The Annual War on Christmas

"Why all the outrage over a simple, inclusive 'Happy Holidays!' greeting that would apply to whatever celebration for each person?"

It's that time of year again when cries arise that there is a war on Christmas and how "they" are trying to take Christ out of Christmas. "They" are usually stores which use "Happy Holidays" instead of "Merry Christmas" to include all of the different holiday celebrations, government buildings that do not allow a nativity scene without symbols of other faith's religious celebrations or non-Christians who don't celebrate Christmas. Many of the sentiments floating around on social networks this year also include "I am a proud U.S. Citizen and if you don't like our customs then feel free to leave the US" and "I will be celebrating CHRISTmas by my CHRISTmas tree." Often boycotts are waged against retailers who use the greeting "Happy Holidays."

I'm always confused by this outrage since the United States of America is not a theocracy and our constitution guarantees there shall be no establishment of religion.  "Our customs" that these people talk about are not customs of the United States, but customs that have origins in a number of different places.

The birth of Jesus Christ was not on December 25th. Most biblical scholars agree that it was more likely in the fall months. So where did December 25th come from? For the church's first three centuries, Christmas wasn't in December—or on the calendar at all.  

According to Christianity Today, "the eventual choice of December 25, made perhaps as early as 273, reflects a convergence of Origen's concern about pagan gods and the church's identification of God's son with the celestial sun. December 25 already hosted two other related festivals: natalis solis invicti (the Roman "birth of the unconquered sun"), and the birthday of Mithras, the Iranian "Sun of Righteousness" whose worship was popular with Roman soldiers. The winter solstice, another celebration of the sun, fell just a few days earlier. Seeing that pagans were already exalting deities with some parallels to the true deity, church leaders decided to commandeer the date and introduce a new festival.

Western Christians first celebrated Christmas on December 25 in 336, after Emperor Constantine had declared Christianity the empire's favored religion. Eastern churches, however, held on to January 6 as the date for Christ's birth and his baptism. Most easterners eventually adopted December 25, celebrating Christ's birth on the earlier date and his baptism on the latter, but the Armenian church celebrates his birth on January 6. Incidentally, the Western church does celebrate Epiphany on January 6, but as the arrival date of the Magi rather than as the date of Christ's baptism.

Another wrinkle was added in the sixteenth century when Pope Gregory devised a new calendar, which was unevenly adopted. The Eastern Orthodox and some Protestants retained the Julian calendar, which meant they celebrated Christmas 13 days later than their Gregorian counterparts. Most—but not all—of the Christian world now agrees on the Gregorian calendar and the December 25 date.

The pagan origins of the Christmas date, as well as pagan origins for many Christmas customs (gift-giving and merrymaking from Roman Saturnalia; greenery, lights, and charity from the Roman New Year; Yule logs and various foods from Teutonic feasts), have always fueled arguments against the holiday. "It's just paganism wrapped with a Christian bow," naysayers argue. But while kowtowing to worldliness must always be a concern for Christians, the church has generally viewed efforts to reshape culture—including holidays—positively. As a theologian asserted in 320, "We hold this day holy, not like the pagans because of the birth of the sun, but because of him who made it."

According to the History channel- "Early Romans marked the solstice with a feast called the Saturnalia in honor of Saturn, the god of agriculture. The Romans knew that the solstice meant that soon farms and orchards would be green and fruitful. To mark the occasion, they decorated their homes and temples with evergreen boughs. In Northern Europe the mysterious Druids, the priests of the ancient Celts, also decorated their temples with evergreen boughs as a symbol of everlasting life. The fierce Vikings in Scandinavia thought that evergreens were the special plant of the sun god, Balder."

And what of that Christmas tree? - "Germany is credited with starting the Christmas tree tradition as we now know it in the 16th century when devout Christians brought decorated trees into their homes. Some built Christmas pyramids of wood and decorated them with evergreens and candles if wood was scarce. It is a widely held belief that Martin Luther, the 16th-century Protestant reformer, first added lighted candles to a tree. Walking toward his home one winter evening, composing a sermon, he was awed by the brilliance of stars twinkling amidst evergreens. To recapture the scene for his family, he erected a tree in the main room and wired its branches with lighted candles.

Most 19th-century Americans found Christmas trees an oddity. The first record of one being on display was in the 1830s by the German settlers of Pennsylvania, although trees had been a tradition in many German homes much earlier. The Pennsylvania German settlements had community trees as early as 1747. But, as late as the 1840s Christmas trees were seen as pagan symbols and not accepted by most Americans.

It is not surprising that, like many other festive Christmas customs, the tree was adopted so late in America. To the New England Puritans, Christmas was sacred. The pilgrims's second governor, William Bradford, wrote that he tried hard to stamp out "pagan mockery" of the observance, penalizing any frivolity. The influential Oliver Cromwell preached against "the heathen traditions" of Christmas carols, decorated trees, and any joyful expression that desecrated "that sacred event." In 1659, the General Court of Massachusetts enacted a law making any observance of December 25 (other than a church service) a penal offense; people were fined for hanging decorations. That stern solemnity continued until the 19th century, when the influx of German and Irish immigrants undermined the Puritan legacy.

In 1846, the popular royals, Queen Victoria and her German Prince, Albert, were sketched in the Illustrated London News standing with their children around a Christmas tree. Unlike the previous royal family, Victoria was very popular with her subjects, and what was done at court immediately became fashionable—not only in Britain, but with fashion-conscious East Coast American Society. The Christmas tree had arrived."

The word Christmas itself does not really apply to all Christians. The word "Christmas" is a combination of the words "Christ" and "Mass." The word for Christmas in late Old English is Cristes Maesse, the Mass of Christ, first found in 1038. In short, Christmas is strictly a Roman Catholic word.

And then there is Santa Claus.  According to The History of Santa Claus and Father Christmas-  "The American Santa Claus is generally considered to have been the invention of Washington Irving and other early nineteenth-century New Yorkers, who wished to create a benign figure that might help calm down riotous Christmas celebrations and refocus them on the family.  This new Santa Claus seems to have been largely inspired by the Dutch tradition of a gift-giving Sinterklaas, but it always was divergent from this tradition and was increasingly so over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.  So, the American Santa is a largely secular visitor who arrives at Christmas, not the 6 December; who dresses in furs rather than a version of bishop's robes; who is rotund rather than thin; and who has a team of flying reindeer rather than a flying horse. At first his image was somewhat variable, but Thomas Nast's illustrations for Harper's Illustrated Weekly (1863-6) helped establish a figure who looks fairly close to the modern Santa.  This figure was taken up by various advertisers, including Coca-Cola, with the result that he is now the 'standard' version of the Christmas visitor and has largely replaced the traditional Father Christmas in England."

"Our customs" come from many origins and have changed over the years. So why all the outrage over a simple, inclusive "Happy Holidays!" greeting that would apply to whatever celebration for each person? Each person still has the right to practice their own religion, display religious symbols in or on their homes, as well as wish others "Merry Christmas" in any personal interactions.    

Even more confusing to me is the hatred behind the outrage that someone, somewhere might not celebrate Christmas and should be recognized in the holiday season, excluded from celebrating anything but Christmas, and must conform to the majority. Does that sound like Christ to you?

Instead of getting upset over innocent greetings and department store marketing campaigns because we want to keep Christ in Christmas, maybe we can do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with God. You know, maybe we can BE Christ this Christmas. 


This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

sp0t December 01, 2011 at 04:23 PM
About two years ago the Gap ran their first commercial in years. This ad consisted of a holiday cheer leading commercial that, aside from it's main purpose of selling clothing, wished a happy holiday to all and mentioned every winter celebration including *GASP* the Winter Solstice! I was a manager with the Gap at the time, and I remember the flood of internal memos warning of possible boycotts and protests that were being threatened against the company because we had the nerve to wish EVERYONE a happy holiday, regardless of their faith. During the course of that Holiday season I did manage to interact with one angry customer who believed our commercial said "No Christmas! No Hanukkah!" (in reality it said "GO Christmas! GO Hanukkah!"), but other than that was fortunate enough to avoid any boycott's or protests. Without getting too far off topic a 2008 survey by the Pew Forum found that about 79% of the US population identify themselves as Christian, with the second highest non-Christian percentage being those that identified themselves as "nothing in particular." Personally, I have little sympathy for claims that a religion with a 79% presence in our Nation is under "attack" during Christmas or any other time of the year. One of the great things about our Nation is that we have freedom to practice or not practice ANY religion. For me, saying Happy Holidays is an acknowledgement of our National diversity, and our acceptance of all our citizens. Happy Holidays!
Karl Schuub December 01, 2011 at 05:09 PM
Saying "Merry Christmas" is in no way disaffecting non-christians. The idea that Christians have a holiday, based upon the birth Christ w/ symbols and all such regalia specifically related to the majority religion in which we as Christians are not "allowed" to refer to as the actual thing it is says more about the intolerance of the minority than a lack of by the majority. How about I want all those birkahs removed...they offend me; no more birkahs in public places because if I can't say Merry Christmas then the head garb ought to go. How is that no more or less a religious symbol?
sp0t December 01, 2011 at 06:07 PM
The point being made here is that it is a stretch to say that Happy Holidays is an attack on Christmas, and that Christmas as we know it today has predominantly non-Christian origins. No one, at least in this post, is saying Christians can't refer to Christmas, or that people should not say Merry Christmas. We could get into very heated and lengthy discussions over some retailers requesting staff only say Happy Holidays, nativity scenes on government property, etc. but that's not the point of this post. Regardless of our Nation's religious make-up, as Joan said, we are not a theocracy. It shouldn't matter what religion holds the majority, and you have just as much right to take offense to someone telling you "Happy Kwanzaa" as a Hasidic Jew has to be offended if someone told them "Merry Christmas."
Karl Schuub December 01, 2011 at 06:21 PM
The point also ought to be that anybody taking offense at being greeted with a Merry Christmas whether they be Hasidic or whatever is ridiculous. It's our own fault as a culture for inviting some sort of misplaced hero-worship on all things minority and for suggesting to small groups of malcontents that they can stomp on popular culture and beliefs under the phoney guise of being offended.
Phelp Duckens December 01, 2011 at 06:27 PM
"small groups of malcontents that they can stomp on popular culture and beliefs under the phoney guise of being offended." I know a certain malcontent that frequently posts on certain online websites complaining about popular beliefs and political opinions. I agree it would be a mistake for our culture to engage in some sort of hero worship of his minority beliefs.
j johnson (formerly jj) December 01, 2011 at 07:01 PM
Although it may have turned in to it in some circles, I do not beleive that "Happy Holidays" is the source of the problems for Christians or non-Christians. The issue developed a few years ago when certain large retailers forbid there staff from saying "Merry Christmas". Instead, they would require the politically correct "Happy Holidays". "Happy Holidays is not anti-Christian or anti-Christmas but just the politically correct version. Most of the Jewish or Muslim or Atheist people I know are not offended by "Merry Christmas" nor am I offended if they wish me blessings with their religious affiliation. It seems that the over-sensitization (is that a word?) of the politically correct crowd that is pushed by a small but vocal minority causes the problem. Don't get bent out of shape, Just wish them whatever greeting you prefer. Or tell them to pound sand if you prefer (although that would not be very Christan ;} ).
sp0t December 01, 2011 at 07:27 PM
Agreed JJ. Requiring your staff to say either one is pretty silly, and it is definitely where all the attack claims stemmed from originally. And I'm not sure how I got us from Happy Holidays to minority hero-worship simply by telling Karl he had every right to be offended, but that's the Bel Air patch comments for you.
Brandon December 01, 2011 at 07:40 PM
All the focus seems to be on what we say or don't say. Christmas for me is a day that I should celebrate the birth of Christ and all that represents, but what most of us have done is turn it into a SHOPPING EVENT and we talk about the INCREASE or DECREASE in sales over last year. This brings anxiety to those who are unable to keep up and it is stressful on those who cannot spend on their children like others do. It then spreads the anxiety of unworthiness to the children, and a competition of HOW MUCH. We have been completely distracted by our DUTY to salvage the economy by SHOPPING. Whether this is looked upon sadly (by those who aren't into shopping or cannot afford to keep up) or joyously (by those whose businesses go further into the black in a good sales year) is a matter of perspective. The "Happy Holidays" vs. the "Merry Christmas" debate reflects that we, who celebrate Dec 25th, celebrate it for various reasons. Most Christians do not go to church on Christmas, so what are they celebrating--gift giving or gift receiving? One day we will celebrate diversity and really mean it.
Mark December 02, 2011 at 12:26 AM
I myself refuse to greet with "Happy Holiday". Not out of spite, I just think it's foolish. As a Christian and a life long Roman Catholic I am proud to acknowledge my Savior's birth. I was very pleased when I entered the Abingdon Target, they had "Merry Christmas" banners hanging. When I check out at a store, I wish the clerk Merry Christmas. If they feel the need to say Happy Holiday so be it. I'm doing my part to acknowledge my Holiday. If I were to be speaking with a Jew, I would gladly acknowledge their Holiday. Come on fellow Christians, I am tired society dictating what is" politically correct". Merry Christmas and Happy Hanukkah. God Bless us all.
Guy December 02, 2011 at 11:58 AM
Couldn't have stated it better! Thanks and Merry Christmas.
Brandon December 02, 2011 at 12:38 PM
Saying "Merry Christmas" is about who YOU are and what YOU believe. Saying "Happy Holidays" works the same way "Gesundheit" works in place of "Bless You". It shows good will towards the other. Accepting that others wish to say "Happy Holidays" or "Gesundheit" is a polite way of acknowledging that they are unfamiliar with what someone elses religious affiliation.
Enza Lilley December 04, 2011 at 09:10 PM
As a Christian, if you want to wish me a Happy Holiday, that's wonderful because after all what are you really saying? Holiday means Holy day and a holy day is a day set aside for religious observance. So any way you say it, Happy Holiday or Merry Christmas, i am still celebrating the birth of my Savior!!
CB9678 December 05, 2011 at 02:42 AM
Have not seen many birkahs around Bel Air.


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