension over Anglicanism, other heresies, new trade, and general disarray, the Massachusetts Bay General Court banned the keeping of Christmas by 'forebearing of labour, feasting, or any other way.' The law aimed to prevent the recurrence of further, unspecified 'disorders' which had apparently arisen in 'seurerall places…by reason of some still observing such Festiualls,' and provided that 'whosoeuer shall be found observing any such day as Xmas or the like…' would be fined."
"Finally in 1681, Massachusetts issued a repeal…. Still, in 1686, Puritan militants barred newly appointed English Governor Andros from holding his Christmas services in their meeting house and forced him to move to the Boston Town Hall." (Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, Oxford University Press, 1995)
A century later, by the last quarter of the 18th century, some Protestant denominations, including Baptists, slowly began to incorporate Christmas into their religious services. Prominent Americans Elizabeth Cady Stanton and Samuel Goodrich, both New Englanders, recalled the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and "training day" as the only "great festivals" of their childhood in the early 19th century. Evidently, celebrating Christmas was once less highly regarded.
"An 80-year-old New Yorker wrote that in 1818 his boarding school allowed only two week-long vacations, plus the Fourth of July and Thanksgiving, during the entire year. Christmas and New Year's Day were ignored. The Youth's Friend, an American Sunday School Union magazine for children, did not mention Christmas as anything more than a date until 1846. (Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, Oxford University Press, 1995)
Some More Modern-Day Developments
Still, in modern decades, American conservatives have been warning of many threats posed to the institution of Christmas by many opponents. (Alex Altman, "The War on Christmas," www.time.com, December 2009) Altman cited some examples in the following:
* Henry Ford blamed Jews for the efforts to remove religious displays from public schools.
* In the McCarthy era, the John Birch Society saw the holiday as the target of a vast communist conspiracy.
* Since the 1990s, a right-wing website has held an annual competition for the most egregious example of secularization.
* Fox News host John Gibson's book The War on Christmas hit best-seller lists in 2005, the same year his colleague Bill O'Reilly called moves to tone down the holidays the first steps on a slippery slope toward "legalization of narcotics, euthanasia, abortion at will, and gay marriage."
* In a 2006 Chicago Tribune poll, 68% of respondents agreed that the holiday was under assault.
T. Jeremy Gunn, Director of the ACLU Program on Freedom of Religion and Belief, (www.usatoday.com, December 18 2005) explained his stance:
First, Christmas displays — including nativity scenes — are perfectly acceptable at homes and churches. This religious expression is a valued and protected part of the First Amendment rights guaranteed to all citizens.
Second, governments should not be in the business of endorsing religious displays. Religion does best when government stays out of the business of deciding which holidays and religions to promote. Religion belongs where it prospers best: with individuals, families and religious communities.
Then, to add some comic relief, Athena Kerry (www.vdare.com, December 17 2007) wryly stated, "It only makes sense. First, we’re forced to say "Happy Holidays" to “include” those sourpussed sulking in the Hanukkah and Kwanzaa corner. Then, they take away our Christmas Break and substitute a Winter Holiday. In some more recent developments, no public Christmas tree is left standing, and the Dickens Christmas Festival in Saginaw, Michigan, had to change its name to the Dickens Holiday Festival so the city could advertise in local schools. (The word "Christmas" is banned in those schools.) I predict that in the future no “Holiday” movie will be free of overtly Christophobic indoctrination."
As the observer can plainly see, the Christmas War still heats up every holiday season. Maybe a truce is needed. Could each celebrate with proper respect and democratic design? Why must the will of a few interfere with the obvious joy of many?
As an ex-English teacher, I always enjoy poetic reflection. I would like to conclude this post with such a piece. Thanks to Newsverse (December 11 2009) for Newsweek's "The Gaggle" by Jerry Adler.
By Jerry Adler
Godless skeptics, cruel and wily
Bred on murky foreign shores
Sneaking up on Bill O’Reilly
Waging war on Santa Claus.
Hindus, Muslims, Jews and Buddhists,
First Amendment absolutists!
Wild-eyed atheist barbarians!
Wimpy civil libertarians!
Eco-worshippers of Gaia
Followers of every Maya
Crackpot prophet. Druids, Wiccans,
And cults that sacrifice live chickens.
We open our clandestine meetings
With the password: “Season’s Greetings!”
And whisper back the secret phrase:
“Happy winter holidays!”
Then each of us will don a turban,
Yarmulke and saffron gown
Drive up to a big suburban
Mall, or else we’ll head downtown.
With dogs we’ve trained to sniff and pee
On every tinsel-dripping tree.
Beating drums and yelling yells
We will drown out “Jingle Bells”
And blow a loud and rude raspberry
To anyone who dares say “Merry--"
"--Christmas” to us in a store.