Is there a war on Christmas? Lots of people believe so. What they seem to mean is that there is a war on Christianity fought by trying to make Christmas a more secular holiday. Cited as evidence are atheist billboards arguing that we should “Keep the Merry, Dump the Myth” and “Be Good for Goodness’ Sake.”
Secular writers explain things differently. Or perhaps it might be better to say that they see it from a different angle. They regularly deny that there is a war on Christmas, citing proof that Christmas, as a holiday, is still going strong. They point to retailers doing loads of business in December and the continuing prevalence of tree lighting ceremonies, public caroling, and the popularity of Santa Claus. They might even try to claim that the “War on Christmas” was an invention of the John Birch Society (which was ultra-conservative and racist) in a 1959 pamphlet entitled, “There Goes Christmas,” which supposedly detailed a Communist plot to deprive Americans of the right to celebrate Christmas.
I believe that the “war on Christmas” is neither as pervasive nor as intense as some people fear. I also think we should be cautious when using the term “war,” because its very use carries with it an accusation. What many people may not realize is that there have been much more concerted attempts to battle Christmas in the past—not from secularists, but from professing Christians.
The Puritans instituted one of the most noteworthy periods of opposition to Christmas in American history. They have often gotten a bad rap (no doubt resulting from critics who opposed their strong religious beliefs. The famed atheist H. L. Mencken once unfairly defined puritanism as “the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy”), although their approach to Christmas doesn’t do anything to rehabilitate their reputation as party-poopers. In 1659, the Puritans banned holiday celebrations, stemming from their belief that Christmas led people to indulge in excessive behaviors (hint: they weren’t wrong about that). Christmas had a 20-year hiatus. Anyone found observing Christmas “by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way” would be punished.
The Puritans weren’t the first to abolish Christmas. It was banned in England for about fifteen years, beginning around 1644. On 8 June 1647, the Long Parliament passed the “Ordinance for Abolishing of Festivals. It formally prohibited Christmas and other holiday celebrations. Shops were required to be open. Town criers called out, “No Christmas! No Christmas!” as they walked the streets. Soldiers out on patrol could seize any food they thought was being prepared for Christmas dinner. In the Restoration of 1660, such festivals were decriminalized.
While some banned Christmas because of the behavior associated with celebrating the holiday, others have done so because of its religious connections. Unsurprisingly, the officially-atheistic government in Soviet Russia forbade religious celebrations like Christmas and Easter. The League of the Militant Godless established alternative festivals to replace religious holidays. More recently, China has cracked down on Christmas, due to a combination of anti-religious thinking as well as a growing tide of nationalism that sees Western influence as an encroachment upon Chinese culture. In general, China’s churches operate secretly for fear of drawing unwanted attention from the government.
Thankfully, we don’t see any of these things taking place in the United States. We do have some who claim there’s a war on Christmas by making the following points, although there are probably many more:
- Abbreviating Christmas as “Xmas” is an attempt at secularism. What many people may not know is that the Greek letter chi (which appears like an X in the English alphabet) is the first letter of the word christos, or Christ. This abbreviation has been used for centuries going back to the High Middle Ages and is similar to the practice of writing the names of deity in the early church. Manuscripts and inscriptions often abbreviated the names of deity to the first and last letters with a line drawn over them. These abbreviations—called the nomina sacra, or “sacred names”—were never intended to diminish the honor or importance of either God or Jesus. Similarly, the word “Xmas” is just an abbreviation.
- Renaming Christmas trees as “holiday trees.” Christmas trees first appeared in England in the 1700s. It was even later in the United States. Christmas trees are relatively recent and haven’t always enjoyed a warm reception. In 1851, a German minister who had immigrated to the United States put a Christmas tree in his church and was roundly condemned. US President Teddy Roosevelt denounced Christmas trees, considering them a waste of timber. It’s hard to defend a supposed Christian association when it only goes back two centuries.
Is there a war on Christmas? The first question we need to ask is, “How Christian is Christmas?” It could be that some people rename Christmas trees as holiday trees because they are trying to distance the day from its supposed Christian roots. But how serious an attack is this? Any war will have frontal assaults, rearguard actions, feints, and secret missions. Anyone engaged in battle needs to be aware of the enemy’s strategy. My take on it is if Christmas trees and nativity scenes are an integral part of our evangelism strategy, we’ve missed the point of the gospel message. There are many more important and useful ways to help others understand Christ than using a few tangential symbols during a brief time of the year. Christ deserves better.
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