“‘Merry Christmas’ — because Donald Trump is now the president, you can say it again.”
That’s how former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski teed it up for Fox News’s Sean Hannity on Tuesday night. Just a year ago, then-candidate Donald Trump told supporters, “If I become president, we’re all going to be saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again, that I can tell you.” The election, read by these lights, looks like a salvo in the now decades-long, Bill O’Reilly-inspired contretemps known as the War on Christmas. And now we’re firmly in that time of year when cable talking heads flip out and blame the forces of politically correct secularism for Target cashiers who greet us with “Happy Holidays” and Starbucks baristas who pour peppermint lattes into agnostic red paper cups.
The catch: There already was a war on Christmas in the United States. It happened centuries ago, and Christmas won decisively.
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There was a time when Christmas faced far more opposition than it ever could now, even in O’Reilly’s wildest nightmares. For a good chunk of the 17th century, Christmas was flatly outlawed in a number of places in Puritan America — not exactly a hotbed of secular political correctness that might draw Trump’s scorn.
Many Puritans contended that Christmas lacked biblical justification, since the Bible makes no explicit reference to Dec. 25. They viewed celebrations as the sort of pageantry and idolatry endorsed by “papists” (a derogatory term for Catholics, whom they reviled).
They looked askance at the holiday because it meant, well, mischief. While some regarded Christmas as a time of religious devotion, Steven Nissenbaum argues in The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday that “such people were always in the minority,” describing Dec. 25 as an often-disorderly affair of binge-eating, binge-drinking, parading and brawling. Gender and class roles were toppled, as the lowest-ranking members in the social hierarchy imitated gentlemen (competing for the distinction of “Lord of Misrule”); men dressing and acting like women, and vice-versa, as they literally exchanged clothes, among other things.
All this prompted Puritans — who had scant use for the day’s licentiousness — to refer to Christmas as “Foolstide.” The pilgrims who came here in 1620 spent their first Dec. 25 doing construction. But the next Dec. 25, when William Bradford, governor of Plymouth Colony, saw newcomers playing stool-ball (an early version of baseball), “he broke up their amusements and declared it was against his conscience that they should play while others worked.”
The no-nonsense Gov. Bradford, who died in 1657, would’ve been gratified that two years later, in 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony banned Christmas celebrations. Even taking the day off was made illegal, unless it was a Sunday.
Not so, of course, in other areas of the New World, where Christmas cheer remained very much alive. A good deal of mirth, even celebratory gunfire, was made in parts of the South. But in much of colonial America, Christmas was Scrooged.
Even when the Massachusetts law forbidding Christmas was repealed in 1681, the day remained an object of contempt, and its celebration taboo. In 1686, the acting governor of the Dominion of New England was accompanied by armed guards just to attend a Christmas church service. And a few decades later, a Boston church had its windows smashed — for celebrating Christmas.
Anti-Christmas sentiment wasn’t exclusive to Puritans. Bruce David Forbes’s book Christmas: A Candid History points out how, at various times, Congregationalists, Methodists and Quakers joined in “de-emphasizing or eliminating the observance of Christmas.” Presbyterian minister Samuel Davies denounced it as a day of “sinning, sexuality, luxury, and various forms of extravagance, as though men were not celebrating the birth of the holy Jesus, but of Venus, or Bacchus, whose most sacred rites were mysteries of iniquity and debauchery.”
Though legal restrictions would relax, the negative attitude toward Christmas was sustained far beyond the Mayflower generation. Even in the early 19th century, Christmas often went neglected by the newspapers, and was a day of significance only for certain slices of the population. And in no state did Christmas become an official holiday until the 1830s.
However, the mid-1800s saw a Christmas renaissance. The groups that had sought to banish or suppress Christmas began modifying their positions. No longer was it cool to be a Scrooge (a newly infamous character thanks to Charles Dickens’ 1843 novella, A Christmas Carol, which reinforced the idea of Christmas as a time of charity). After the Civil War, Christmas celebrations were one way the country began to embrace a renewed national unity. Finally, in 1870, Christmas became a federal holiday.
In the original War on Christmas, it was the celebrating itself that was seen as the cultural breakdown. In the war Lewandowski imagines — and I do mean imagines — his side is all that stands between us and the breakdown of our traditions and values. Except there’s never been a time in our lives devoid of Christmas shopping, music, trees, cards or greetings. The First Amendment guarantees our right to observe it. And our right, if we choose, not to. We’ve never not been free to say “Merry Christmas,” and saying “Happy Holidays” at the mall won’t change that.
It won’t be the first time Trump has made hay of a nonissue. Or taken credit for settling something that’s long since been settled. But whatever. As long as he eventually learns that the War on Christmas was already fought, it’s over, and Christmas prevailed.
Mr. Cavanaugh is a freelance writer from Boston.