Is Christmas a Christian or secular holiday?

December 23, 2011

today in legal history snowyThere’s a lot of talk today about the “war on Christmas.”

This “war” is supposedly being waged by those who advocate for use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas.”

The “Merry Christmas” defenders claim that the “war on Christmas” is an attempt to secularize the holiday and take the focus off of it serving as a commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

However, those individuals likely are unaware of the full history of the holiday.

First, to decry as a “war” the use of the phrase “Happy Holidays” or even any actual outright attempts to secularize Christmas is a gross overstatement.

If you want to talk about an actual war on Christmas, look no further than Oliver Cromwell’s reign in England from 1653 to 1658, during which the celebration of Christmas was banned outright.

This wasn’t because Cromwell was advocating for any kind of separation of church and state.

Instead it was his religious convictions that drove him to take such action.

A Puritan, Cromwell believed that Christmas celebrations were frivolous and improper, and that they distracted from prayer and fasting.

Of course, Christmas celebrations until the 19th century were a bit more raucous than they are now.

Owing to its roots in Pagan Roman celebrations Saturnalia and, to a lesser extent, Dies Natalis Solis Invicti (“the birthday of the unconquered sun”), Christmas was celebrated with eating and drinking in excess.

While this doesn’t sound too much different from today’s traditions, it very much is, since there was a lot more partying in the streets and going into other people’s homes originally.

Specifically, the older customs (also derived from its Pagan Roman roots) involved the poor visiting wealthier communities and begging (or more often demanding) food and drink in return for toasts to their hosts’ health (and refusals to do so could be dangerous).

Given the Puritan outlook on such merriment, it’s easy to understand why Cromwell would want it banned (and why Puritan Massachusetts banned it for 22 years from 1659 to 1681).

Such celebrations of Christmas often turned into riots during times of particularly stark poverty (a Christmas riot in New York in 1828 led to the formation of New York’s first police force).

This trend led to a desire to change the Christmas tradition, with authors such as Washington Irving and Charles Dickens contributing to the change.

Particularly influential in the U.S. was Irving, who wrote about a (fictional) stay in the English countryside during Christmas and described cordial, family Christmas celebrations (Dickens later cited Irving’s writings as an inspiration for A Christmas Carol).

Eventually, Christmas did settle down and celebrations slowly evolved into what we know it as today, with family dinners and the exchanging of gifts.

It was, perhaps, this evolution that led to its recognition by the federal government as a holiday in 1870, since the holiday was abandoned as an “English tradition” after the Revolutionary War.

Given this history, Christmas can be accurately described as an American holiday.

Does that necessarily make it a secular holiday?

Actually, you can celebrate Christmas how you want to.  That’s the great thing about America.

But I have to wonder if the true antagonist in the “war on Christmas” is the phrase “Happy Holidays” or the fact that the holiday is dominated by materialism.