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The Real War on Christmas

[ 98 ] December 11, 2013 |

Forget O’Reilly’s fears of liberals saying “Happy Holidays” to each other. There was a real war on Christmas in this country and it was waged by those lovely people who settled in New England, the Puritans.

For the Puritans — in England and in the New England colonies — Christmas was a, well, un-Christian imposition on what should be a perfectly normal December 25th, thank you very much. Sure, the Sabbath was holy, Puritans believed, but there was no scriptural basis for celebrating or resting on Christmas Day. It wasn’t a real religious holiday.

Here’s why. Increase Mather, who was the Puritan Michael Jordan of hating Christmas, grumbled in 1687 :

The early Christians who first observed the Nativity on December 25 did not do so thinking that Christ was born in that Month, but because the Heathens’ Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian ones.

Pagan holidays are pretty fun, and Saturnalia was an absolute bonanza of revelry. So you can see why Western society was keen on keeping it around by aligning a celebration of the birth of Jesus with the existing winter feast. But not Increase.

Particularly upsetting to Increase Mather was the tradition of inversion associated with the holiday. Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle For Christmas goes into this in much more detail, but essentially, English Christmas at the time was all about class inversion, as was the pagan Saturnalia festival. Children served as bishops, servants as masters, that sort of thing. That inversion carried over into the exchange of goods (presents) from the rich to the poor, as a much more aggressive prototype of what we might recognize as charitable giving — think drunk, adult, trick-or-treating. And of course, there was feasting and drinking. It was fun, different from the everyday, and could get a little bit scary. In a way, Increase and his ilk were right: the rituals of Christmas had little to do in particular with Christianity.

Fun people.


Comments (98)

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  1. N__B says:

    I used to decorate a tree to placate the sun god lest he not return after the solstice, but since I was born again I know that Chappaquiddick is the worst scandal to ever afflict the baby Jesus.

      • N__B says:

        Yeah…there are some theological problems with that episode. Still less annoying than the Yangs and the Koms.

      • ChrisTS says:

        I know you were being funny, but the whole ‘Son’ and ‘Sun’ … mixup… is quite interesting. It is rather remarkable how many of the ‘son’ gods are also ‘sun’ gods (or v.v). This seems to have something to do with the idea of sacrificing the ‘son’ to bring about/back the new life of spring/Day via the ‘sun.’

        And, yes, I realize everyone here knows all this stuff, but you would/might be surprised at how many ‘educated’ young college students are absolutely clueless about any and all of this.

        • Lurker says:

          This issue exists only in Germanic languages. In Romance languages, “son” is some variant of “filius” and “Sun” is a variant of “Sol”. So, the linguistic similarity is not an issue giving rise to these son-gods being sun-gods.

          On the other hand, not all Sun gods are primarily son-archetypes. The Greek Apollon is a son of Zeus, but that is not his primary attribute. Instead, Apollon is the god of Sun, medicine, poetry, music, divination and learning. Essentially, Apollon is a shamanistic figure, embodying the attributes of an ideal shaman. The Egyptian sun-god Amon-Ra is mainly the primary deity, the all-father, not a son-archetype. And the middle-eastern suffering-son deity, Dionysus-Tammuz-Dumuzi, was not a sun-god, but a fertility god.

          The synchretism of Sun cult and the cult of divine sun dates, in my opinion, to Constantine the Great, who worshipped Sol Invictus, and presented himself as Sun’s divine son when he was not in expressly Christian circles. In Christian circles, Constantine likened himself to Christ, and many bishops played along, formulating their statements so that they might be interpreted to mean by “Our Savior, the Son of God” either Constantine or Christ. Then, when Constantine was gone, and the Church endured, Constantine’s pretensions could be forgotten, but the link between Sol Invictus and the Son could be used to claim the winter solstice for Christians.

    • Steve Suspect says:

      Well it’s not like it was nothing.

  2. Todd says:

    Way to go, Cromwell! The real reason for the Restoration now becomes clear. Never get between an Englishman and his 12 days of drunken revelry in veiled worship of the unconquered Sun.

  3. Sly says:

    First you celebrate Christmas, then you’re drinking hot cocoa, then you’re cuddling on the sofa, then you start having sex… and the next thing you know, you’re dancing.

    • MAJeff says:

      Why don’t Christian Reformed folks have sex standing up?

      People might think they’re dancing.

    • Leinad says:

      Puritans actually didn’t mind sex (within marriage, natch) and were fairly advanced for the period in that they believed married couples should be comfortable and intimate with each other.

      They also liked themselves some booze. Our image of Puritans as killjoy types is largely a product of Prohibition-era stereotypes; they were much weirder and more interesting than that.

      • Origami Isopod says:

        To be fair, everybody drank booze back then, because (as the article you linked to points out) the water wasn’t always safe to drink. The popularity of tea and coffee was based in no small part on the boiling process making the water safe.

        But, yeah, the Puritans were very progressive in some ways (for their time), very reactionary in others, and strange (e.g., executing animals).

      • Tristan says:

        Puritans actually didn’t mind sex (within marriage, natch) and were fairly advanced for the period in that they believed married couples should be comfortable and intimate with each other.


  4. partisan says:

    I don’t know if you’ve ever read John Meier’s “A Marginal Jew,” but if it is ever completed it will be the definitive scholarly life of Jesus for this generation. (It’s already four volumes and Meier still has to discuss Jesus’ parables, Jesus’ titles, and how Jesus died.) Anyway somewhere in here it is mentioned that the reason Christians chose December 25th as his birthday was that they believed he was crucified on the anniversary of his conception. (March 25 being roughly the time of Passover.)

  5. Cody says:

    the Puritan Michael Jordan of hating Christmas

    I didn’t think Puritans were allowed to gamble.

  6. laura says:

    Cromwell is my direct ancestor (also probably Attila the Hun like everybody else but whatevs). I was dismayed when reading Diane Purkiss’ book on the English Civil War a few years ago to discover that he really did cancel Christmas (or more accurately confirmed the cancellation of Christmas.) One hates to defend kings but the Puritans really sucked and taking holidays away from the poor was the worst of it.

    • Barry Freed says:

      taking holidays away from the poor was the worst of it.

      Say what now?

    • Warren Terra says:

      Um, I’m pretty glad of Cromwell, because the idea of a citizenry ousting a king in favor of the bourgiousie is a pretty important one, and contributed pretty mightily to them doing a much better job of it 40 years later. But there’s all sorts of ways that the Commonwealth was a travesty of misrule and injustice, as our Irish friends above have suggested, and I don’t think their policies on Christmas or for that matter on the Theatre quite head the list.

      • laura says:

        Yes, but Christmas was hardly the only holiday that got cancelled… though to be fair the elimination of feast days and the forced social mingling implied was bigger than the Puritans. However, comparing the behavior and decisions on military campaigns to behavior and decisions during peace time / civilian rule is apples and oranges.

        • Warren Terra says:

          Well, if you want forced social mingling, the Puritans had that in spades – failure to attend the weekly sermon was punishable by the state in the form of what was for the common folk a quite swingeing fine.

      • The Men, Women, and Children of Drogheda says:

        Oh, we forgot about the theater closings! Yeah, those were definitely the worst. Also, has anyone seen Padraig’s spleen? It’s about the size of your fist, sort of reddish? Caitlin thought she saw it next to her severed legs, but that might have been one of Eoin’s kidneys.

      • Anonymous says:

        “the bourgiousie”

        More Communist thinking from the readership of the “Lawyers, Guns, and Money” blog.

        Between Loomis and your commenters you may as well rename it “Commissars, Kalashnikovs, and Kulaks”.

      • Lurker says:

        The Commonwealth is an interesting phenomenon. I would say that it was the first “third-world military dictatorship” in the world. Cromwell, the Lord Protector, was a professional soldier who used a modern army to oust the customary monarch. He was supported by the middle class and used a nominally egalitarian socio-religious doctrine as his ideological cornerstone. Then, very soon after his ascension, his government became a corrupt system of self-dealing and nepotism, with the highest military commanders having prominent political power.

        All in all, the Commonwealth looked very much like your average banana republic in Latin America or a arab nationalist state in the Middle East. The only difference is that the English managed to do this to themselves without American support.

        • rea says:

          Cromwell, the Lord Protector, was a professional soldier who used a modern army to oust the customary monarch

          Cromwell was not a professional soldier–he was a landowner and MP, with zero invovlvement in the military until his mid 40s

          • ajay says:

            Indeed. Lurker seems to think that the New Model Army came before (and enabled) the Civil War, when in fact the reverse is true.
            very soon after his ascension, his government became a corrupt system of self-dealing and nepotism
            It is a bit much to condemn Cromwell for running a nepotistic government when the alternative is, you know, a hereditary monarchy.

        • Snarki, child of Loki says:


          I don’t think there is ANY form of government, including military coups against royalty, that the Greeks didn’t pioneer first (and second..and third..) a couple of thousand years before.

          They even had a special WORD for a dictator that replaced a “legitimate” king: they were known as a Tyrant.

      • Todd says:

        This is a post about Christmas and Puritans

        • Lee Rudolph says:

          The post is a post about Christmas and the Puritans. The comments are comments about whatever they’re about. That’s what happens. If you don’t like it, you might petition the Lord Protector.

      • Tristan says:

        Um, I’m pretty glad of Cromwell, because the idea of a citizenry ousting a king in favor of the bourgiousie is a pretty important one

        Yeah, cause those guys are great.

    • Murc says:

      Cromwell is my direct ancestor

      As opposed to your… indirect ancestor?

      Ancestry is a binary state, isn’t it?

      • ajay says:

        As opposed to your… indirect ancestor?

        Ancestry is a binary state, isn’t it?

        As opposed to a collateral ancestor (like a great-uncle).

        • herr doktor bimler says:

          Shirley a collateral ancestor is one you can use as the deposit on a loan.

          • Lurker says:

            I think that if the collateral ancestor is a Roman Catholic Saint, his remains have monetary value as holy relics, and even a prudent, secular lender would accept them as a collateral.

          • Warren Terra says:

            Well, there is a trope of Restoration and Victorian literature whereby dissolute young men from the best families fall deep into debt to lenders having pledged against their expected inheritance. Surely that qualifies as collateral ancestry.

          • dave says:

            No. It’s an ancestor who gives you collateral as the deposit on a loan.

            And don’t call me Shirley.

          • ajay says:

            GENERAL:I come here to humble myself before the tombs of my ancestors, and to implore their pardon for having brought dishonour on the family escutcheon.

            FREDERIC: But you forget, sir, you only bought the property a year ago, and the stucco on your baronial castle is scarcely dry.

            GENERAL: Frederic, in this chapel are ancestors: you cannot deny that. With the estate, I bought the chapel and its contents. I don’t know whose ancestors they were, but I know whose ancestors they are, and I shudder to think that their descendant by purchase (if I may so describe myself) should have brought disgrace upon what, I have no doubt, was an unstained escutcheon.

        • Murc says:

          As opposed to a collateral ancestor (like a great-uncle).

          I actually did not know this was a thing. Thank you.

    • LeeEsq says:

      I’m surprised that nobody turned Cromwell into the villain of a children’s book for banning Christmas or something like that.

  7. Western Dave says:

    December 25th is Mithras’ birthday. And he was born of a virgin, too, you know.

    • ChrisTS says:

      Indeed – as were so many other ‘unique’ godlings. Surprising that so many cults and their heroes feature the same dates and miracles, iinit?

    • wjts says:

      Mithras was “born” out of solid rock and there’s nothing in the Mithraic tradition that suggests it happened on December 25.

      • NonyNony says:

        It’s not Mithras’s birthday, it’s Sol Invictus’s birthday. People who only cursorily know about Christianity’s non-Jewish roots tend to assume everything comes from the Mithras cults. Constantine was a Sol Invictus worshipper not a Mithras worshipper, for example, but folks conflate the two all of the time when thinking about early Christian beliefs.

        And whether Sol Invictus’s birthday was celebrated with a feast day prior to Christianity claiming Dec. 25th for Christmas is somewhat in dispute last I read. But, to be honest, it’s all in the area of the Winter Solstice, which a whole bunch of sun cults historically used as the “birthday” of the Sun god.

        • Anonymous says:

          Given that Solstice celebrations preceded Christianity, and that Christians chose to put Christmas there, what exactly can be in dispute about it?

          • wjts says:

            What’s in dispute is specifically whether or not celebrations of the birthday of Sol Invictus on December 25th provided the model for the celebration of Christmas on December 25th. The oldest written evidence for both feasts is, so far as I’m aware, the Calendar of Philocalus which dates from the middle of the 4th century C.E.

            • Bill Murray says:

              Solomon “Sol” Invictus was the great fly half for the triumphant Harlequins rugby squads of the early 1920s, teaming with the First Baron Wakefield of Kendal, who revolutionized the role of back row forward, to lead ‘Quins to the English RFU championship 5 times in the decade before heading back to his native Bahamas to setup the best Fish and Chips shop in Nassau

  8. KmCO says:

    If Increase Mather were alive today, he’d most likely be a guest host on Fox News.

    • James E. Powell says:

      Can you imagine what he’d say about Black Friday?

    • BigHank53 says:

      Oh, like Fox could pry him out of the clasp of the Westboro Baptist Church. Those guys are nuts enough Mather might even be able to forgive them for being Baptists.

      More likely he’d become a rising star in the Taliban.

    • Anonymous says:

      With a name like Increase, he’d be a natural for the prosperity gospel racket.

      The puritans already had a touch of that, with the doctrine of outward signs (of salvation), but somehow, today’s Christians have managed to make it even more odious.

  9. jkay says:

    Churchill wrote that Puritans in Cromwellian England even stole CHRISTMAS MEAT, TOO serious. And stole Maypoles, so I think it was actually about the fun (NO!).

  10. ChrisTS says:

    I am quite sorry that some substantial number of my earliest ‘American’ ancestors were Puritans (and other assholes).

    I just want to say that I do my best to compensate for their misery-imposing views as much, as any one person can.

    Eat, drink, sing, dance, and be merry.

  11. mch says:

    This post and many of the comments — don’t know what to say. Sort of Arianna Puffington level. Puritans, Cromwell (T not the same as O, btw), Puritans in New England. This is a incredibly rich and interesting stuff, and formative for us in the U.S. Deserves a far higher level of analysis.

    As for Christmas, it really is complicated, theologically and sociologically (and musically). The Roman church resisted its celebration for centuries, you know, long before anyone could imagine a Reformation. And Christmas wasn’t big in many non-Protestant areas. The holiday has a history outside of England, from Egypt to Spain to Assisi and Poland. Within England, it’s not some simple class issue, though class issues get intertwined. This is stupid. I expect better here.

    And no, Puritans had nothing against sex within marriage. They seem to have practiced a good deal of it, judging from the size of their families.

    • sibusisodan says:

      I agree that quite a lot of the ways we make fun of the Puritans are over-simplistic, but it is fun! And they are heirs to a lot of rubbish, even if the Puritans themselves were a more diverse body than the movement they spawned is (which I think is defensible, much as Calvin is plenty more nuanced than second generation Calvinism).

      IIRC, the laws outlawing the celebration of Christmas in the UK were still on the statute book until less than 20 yrs ago.

    • Warren Terra says:

      Jeez, smell the offended misplaced sense of superiority and condescension. Yes, you’re aware that Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell were completely different people – what do you want, a blueberry pancake? No-one in the thread has confused them, or even hinted at Thomas Cromwell’s existence, until you came along. But, please, lecture us on the career of the Cavalier cavalryman Winston Churchill, it’ll be a hoot.

      And the middle of your comment is no better – you complain outraged about issues and debates that are occurring only in your head. Sounds like an interesting conversation, maybe, but it’s not the one in the comments here.

      As to the last bit: if you’ve never heard the old joke about certain puritanical Christians being opposed to sex because it might lead to dancing, you’ve missed out, and for that reason you’ve misunderstood. And, of course, imagined yourself the better for the misunderstanding.

      • Tristan says:

        Yes, you’re aware that Thomas Cromwell and Oliver Cromwell were completely different people

        For anyone who missed it, the hint is that they have two different names.

    • Dave says:

      Yeah, fuck off. Go talk to those Drogheda folk, see if you can not have a sense of humour together.

    • This is stupid. I expect better here.

      Be sure to fill out the refund form in triplicate, and include a self-addressed, stamped envelope too.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      How dare people not talk about the subjects you’d like to talk about. How very dare they.

    • Howlin Wolfe says:

      I can hear the *sniff* in that comment. I think you want the next room, which is the Broad Discussion of the Origins of Christmas by Those Who Really Know About It room.

  12. […] you think people who say “Happy Holidays” are the spoilsports of Christmas, check out these folks.  They were fighting the War on Christmas over 300 years ago. Posted: 4:35 amCategories: […]

  13. fastEddie says:

    the exchange of goods (presents) from the rich to the poor, as a much more aggressive prototype of what we might recognize as charitable giving — think drunk, adult, trick-or-treating.

    *Exactly* drunk, adult, trick-or-treating – from the song lyrics:

    Now bring us some figgy pudding,
    And bring it right here.

    We won’t go until we got some,
    So bring it right here.

    • Origami Isopod says:

      Also, the figure of Santa Claus was once upon a time a figure of sexual license. Some old blues songs allude to this with a mention of the singer being about to service his lady friend “like I’m Santa Claus.”

      BTW, Nissenbaum’s book, which I read a few years back, is terrific.

  14. DAS says:

    In re the date for Christmas: Isn’t Christmas on the 25th of December because Hannukkah begins on the 25th of Kislev (which more or less corresponds to December … most years at least)?

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