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Celebrate Christmas, or Else!

December 13, 2005

The evangelical movement in America—the one that put Bush in the White House and continues to constitute his most dependable base of support—has been whipped into a frothing frenzy over the idea, promoted by the newshounds with too much air time to kill at Fox, that someone, somewhere is waging a War on Christmas.

What? Is the government, some government anywhere, actively preventing Christians from celebrating Christmas, as in the Soviet Union, Cuba, China—or, the egregious case of Massachusetts Colony in the 17th century (we’ll get to that)?

No, apparently not. The problem is more subtle, or so they say.

The evidence that kicked off this hysteria was the annual urban myth that the Post Office is not going to issue its Madonna and Child stamp, which turns out to be right here . Actually, the whole thing is rather odd, given the history of iconoclasm integral to this religious tradition. Why are icons effectively banned year-round in their churches and homes, but somehow mandatory for stamps at Christmas time?

Then the warriors started targeting companies like Target and Macy’s for failing to say "Christmas" in its advertising slogans. Never mind that Macy’s offers 301 products on sale that are promoted as Christmas items including a sterling silver cross ornament for $60, and an ornament with Jesus and Mary for $43 (now $29!). A look at Target shows the same thing (39,185 matches for Christmas).

Rather than waging boycotts, they might do well to demonstrate to these companies their commitment to Christmas by buying their openly religious items for sale. But wait! That would be "commercializing Christmas," which this crowd also considers to be a grave evil. In fact, to the extent that companies have started using more broadly ecumenical promotion strategies, perhaps it might have something to do with the endless haranguing against commercializing that goes on in pulpits every year.

More evidence of the war on Christmas: The White House Christmas Card made no reference to Christmas. This incensed William Donohue (Catholic) and Joseph Farah (evangelical). "The Bush administration has suffered a loss of will and they have capitulated to the worst elements in our culture," said Donohue.

The White House points out that many people who get the card are not Christian, which raises the question about whether the card sent should reflect the faith of the recipient or of the sender. It is a question every American family faces every year, and we all resolve it differently, sending toned-down cards to non-Christian friends and stepped-up cards to Christian friends.

Or is the White House supposed to be sending a card not as the Bush family but as the official voice of the country? If the latter is true, insisting that the card be overtly Christian raises extremely troubling questions about the whole agenda of the Christian right and its goal to institutionalize their view of Christian doctrine as the core of American domestic and foreign policy. It suggests that they have yet to come to terms with the very idea of religious toleration.

In what way does the failure of the White House and commercial venues somehow impinge on the right of American families and churches to celebrate Christmas in any manner that they choose? It does not, of course. They are free to remember its true meaning and not treat it as a secular occasion, just as secular venues (such as government) are free to set aside its religious meaning. For Christmas to be both secular and religious is consistent with the idea of freedom.

But that is not good enough, according to the culture warriors. Why? Because failing to make doctrine overt is only the first step, says Bill O’Reill y. Next thing you know, they will legalize prostitution, drugs, abortion, gay marriage, and repeal laws against buying liquor on Sunday. Okay, I made up that last item but it is a fact that Blue Laws are supported passionately by the same groups that are warring for Christmas today.

And where did Blue Laws come from? The same period and region that gave birth to most religiously based controls on consumption and life choice: Puritan New England. Thus can we observe that this is an odd bunch to be waging a counteroffensive. Their own ideological predecessors in American history – the New England Puritans – were the first group in the history of Christianity to attempt to stamp out Christmas altogether.

Historian Oliver Perry Chitwood tells us that they managed to suppress the entire holiday. "The Puritans were opposed to the observance of Christmas," he writes, "which they regarded as a Catholic custom, and during the colonial period, Christmas was, therefore, not a New England holiday except in Rhode Island."

Perry Miller, in his magisterial treatise on Puritan culture, elaborates: "Christmas was associated in the Puritan mind with the ‘Lords of Misrule,’ with riot and drunkenness. Though commemorated outside New England, and by the Anglicans in Boston as early as 1686, it never came to be regarded generally as a day of joy and good will until the mid-nineteenth century."

David Hackett Fischer provides the broader context: "The Puritans made a point of abolishing the calendar of Christian feasts and saints’ day. The celebration of Christmas was forbidden in Massachusetts on pain of a five-shilling fine." Nor was this a Colonial peculiarity. When the same bunch was in charge in England, the Puritan Parliament "prohibited the observance of Christmas, Easter, Whitsunday, saints’ days and holy days."

This year Christmas falls on Sunday, which would mean terrible things in the Shining City on the Hill. All work, play, and travel were forbidden on Sunday. The Essex County Court punished people for brewing on Sunday. There was a debate on whether a man could be rescued from a well on that day. They were punished for picking strawberries, playing cards, smoking, and sailing. In 1670, a couple was brought to trial for "sitting together on the Lord’s Day under an apple tree."

Sex on Sunday was out of the question. This was particularly a problem for children born on Sunday, because Puritans believed that people were born on the same day on which they were conceived. They were sometimes denied baptism for this reason. A minister name Israel Loring was very strict in this regard until his own wife gave birth to twins on a Sunday.

Such hypocrisies aside, the Puritan attitude toward government was never better summed up than by Rev. Nathaniel Ward in 1647, as quoted in Rothbard’s account of Puritan political economy:

"God does nowhere in His word tolerate Christian States to give toleration to such adversaries of His truth, if they have power in their hands to suppress them . . . He that willingly assents to toleration of varieties of religion his conscience will tell him he is either an atheist or a heretic or a hypocrite, or at best captive to some lust. Poly-piety is the greatest impiety in the world… To authorize an untruth by a toleration of State is to build a sconce against the walls of heaven, to batter God out of His chair."

Rothbard comments: "Coercion only forces people to change their actions; it does not persuade people to change their underlying values and convictions. And since those already convinced of the moral rules would abide by them without coercion, the only real impact of compulsory morality is to engender hypocrites, those whose actions no longer reflect their inner convictions."

For more details on life under the Puritans, see this chapter from Murray Rothbard’s Conceived in Liberty .

The politics of the evangelicals in this country have developed in a very strange direction, from opposing government intervention in the 1970s and 80s to today, where they seem to believe the operating principle of the world’s worst regimes: all that is not forbidden is mandatory. But a mandatory Christmas celebration is no Christmas at all.

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Lew Rockwell is president of the Mises Institute and editor of LewRockwell.com. Rockwell@mises.org. See his  Lew's Columns on Mises.org .


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