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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

“A Story Easy To Imagine Unfolding Today”: The Simple, Clear, And Still Radical Meaning Of The Christmas Story

The celebration of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth is a significant event for everyone raised in Western cultures, whether or not we happen to share the Christian faith – so meaningful that the Christmas holiday has been seized for partisan dispute, with even the most profane and irreligious political figures pretending to defend its purity.

These characters complain of a supposed “war on Christmas,” swearing to impose their own customs and even specific greetings on the entire population of the nation, which was founded on freedom from religious coercion of any kind. This year, the self-styled Christian warriors obsess over the Starbucks seasonal coffee cup, the latest proof that their protests have descended into parody.

Still, these ferocious displays of piety beg a deeper and more serious question. What is the real message of the Christmas story in our time?

It is a story, not a history, as scholars have observed in noting that the Biblical accounts as set down by Luke and Matthew differ in salient ways. But the narrative details of religious allegory need not distract anyone from the message, except those who demand that we interpret Scripture as literal truth, with intent to punish.

It is the story of a child born to a carpenter and his wife, the working class of ancient Judea, who lived under the rule of a distant dictatorial regime and its local enforcers — the one percent of their time. Joseph and Mary were homeless and in at least one version, they were refugees from political oppression. Rejected by society, they were driven into a manger, the equivalent of a cardboard shelter, where Jesus was born among the animals.

And it is a story easy to imagine unfolding today, in a Bronx homeless shelter or a camp tent on a Greek island. Oblivious politicians assure us that we need not concern ourselves with such people and that we can, in good conscience, turn away even children under five years of age for the sake of our own comfort and safety — even as they constantly assure us of their Christian morality.

The story of Christmas is not a political parable but an allegory of light brought into a dark and suffering world, on a date that coincides not accidentally with the winter solstice. Its newborn prophet is a harbinger of divine love for all, most emphatically including the sinners, the impious, the unclean, the unaccepted, the foreigner, the stranger, and the impoverished.

A true appreciation of the Christmas story can only grow from those fundamental insights, not from indignant ranting about paper coffee cups and greeting cards.

Its teaching is straightforward and clear and in the most benign sense radical: Bless the poor, the homeless, the workers, all those destitute and hungry, and especially the infants, children, and mothers. Treat them not with suspicion or hostility or meanness, but with kindness and generosity. Support every effort, public and private, to relieve the privations of humanity, both here and across the world. Cherish every child as your own, whatever their religion or race or nationality.

It is a message so simple that everyone — even Christians like Donald Trump and Ben Carson and Chris Christie — should be able to understand.

So Merry Christmas! Happy Holidays! And peace be with you.

 

By: Joe Conason, Editor in Chief, Editor’s Blog, Featured Post, The National Memo, December 24, 2015

December 25, 2015 Posted by | Christians, Christmas, GOP Presidential Candidates, War on Christmas | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Hokey Cultural Crisis”: Merry Christmas; Right-Wingers, The Red Pope, And Jesus

Aah, ’tis the season for family, friends, eggnog, chipmunks singing Christmas carols — and all-out, no-mercy, blow-’em-all-to-hell war.

Not war like in Afghanistan. No, no — this is the far right’s God-awful “War on Christmas.” In this season of Peace on Earth, a delusional faction of rightists has cooked up a hokey “cultural crisis” to rally their own followers by fomenting hatred of … well, of whom? “Blasphemous-liberal-Democrat-atheist-humanists,” they shout!

The infidels are not accused of lobbing actual bombs in this “war,” but Words of Mass Destruction. Specifically, wail the purists, unholy left-wingers go around saying “happy holidays,” rather than “merry Christmas,” as Jesus taught us to say. Or was it Constantine the Great in the fourth century who came up with that?

Never mind, the rightists’ point is that diabolical lefties (i.e., Marxists) are out to ban Christmas entirely. Heroic defender of the faith Sarah Palin has even written a thin book about this devious plot, revealing that “happy holidays” is merely “the tip of the spear in a larger battle to … make true religious freedom a thing of America’s past.”

Luckily, note the Merry Christmas crusaders, there are such bright lights as Indiana State Sen. Jim Smith. Smith hopes to join Texas, Alabama, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Tennessee in the “Merry Christmas Club” — in pushing state laws to allow Christian icons and ceremonies into our schools. Then there’s U.S. Rep. Doug Lamborn from Colorado. He and 35 of his fellow Republican congress critters have proposed a House resolution to protect Christmas. “A crèche in every public space,” is their cry, “a cross on every city hall.” To hell with Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, the winter solstice, etc.: This is war!

Actually, no, this is hokum, flimflammery, hoodoo, camel dung. It’s also insulting that they would attempt to try to generate a major social conflict over the fiction that the phrase “happy holidays” constitutes religious discrimination, whine that they are a repressed minority and equate it with war. First: Jews, Muslims, and others don’t get to brand public spaces as their religious property. Second: Nearly three-fourths of Americans are Christian, so drop the put-upon martyr pose. And third: War really is hell, with blood, lifelong trauma and death, so stop pretending you’re in one.

But rationality doesn’t seem to be included in the liturgy of their political church. Indeed, some of its acolytes have added a twist on Christmas that would make Jesus weep. Indeed, they have launched a war against Jesus! How twisted is that? They say no one should mess with the word “Christmas,” yet they’re messing with the guy Christmas is supposed to be about.

OK, technically they’re not going directly at Jesus but rather at a key part of his message and, in particular, a key messenger of Christianity: Pope Francis! They’ve decided that the Pope is a “Marxist,” pointing out that Francis speaks often about “the structural causes of poverty,” the “idolatry of money,” and the “new tyranny” of unfettered capitalism. Obviously, say the Pontiff’s pious critics, that’s commie talk.

The clincher for them was when Francis wrote an exhortation in which he asked in outrage: “How can it be that it is not a news item when an elderly homeless person dies of exposure, but it is news when the stock market loses two points?” See, cried the carpers, that’s proof that Francis is the Red Pope!

But wait, that was a very good question he asked, one ripe with the moral wrath that Jesus himself frequently showed toward the callous rich and their “love of money.” In fact, the Pope’s words ring with the deep ethics you find in Jesus’ sermon on the mount and in his admonitions to serve the poor. Was he a commie, too?

 

By: Jim Hightower, The National Memo, December 23, 2015

December 25, 2015 Posted by | Christmas, Jesus, Pope Francis, War on Christmas | , , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

   

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