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Ghosts of Christmas Past

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Jan 06, 2012

The Week magazine of December 30th did a good job of briefing its readers on the Puritan opposition to celebrating Christmas which afflicted America well into the 19th century. The Pilgrims who began settling New England in 1620 argued that the very concept of holy days implied that there were some days that were not holy.

They nicknamed Christmas “Foolstide”, and punished those who were caught playing games on Christmas when the rest of the community was working. In one recorded example, Governor William Bradford punished a group of men for playing “stoole-ball” (think early baseball). The Puritans were also concerned about December 25th’s shaky history as the pagan feast of the sun god Mithra (officially co-opted for Christian purposes by Pope Julius I), and about the obvious inaccuracy of suggesting that the Messiah was born on that date.

But perhaps the main obstacle was the Puritan experience of English celebrations of Christmas which, in addition to providing an opportunity for gifts to the poor, often led to drunken feasts. As Hugh Latimer put it, “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.” Granted it is a leap from that telling observation to an insistence on treating Christmas just like any other working day. Granted too that the Puritans were, very likely, almost congenitally scrupulous. But many an extreme position arises from an unguarded reaction to abuse!

Thus Cotton Mather lamented 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…”, well, you get the point. When the governor of Massachusetts broke precedent by sponsoring a Christmas service in 1686, he had to be protected by soldiers. But outside New England, the other colonies were more forgiving of human nature. In Poor Richard’s Almanac, Philadelphian Ben Franklin wrote of Christmas: “O blessed Season! Lov’d by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners.”

Once the nation was fully formed, the U.S. Senate met on Christmas Day to conduct business as usual in 1797, and the House of Representatives did the same in 1802. But gradually the day became a holiday, though in New England resistance remained strong well into the middle of the 19th century. There merchants stayed open for business on a day like any other—a practice which became common once again throughout the country in the latter part of the 20th century (though for reasons of commerce rather than principle). The Puritanical among us may wonder whether it was a coincidence that the frequently drunken Ulysses S. Grant was the President to name Christmas a federal holiday in 1870.

The Christmas tree itself, which was a German tradition, had similarly tough sledding in the United States, as it was often regarded as a symbol of pagan idolatry. A German pastor who placed a decorated tree in a Cleveland church in 1851 was forced to remove it. The local newspaper called the tree a “nonsensical, asinine, moronic absurdity” and rebuked Lutherans for “groveling before a shrub.”

I don’t think it is an apt reference now, except for those who use the tree to replace Christ, but you’ll understand this better if you read Jeremiah 10:1-5:

Hear the word which the LORD speaks to you, O house of Israel. Thus says the LORD: “Learn not the way of the nations, nor be dismayed at the signs of the heavens because the nations are dismayed at them, for the customs of the peoples are false. A tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an axe by the hands of a craftsman. Men deck it with silver and gold; they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move. Their idols are like scarecrows in a cucumber field, and they cannot speak; they have to be carried, for they cannot walk.”

The Christmas tree is now nearly universal, and surely it is a stretch to class those who grow and sell the trees with the silversmiths who threatened violence to St. Paul when he denounced the idols they produced in honor of the goddess Artemis. In any case, human celebrations will always have a way of getting out of hand. But in other ways perhaps we’ve come full circle. Where once the Puritans argued for business as usual to prevent the paganization of Christmas, I’d argue that in the land of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, business as usual is a deeper paganism still.

We may not always be wrong in having a conflicted attitude toward Christmas. But to throw out the Baby is a symbolic abortion, ensuring that we have nothing to celebrate. The fresh and promising life of the infant Christ is the key to the whole thing, a salvific event which resonates with the joyful birth of our own children. Only a fool makes a Hobson’s choice between celebrating his child’s birthday with debauchery or treating it just like any other day. Taking some time out for the Baby, right up to the end of the season on January 9th, is the only way to keep Christmas well.

Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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