The Long History of the War on Christmas

(Lars Martinson)
(Lars Martinson)

Hand-wringing over Christmas has been going on since the Christ child left the manger.

don’t know if you’ve heard, but the real meaning of Christmas has been sadly overtaken by wanton capitalism in recent years. “This festival teaches even the little children, artless and simple, to be greedy,” as one critic put it. “The tender minds of the young begin to be impressed with that which is commercial and sordid.”

The year was 400, and the anxious writer was the Cappadocian Bishop Asterius of Amasea. Asterius’ pious fretting is quoted in Canadian historian Gerry Bowler’s Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, which makes clear that hand-wringing over the correct way to celebrate the Christ child started practically before the kid left the manger.

The refreshing takeaway of Christmas in the Crosshairs is that most contemporary agita about Christmas’ supposed decline is misplaced. The commercialization of Christmas isn’t a recent development; St. Augustine was pleading with people to give alms instead of holiday gifts in the early fifth century. The supposed erasure of Christ from Christmas isn’t new, either; devout killjoys have forever lamented the season’s secular revelry. And the “war on Christmas” has been enlisting troops for centuries; in Communist Russia, Christmas trees were banned, and children were told their gifts came from Stalin, not Santa. Despite all these obstacles, Christmas is now, Bowler announces, “the biggest single event on the planet.”

The one moment in history that Christmas seemed truly imperiled was the early 19th century, when celebrations in the United States and parts of Europe had become rowdy, violent affairs. Yuletide wildness distasteful to the upper classes was an old phenomenon. But now gangs of men and boys would roam the streets drinking, vandalizing property, throwing firecrackers, and even invading homes. In New York in 1828, soon after Andrew Jackson’s election had prompted fears of “mobocracy,” lower-class revelers wassailed their way down the Bowery with drums and whistles, shouted outside a fancy-dress ball, and ended the evening by smashing up a black church and chasing worshipers through the streets. It took mythologizers such as Charles Dickens, whose A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, to drag Christmas from the streets into the parlor. In the late 19th century, the holiday began to take on its contemporary shape as an idealized season of family warmth rather than one of drunken partying.

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Ruth Graham

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