The war on Christmas
By Liam Gibson | 13 December 2023
This December marks the eight-hundredth anniversary of the institution of the first Christmas nativity scene (presepio in Italian) by St Francis of Assisi in the village of Greccio in the Lazio region. To honour the occasion, the crib in the piazza of St Peter’s Basilica, unveiled on 8 December, features St Francis and three friars alongside the Holy Family, the ox and the donkey. This year, the Vatican has steered clear of the controversy generated by previous cribs. In contrast to 2020, the figures are recognisably human, and thankfully, unlike 2017, all of them are fully clothed.
In Europe, cribs are not usually a source of contention, but in the United States, the installation of nativity scenes — often referred to as crèches — has become a battleground in the so-called culture war. These days the dispute is between Christians, seeking to use the two-edged sword of the First Amendment to exert their freedom of religion, and those who argue that the separation of church and state requires the exclusion of Christianity from the public arena.1 Ironically, in the past, it was the Christians of the New England colonies who were the most strident opponents of the celebration of Christmas.
The American author Garrison Keillor once joked that his ancestors were Puritans from England. “They arrived here in 1648,” he said, “in the hope of finding greater restrictions than were permissible under English law at that time.”2 In fact, in 1648, England was still in the midst of a civil war that would result in the execution of King Charles I on 30 January 1649. But while the Puritans in Parliament established an increasingly harsh legal regime, it was the army that held real power. Effectively, the fate of England’s Christmas traditions had been sealed by the defeat of the Royalist forces at the Battle of Naseby three years earlier.
On 19 December 1643, an Act of Parliament sought to compel the people of England to treat the mid-winter period “with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.3
Then in June 1647, the feasts of Easter, Pentecost and Christmas were banned completely. Soldiers of the New Model Army were used to break up church services and any other public celebrations. When Oliver Cromwell was proclaimed Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland and Ireland in 1653, these laws became even more severe. From 1656, observance of Sunday was strictly enforced, but shops and markets were ordered to remain open on 25 December. In London troops patrolled the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for Christmas.
For centuries, one of England’s customary Christmas dishes was the mince pie. This was chopped meats seasoned with spices first brought to Britain by returning Crusaders. A recipe for Christmas pie dating from 1394 required a pheasant, a hare, a capon, two partridges, two pigeons, two rabbits, the livers and hearts of all these animals, plus a sheep’s kidneys, some beef, eggs, pickled mushrooms, salt, pepper and spices. All this mixture was baked in a crust. Sometimes the pie was made to represent a manger, complete with the figure of the Christ-child on top. Even before the Puritans had seized power, they regarded Christmas pies as idolatry and a popish abomination. The English poet, John Taylor, remarked in 1646 that eating one was enough to get a man arrested for “high Parliament treason”.4
The Puritans put forward two principal rationales for their war on Christmas. Firstly, as adherents to sola scriptura, they argued that feast days, including Christmas and Easter, were not to be found anywhere in the Bible; they were inventions of the idolatrous Catholic Church. Secondly, they argued (with some justification) that public celebrations at Christmas resulted in drunkenness, carousing and immorality. Perhaps predictably, the restrictions of 1647 were met with resistance. Riots erupted in London, Oxford, Ipswich and Kent. In Canterbury, a mob reportedly took hold of the mayor. They “broke all of his windows as well as his bones, and put fire to his doorsteps”.5
An incomplete restoration
Then, on 3 September 1658, Cromwell, who had become a king in all but name, died. When his Puritan regime collapsed shortly afterwards, the English monarchy was restored under Charles II, and with it, the ban on Christmas was lifted. Years of stern rebukes and threats of retribution had suppressed Christmas festivities but the people had not been won over, at least not entirely. While 25 December was celebrated once again, the old customs and practices — the processions, mystery plays and medieval hymns were gone for good. Although a few songs with a religious character survived — such as God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen — most of those that remained emphasised food and merrymaking.6 The Puritan war on Christmas had stripped it of its religious significance. Mince pies could be enjoyed but they were round instead of oblong and the figure of the Christ child was absent.7 Much of what is considered customary in England today was introduced from Germany during the reign of Queen Victoria (1837–1901) but the secular character of our modern Christmas can be seen as a consequence of the years of Puritan persecution.
In the American colonies, the Puritan influence persisted. Christmas celebrations were outlawed entirely in 1659, and those found feasting or refraining from work were fined five shillings — not an insignificant sum. This ban would last until the 1680s. The enemies of Christmas introduced Thanksgiving in the hope of supplanting it, and for a time, the plan seemed to be working. Ultimately, however, it simply succeeded in providing an additional Christmas dinner in late November.
By the time of the Revolutionary War, the association with the British Crown only caused the resistance among New Englanders to grow stronger. Even after independence came into effect, the US Senate continued to ignore Christmas, sitting on 25 December in 1797 while the House of Representatives did the same in 1802. It was only much later in the century that hostility towards the holiday began to cool. Increasing numbers of both Catholic and Protestant immigrants from Europe brought their own nation’s Christmas traditions.
Another factor that paved the way for this change in attitude was the immense popularity of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A visit from St Nicholas”. In the Netherlands, Calvinists tried and failed to replace St Nicolas or Sinterklaas — consistently depicted in the robes of a bishop — with the Nordic figure of the Christmas Man, who came from the North Pole.8 Moore’s St Nicolas was no longer a religious figure but “chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf”. This was far less threatening for those still suspicious of anything Catholic. This trend virtually guaranteed that it would be “Santa” and not the Christ child that was centre stage at Christmas.
In Scotland too, the Calvinist hostility to Christmas remained, and New Year’s Day became the dominant festival in much the same way that that day was glorified by the Communist regimes of the Soviet era. In 1870, 25 December became a federal holiday in the USA, but incredibly, it was only in 1958 that it became a holiday in Scotland.
Of course, the religious character of Christmas was never completely eclipsed, even under Communism. But in the wake of the Protestant revolt, Europe was torn apart by devastating wars of religion for more than a century. Exhausted by the seemingly endless strife over the unresolved and irreconcilable differences between Protestants and Catholics, and to preserve a fragile peace, all matters of religion became privatised.9 This in turn led to its marginalisation in contemporary culture. It is this legacy that has led to the belief that public expressions of faith are not in the public interest.
One of the leading figures in the reinterpretation of the First Amendment as a guarantee of “freedom from religion” was the Hungarian-American lawyer, Leo Pfeffer, born to Jewish parents on 25 December 1910. In his 1975 book, God, Caesar, and the Constitution, Pfeffer draws the battle lines between the church and the state along a broad front — including abortion, contraception, sterilisation, homosexuality, illegitimacy, adoption and the upbringing of children.10 However, about one-third of the book, is dedicated to the removal of all religious influence in public schools as well as the case for denying public assistance to Catholic schools. In 1959, Pfeffer played a leading role in a case that resulted in prayer in public schools being declared unconstitutional. It was this decision that some see as the first step toward the adoption of the notion of “secular neutrality” that has become a defining characteristic of contemporary America11 — and through US cultural influence, the rest of Western society. In the Novus ordo seclorum, Christmas is welcomed as a season of excess and self-indulgence, but there is no room for the birth of Christ.
While humanists like Pfeffer would never attempt to reshape society through military force, their religious zeal and fanatical devotion to the creation of a utopia on Earth,12 means that it is this group, rather than evangelical Christians, who are the true successors of the Puritans. However, after this period of persecution, we can be certain that the Social Reign of Christ the King will return. And this restoration can begin with the public recognition of His birth with nativity scenes that are reverent and beautiful, with art, music and solemn liturgies that place the Christ child at the heart of our celebrations.
- “In a nutshell, these clauses prohibit the government from promoting religion, but they also oblige the government to protect the right of religious individuals and groups to practice their faith, both in private and in public spaces.” — Melissa Rogers, “Religious freedom in the United States”, (2004) International Journal, 59, 4, p 902.
- Garrison Keillor, Garrison Keillor and the Hopeful Gospel Quartet (CD) [Epic Records, 1992].
- Bruce Gordon, “The Grinch that Didn’t Steal Christmas: A Reformation Story”, (2016) Yale ISM Review: 3: 1, Art 6.
- John Taylor, The complaint of Christmas written after Twelthtide and printed before Candlemas, London 1646, cited by Francis X Weiser SJ, in The Christmas Book (St Augustine Academy Press, 2017), p 150.
- N Doran, “The ups and downs of Christmas”, The National Magazine, London, 1857, cited by Weiser, p 46.
- For example, The boar’s head carol or We wish you a merry Christmas.
- Eventually, a religious aspect to Christmas music would gain strength with the work of men like Isaac Watts and Charles Wesley. Watts’ hymn Joy to the World, (1719) based on Psalm 98 was not written to celebrate Christmas; instead it looks forward to the Second Coming.
- In Communist Romania, he was replaced with character of Father Frost.
- See Brad S Gregory, “The Reformation era and the secularisation of knowledge” in Philip Nord, Katja Guenther, and Max Weiss (eds) Formations of belief: historical approaches to religion and the secular, (Princeton University Press, 2019).
- Leo Pfeffer, God, Caesar, and the Constitution: The Court as Referee of Church-State Confrontation, (Beacon Press, 1975).
- See: Steven D Smith, “Why school prayer matters”, First Things, May 2020.
- The 1933 text of the Humanist Manifesto states, “Man is at last becoming aware that he alone is responsible for the realisation of the world of his dreams, that he has within himself the power for its achievement.”