The so-called “War on Christmas” has been prosecuted for the past few years around the United States. It started with community leaders removing nativity scenes from town squares because of complaints from non-Christians, mostly atheists. Then came Walmart’s notorious instruction to employees to wish people “Happy Holidays” rather than “Merry Christmas.” Last year, when Starbuck’s changed the design of their holiday cup (which changes every year), some people saw it as another sneak attack on Christmas.
Whether any of this denotes a war on Christmas is a matter of debate. Non-Christians think their Christian counterparts need to stop being so paranoid, and some Christians agree. The popular Christian author Rachel Held Evans made light of Christians who feel persecuted because someone wished them a happy holiday rather than a merry Christmas: “You are not being persecuted,” she wrote. Yet others disagree, claiming that the “War on Christmas” is just one battlefield in a larger war on Christianity.
Is there really a war on Christmas? It is hard to be sure. We may be witnessing an intentional assault on Christmas or we may just be seeing the collapse of Christian traditions generally, brought on by stress or old age, crumbling like a medieval cathedral. That is just the kind of thing Malcom Muggeridge predicted in his prophetic lecture series from 1978 entitled “The End of Christendom.” As Christendom collapses under its own weight, valued traditions will inevitably fall with it.
Whether we are currently living through a “war on Christmas” may be up for debate, but there can be no debate that Christmas has been victimized by war in the past. It was on December 25, 1647 that Christmas was reportedly killed.
“Christmas” (probably an assumed name) was a demonstrator in Ipswich, England, who had taken to the streets to protest a law passed in June of that year that made the celebration of Christmas a punishable offence. “Christmas” was reportedly killed by police in the ensuing riot, just as Christmas had been reportedly killed by an act of Parliament in the House of Commons.
In London on that same day, a crowd of laborers decorated the water tower with holly and ivy. When the police ordered them to disperse and they refused, troops were sent in to quell the riot. On that same day in Canterbury, where Christmas celebrations were an integral part of the city’s identity, rioters smashed the windows of shops that opened on Christmas Day.
The war on Christmas had begun eighty years earlier in the anti-popish Kirk of Scotland. There was a truce in the early 1600s, but it broke out again with a furor in the 1630s. In 1642 there was a genuine civil war between the king and Parliament, in which the royalists upheld the celebration of Christmas and the Parliament, led by Cromwell and others, rejected it.
The fascinating thing is that both sides, the pro-Christmas demonstrators and the anti-Christmas legislators, insisted that their views represented a biblical perspective. Unlike the current so-called “war on Christmas,” this one was being waged by so-called Christians. The celebration of the birth of Christ had become the occasion of violence against Christians, and had done so without any help at all from antagonistic “heathens.”
If we are indeed going through another war on Christmas, it is hardly the first. Christmas has been attacked by Puritans in England, by atheists in France (who referred to it as “Dog Day” after the revolution), by Soviets in the wake of Red October, by Chinese communists and many others (including, incidentally, the City of Boston during the late 17th century).
What should people who care about Christmas do when they see its importance being challenged? They should remember the distinction between Christmas and the event it celebrates. Throughout history, the celebration of Christmas has been marked by absurdities from within and violence from without. It has experienced the ebb and flow of popularity. But the event it commemorates stands undiminished. No assault on Christmas can ever undo what has been accomplished through the birth of Christ.
And that’s something to celebrate.
First published in The Coldwater Daily Reporter, 12/24/2016