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“The Disagreement Was Between Christians”: What Did The Puritans Have Against Christmas?

Another Christmas, another string of outrages about the supposed “War on Christmas.”

In November there was the social media furor about Starbucks’ red cups, as Ed Simon relates here in RD.

Then this month, 36 Republican U.S. House members introduced a resolution “that the symbols and traditions of Christmas should be protected for use by those who celebrate Christmas.”

And in the most recent CNN-sponsored debate among Republican presidential candidates, Wolf Blitzer’s closing Merry Christmas wish prompted two Fox News hosts to declare victory, claiming that their side had won the War on Christmas: http://youtu.be/hgUaXo9URCM

Whatever the recent skirmishes, this kind of controversy is not new. American disagreements about the celebration of Christmas reach back to the nation’s colonial beginnings—where ironically, it was a Christian group, Puritans, that offered the discouraging words.

When the Church of England broke away from Roman Catholicism in the 1500s, Calvinist reformers (those Puritans) felt that the new English church did not go far enough in removing Catholic elements. One practice the Puritans opposed was the annual December celebration of Christmas, which they saw as a Catholic innovation not justified by scripture. They claimed that the earliest Christians had no such observance (which was true, because it took more than two hundred years after Jesus’ lifetime before Christians began an annual observance about the nativity of the Christ child).

Puritans also disapproved of the wild partying that seemed widespread on Christmas Day in England. Thus, during the Puritan Revolution in England in the 1600s, Puritans banned special church services on December 25 and mandated that businesses remain open.

In the American colonies the result was more complicated. Puritan New England actively discouraged Christmas: for a few years the Massachusetts General Court threatened fines for anyone found feasting, or absent from work, on Christmas Day. The long term result was that English-speaking dissenters from the Church of England, in the colonial era and in the early years of the new nation, tended to either actively oppose or at least ignore Christmas—that included Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Methodists, and Quakers.

However, other colonists came from parts of Europe not affected by Puritan opposition, and they brought their Christmas celebrations with them, unhindered: Germans, Scandinavians, and the Dutch who founded New Amsterdam (later New York). So Lutherans, Catholics, and the Dutch Reformed celebrated Christmas, along with the Church of England that continued restrained Christmas observances.

As a result of this mixture, in the American colonies and then in the new nation, there was no national consensus supporting Christmas, and the disagreement was between Christians.

American Christmas wouldn’t come roaring back, becoming nearly universal, until the mid-1800s, but it was not because of any campaign by churches. Most credit for the return and advance of Christmas goes to  major cultural influences like Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and the morphing of St. Nicholas into Santa Claus. Dickens’ famous story did not reflect the Christmas of his time but instead was an attempt to resurrect and reinvent Christmas, and it was incredibly successful. A Christmas Carol contains very little direct reference to religion and says nothing about a baby in a manger—but it does promote a spirit of giving and care for others that can be embraced by almost anyone.

The point here is that the Puritan suppression of Christmas created a vacuum, and when Christmas re-emerged and flourished in the 1800s its new form had less of a religious emphasis and was centered more on family and generosity. Christians could embrace those themes gladly, as very consistent with their values and beliefs, but others could also embrace that kind of a Christmas spirit without being especially religious.

In a sense, what emerged were two kinds of Christmas: a Christian Christmas and a cultural Christmas. In modern-day expression of Christianity, some are able to combine the two seamlessly, but others strongly emphasize one or the other. What has been called the secularization of Christmas might also be described as an emphasis on the cultural Christmas, with less interest in the religious version. The outworking of this two-fold Christmas continues to this day, and it is part of what enlivens the ‘War on Christmas’ debates.

But it was the Puritans who started it.

 

By: Bruce David Forbes, Religion Dispatches, December 22, 2015

December 25, 2015 Posted by | Christians, Christmas, Puritans, War on Christmas | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“Christian Culture Cleansing Of The West”: Despising The Holidays; When Christians Led The ‘War On Christmas’

In the 1640s, during the years of the English civil wars, a popular broadsheet with the title The World Turned Upside Down became the equivalent of a blockbuster.

In the chaos of the era print was cheap and plentiful, and the collapse of the licensing laws insured a degree of free speech hitherto unknown in the British Isles. The World Turned Upside Down would prove so enduring that it has been an English folk ballad for more than 350 years.

The song’s opening verse, “Holy-dayes are despis’d, new fashions are devis’d. /Old Christmas is kicked out of Town” remains pertinent. It seems that a supposed “War on Christmas,” whether real or imagined, has been going on for a very long time.

One of this season’s silliest skirmishes is certainly the Starbucks Christmas Cup ‘Controversy’—as per The Atlantic.

Whereas in previous years the coffee behemoth had offered up small, grande, and venti cups with (obviously secular) images of snowflakes and reindeer, 2015’s version has replaced this festive decoration with a minimalist, crimson blood-red design.

Supposedly this has enraged a portion of the Christian right, who view this decision as a rejection of Christian values. This portion of conservative Christians – exactly how many remains vague in media coverage – apparently views the crimson cups as evidence of secular humanistic creep, and the replacement of Christianity with a pluralistic perspective that these individuals view as an affront to their religious liberties.

Joshua Feuerstein, the activist (and known oddball) whose Facebook post attacking the chain over the issue is what initially went viral, claims that the company “wanted to take Christ and Christmas off of their brand new cups. That’s why they’re just plain red.” Feuerstein has encouraged customers to pretend that their names are “Merry Christmas” to seemingly force anti-Christian baristas to haplessly write a godly message on the apostate drink-ware. (This rather than a boycott, apparently.)

The so-called “War on Christmas” has been a staple of right-wing culture warriors for generations now, seemingly so incensed over people saying “Happy Holidays” that they can’t help but resort to hyperbole so bizarre that you can’t tell if it’s parody or not.

It’s this perennially aggrieved attitude that allows a writer at Breitbart.com to claim that the decision of a massive privately-held corporation (normally the heroes in conservative morality-plays) indicates that “Starbucks Red Cups Are Emblematic Of The Christian Culture Cleansing Of The West.”

That at this very moment ISIS is trying to actually ethnically cleanse entire regions of Christians makes the faux-outrage over a cup that happens to not have Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer on it all the more obscene. That Mr. Feurstein and his supporters didn’t go a step further and claim that the Starbucks mermaid logo is actually the ancient Philistine deity Dagon is presumably a failure of creativity on their part.

The irony over the kabuki-play that is our annual ceremonial anger over perceived attacks on Christianity is that the only actual sustained “War on Christmas” in the West was promulgated by religious Christians.

The World Turned Upside Down was written in angry response to an actual attempt at banning (or at least heavily regulating) Christmas festivities under Oliver Cromwell’s Puritan government in Britain, and concurrently in the charter-colonies of New England. The Puritans saw Christmas as tainted by “popery,” (after all, the word ends with “Mass,” which had also been abolished) and identified its extra-biblical elements as dangerously pagan.

In England there was fierce resistance to this attempt to regulate Christmas, where, as scholars like Eamon Duffy have demonstrated, the Reformation was hardly as seamless or as popular as triumphalist Protestant historiography has often portrayed it.

During the thirteen years that Christmas was replaced with a day of fasting by Parliamentary order there was fierce resistance among the populace. Celebrations were restored in 1660 with the Stuart Restoration, but the animus towards the holiday remained in America, where New England Puritans disparaged the holiday (as Bruce Forbes describes here) as both a Catholic and pagan innovation—one which encouraged drunkenness and slothfulness.

In 1712 Cotton Mather railed against “the feast of Christ’s nativity… 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!” In 1659 – a year before Christmas would return to Britain with Charles II – countrymen across the Atlantic in Massachusetts and Connecticut made the celebration of Christmas punishable by a five shilling fine.

The contemporary Christian Right often claims that the New England Puritans are their intellectual ancestors, but this is willfully misreading the historical record as surely as creationists misread biological evidence. Contemporary American fundamentalism, from its pre-millennial dispensationalist eschatology to its free-market economic ideology is at odds with the actual ideology of American Puritanism. The reductionist ‘culture wars’ obscure the nuances of history and culture, while failing to recognize the full complexity of both secularism and religion.

This year’s tempest in a coffee cup has provided us all with an unintended lesson in semiotics.

That someone might see Christianity in reindeer and snow-flakes (neither of which are mentioned in scripture) but not in the color red (which could certainly be anything from Christ’s blood to Eucharistic wine) – speaks to the arbitrary nature of symbols. They can only be understood within cultural context, and culture warriors would do well to remember that no secular order in American history has ever successfully waged a “War on Christmas,”—but that a Christian theocracy once did.

 

By: Ed Simon, Religion Dispatches, December 21, 2015

December 25, 2015 Posted by | Christians, Christmas, Puritans, Religious Beliefs | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

   

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