The Real Enemies of Christmas

As the holiday season approaches, the partisans of the religious right are ramping up their annual “war on Christmas” rhetoric, which seems to grow more disproportionate with every passing year. The latest example is this absurdly ignorant column, whose author apparently has never heard of separation of church and state (she wonders if the reason government buildings do not display Christian symbols is to punish Christianity for the Inquisition). She seems to think that banning religious endorsements by government is just one short step away from banning Christmas altogether:

Many families spend hundreds of dollars and hundreds more hours making their homes remind their neighbors and passers-by that they celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ and are not in the least ashamed of that fact. Will this ultimately be outlawed?

…Don’t even try to put [a nativity scene] near the city hall or on any government plot of ground. Currently, such displays can be had on your own lawn but don’t count on that trend continuing.

This writer would doubtless benefit from having someone contact her by e-mail and patiently explain the meaning of the First Amendment. However, as it happens, there is one occasion in American history where the celebration of Christmas was banned by law, with stern penalties imposed on any Christian believers who tried to carry on the practice secretly. And, wouldn’t you know it, this assault on religious freedom happened in that most anti-God of states, the liberal hotbed of Massachusetts.

Who were the perpetrators of this anti-Christian outrage? Liberal activist judges, no doubt? God-hating secular legislators? The ACLU?

Well, no. Actually, it was the Puritans.

In May of 1659, the explicitly theocratic Massachusetts Bay Colony passed the following law:

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.

Why would a Christian sect outlaw the celebration of Christmas? There were multiple reasons, most of them having to do with the Puritans’ ferociously austere worldview. Elaborate festivities on Christmas were associated with Catholicism and the Church of England, both of which the Puritans despised and sought to rid themselves of. The Puritans disapproved in principle of all forms of merry-making, including drinking, feasting, dancing and playing games, believing instead that only a life of hard labor and continual self-denial would be looked on with favor by God. Finally, they noticed that the Bible nowhere established December 25th as the date of Jesus’ birth and suspected the holiday of having pagan origins and associations (an absolutely true charge, as I discuss in Ebon Musings’ “An Essay on Christmas“).

After massive popular resistance, the anti-Christmas law was finally withdrawn in 1681. Still, there’s a lesson here for the would-be theocrats who insist that secularists are on an anti-Christmas jihad. Despite the religious right’s overheated rhetoric, the reality is that they have little to fear from atheists. No prominent atheist individual or organization is calling for the outlawing of religion or laws that deny believers the right to practice their own faith. Then, as now, that danger comes only from other believers who are hellbent on imposing their particular notion of God on all of society and using the machinery of government as an instrument of oppression. That is why theists, as well as atheists, should defend a robust separation of church and state. In the end, it benefits all of us.

You Got Your Ideology in My Atheism!
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
A Christian vs. an Atheist: On God and Government, Part 11
Atlas Shrugged: Bring Me a New Black Guy
About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, City of Light, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • hb531

    Interesting passage from the article:

    “We could refuse to see the movies which make fun of our beliefs or which portray Christians as simple fools who believe in fairy tales.”

    Although I disagree with the “simple fools” part, the “fairy tales” part is spot on.
    Happy Holidays!

  • Mrnaglfar

    It is said that all this has come about to maintain separation of church and state. Why then, has there been no ban by businesses or government on displays of Jewish, Buddhist or Islamic symbols or holidays or indeed, at any time of year. It would seem that some groups are taking aim at Christianity.

    I can’t remember the last time the government was trying to display symbols of jewish or islamic symbols, much less buddhist holiday symbols; what are those anyway?

    What causes all this hatred and fear of Christianity? I know some Christians behaved pretty badly during the Inquisition but that was a long time ago and should be relegated to history books. Surely we cannot be punished for what happened centuries ago.

    Yeah, thats gotta be it. We only dislike christianity because of the inquisition. Odd though that the point was raised how can they be punished for what happened centuries ago; I suppose the whole “origin sin” thing slipped joy’s mind.

    Then there are those dreadful people calling themselves Christians, who appear at the funerals of service men, attempting to disrupt the rite of burial because they oppose the wars or the existence of homosexuals or some such thing. This group gives the rest of us a really bad name. Most churchgoers would not even consider such an act. Because we are socially conservative, it does not follow that we are insane.

    I’m sure they weren’t true scotsman either.

    At the very least, we can greet each other with “Merry Christmas” and refuse to acknowledge “Happy Holidays”. Should we meet on the street, don’t you dare say “Happy Holidays” to me. Say “Merry Christmas” or silently walk on by.

    That’s classic. You need to make accomodations for me because I won’t be making them for you. To say there’s a war on christmas because people aren’t tolerating their beliefs and then say that they won’t be accepting anything but their own views… smells like hypocrisy to me. Surprise!

  • franz dibbler

    The article listed a hotmail address to respond but it bounced. So don’t waste your time arguing with this idiot.

  • velkyn

    more lies and “ohhh, be scared” nonsense from Christians. Just how many people spend “hundreds of dollars” to remind anyone about Jesus? Funny, but I really don’t think of colored lights when I think of him. Maybe a cross? I know, a cross with colored lights! Christians use fear and ignorance to attempt to force their religion on others.

    Just to add, the Puritans did not come to North America for religous freedom. They came because no one else would put up with their ignorant intolerance and they weren’t welcome anywhere else. They also weren’t interested in religious freedom for anyone else.

  • velkyn

    Just sent this letter to the editor of the Navasota Examiner. Of course, it is quite unlikely to be published but they should know how they are seen.

    Dear Editor,
    Well, if you want to keep up the stereotype of Texans as being ignorant intolerant people you’ve succeeded with publishing Joy Stephenson’s rant on the “war on Christmas”.

    It’s hard to know where to begin when addressing the lies that Ms. Stephenson has attempted to spread.

    Using Happy Holidays isn’t an attack on Christmas. It is a respectful greeting to a friend or stranger who might not share the same faith as you do. There is nothing that prevents anyone from saying Merry Christmas to whomever they want to.

    Celebrating all winter holidays is not an attack on Christmas. It is acknowledging that not everyone in the world is a Christian and they have days special to them too. This is the same with the spring. Christians do not “own” the year to only celebrate their holidays.

    Ms. Stephenson spreads unbased assumptions when she says “it is suspected that these were the same schools that banned hugging, and games are played with no winners and no losers.” This is a strawman argument, attempting to equate anyone who dares say “Happy Holidays” with other ideas that they may or may not agree with.

    She claims that there is no ban on Jewish, Buddhist or Islamic symbols or holidays but that only Christianity is being “persecuted”. She is wrong. There is no “ban” on any business showing whatever symbols they want, with the possible exception of the swastika. Other religions also cannot display their religions symbols in government buildings.

    Ms. Stephenson attempts to spread baseless fear when she says “will this ultimately be outlawed?” Is there any real indication of this possibility? Are thousands of dollars worth of colored lights and their attendant electric bills that reminiscent of Jesus?

    No one hates or fears Christmas or Christianity. What should be hated and feared are ignorant women who lie and who try to scare people into forcing their religions on others. The Inquisition was an awful thing but all religions have their awful moments. It is when ignorant humans try to use religion to force their narrow opinions on others that awful things happen. We have seen this again and again when Muslim fanatics try to use bombs to make others obey their religion, when raped women are punished under religious laws, when Christian zealots try to use bombs on abortion clinics to force their religion on others by fear, etc. Ms. Stephenson is using their tactics in her tirade against those who would dare disagree with her.

    Happy Holidays, Ms. Stephenson. I’m sorry that you think that I am not worthy to speak to you if I don’t agree with you and say what you want to force me to say. I wonder what Jesus would say about that.

    Andrea McCormick
    Harrisburg, PA

  • Alex Weaver

    I think even Swastikas are technically legal, though the business is likely to find itself charged with anything the city government or police can think of that might apply and go bankrupt due to customers avoiding it (in practice, vandalism is also a likely result).

    As for Joy Stevenson, what is it about the idea that governments have obligations that individuals don’t that is so difficult for these people to grasp? Is it because their mindsets are stuck in “autocracy” mode?

  • Nurse Ingrid

    Way to go, velkyn! Excellent letter — I hope it gets published.

    Meanwhile, the Nurse couldn’t help but notice this passage:

    “Possibly they are the same educational palaces where children are given birth control pills but cannot receive an aspirin.”

    Leave aside for a moment the question about schools supposedly giving contraceptives to “children” (BTW, if a minor comes to a medical facility seeking reproductive health care, they are legally considered “emancipated” for the purposes of that care — as I used to explain when I worked at a family planning clinic and angry parents would call up demanding to know if their daughters had been there).

    But, hello? I thought you weren’t supposed to give aspirin to children because it wasn’t always safe! Haven’t you noticed, they don’t make “baby aspirin” anymore?

    Her ignorance about our government, history, and the world in general is just staggering. I have to go take a 3 hour shower now and try to scrub off the stupid.

  • Spanish Inquisitor

    Andrea McCormick
    Harrisburg, PA

    Oooo. Another Central Pennsylvanian. There’s two of us! How cool is that?

    Nice letter, Andrea.

  • the chaplain

    Very good letter, Velkyn. I really hope it will be published. If it’s not, I guess you’ll know which way that journal leans.

  • Bechamel

    Great letter; I just have to take issue with one sentence:

    No one hates or fears Christmas or Christianity.

    I dislike Christmas, and I most certainly do hate and fear Christianity. But, while I’d certainly appreciate not having either of them thrown in my face repeatedly (as people are wont to do), that doesn’t mean I want to ban them.

  • Alan Duncan

    Wonder if this ever sees the light of day:

    Dear Editor:

    I read with interest Joy Stephenson’s recent op-ed piece entitled “Don’t you dare say “Happy Holidays” to me!”

    In her editorial, Ms. Stephenson makes a number of inflammatory claims about the “war on christmas.” Central to her argument is the claim that prohibiting the display of religious symbols in public spaces, such as governmental buildings is the first step on a slippery slope to a complete ban on such display in private spaces. Although her desire to protect her rights to private religious practice are both understandable and protectable, her wish to present symbols of her religion in ways that associate that religion with governmental bodies is neither understandable nor protectable.

    In fact, the establishment clause of the First Amendment of the Constitution of the United States of America specifically prohibits Congress from promoting a national religion, and is widely held to prohibit all governmental bodies from displaying symbols or promoting ideas that have no uniquely secular purpose. Simply stated, what Ms. Stephenson objects to is not a slippery slope but a wall of separation between church and state. This separation is a founding principle of our country and is critical both for the protection of religion and the protection from religion.

    If she wishes to boycott retailers who do not specifically recognize her religious holiday or shun the good secular folk who wish her well but don’t greet her in the right way, the same Constitution protects her freedom to do so. The wonderful thing about being an atheist is that I don’t have to worry about such things.

    Happy holidays

    Alan K. Duncan
    Rochester, MN

  • Alex Weaver

    “Possibly they are the same educational palaces where children are given birth control pills but cannot receive an aspirin.”

    It is, unfortunately, true that many schools have adopted a “zero tolerance” anti-drug policy which forbids all legal medicines – even over-the-counter medications – as well as actual drugs of abuse. Generally, being found with something that is recognizably a “drug” (or that seems to be intended for ingestion but is unrecognizable to the finder – yes, that’s right, they operate under presumption of guilt) is grounds for, at the minimum, suspension. This completely insane policy (in my experience, symptomatic of chronic laziness and bureaucratic blockheadedness on the part of school administrators and policymakers) has little relevance to debate here, but shouldn’t be ignored in the broader sense. What she thinks this has to do with cultural progressives, however, is beyond me.

  • plonkee @ the religious atheist

    I believe that in 1659 Britain was coming to the end of the Commonwealth period when Oliver Cromwell ruled as Lord Protector. I know that they weren’t fond of Christmas themselves, and banned many of the associated festivities so I imagine that’s where that law came from.

  • DamienSansBlog

    But then Cromwell was a Puritan too, wasn’t he? Even instituted a “Parliament of Saints”…until he decided the Saints in question weren’t as Godly as he was, and decided to just run the whole kingdom himself.

  • Dawn Rhapsody

    I think the best course of action to take with Ms. Stephenson would be to track her down, and persuade as many people as possible to cheerfully greet her with “Happy Holidays!” on the street. I’d be interested in seeing her reaction.

    In all seriousness, it’s difficult to believe how badly some people lack the ability to stop and look at themselves. This writer is a fine example of a Christian who, for all her arguments of religious persecution and banning of beliefs, would no doubt turn a blind eye to any bias going the other way.

  • velkyn

    Hey, spanish inquisitor. Give a clue where you are from? you’re welcome to email me at

    What I meant by not being afraid of Christmas or Christianity is that they are only ideas and ideas are impotent on their own. However, people aren’t. It is the people who twist Bronze Age ideas and follow them blindly are what scare me.

    and do schools forbid any drugs or do they just want to know what kids are bringing to school and if you arranged for it before hand, would they have a problem with it?

  • Eric

    A little off topic, but sort of “on topic.” I am being confronted with this “War on Christmas” crap on a personal level. In this little Alaska town, there had been a cross that was placed on the side of a Mountain and illuminated. This is/was on PUBLIC land (Municipality) and I brought this to the attention of the City Manager and the City Council. I was met with a very nasty reception. I then contacted the Alaska branch of the ACLU and they accepted the case. This said, I have become “The Grinch Who Stole Christmas” here in town (funny, because I do tend to be a hermit type, and I live up on the side of the Mountain looking down on “Whoville” – howevere I do not have a dog named Max and I don’t creep about swiping all the toys and goodies!)

    I have now been singled out as a target for harassment by the Chief of Police, a born again southern Baptist with a record (public) of perjuring himself while under oath, not arresting people if they agree to go to his chruch (no joke pr hyperbole) and who when he built his church, ignored all building permit codes/laws/zoning/rules etc…to the point the city had to stop his building.

    When I see a column much like the ignorant rant of this woman, I shudder. If anything, they should be grateful there are people who challenge these sentiments as it protects ALL our rights. I try explaining to people I have known for years why I fought against this cross. I tell them it has nothing to do with me trying to destroy Christmas or to take away their rights to “worship” in their particular brand or flavor of religion. I tell them that I brought up a CONSTITUTIONAL issue and that as Americans we need to have these foundation documents and laws upheld, not just when it is convienient but AT ALL TIMES. SO far it has not been understood by 99.9 percent of them.

    At times like this I feel like Don Quixote. Maybe I just need to listen to “The Impossible Dream” again and try to get my bearings!

  • Alex Weaver

    and do schools forbid any drugs or do they just want to know what kids are bringing to school and if you arranged for it before hand, would they have a problem with it?

    Certain prescription medications can be left at the office for the student to take at lunch time, though I gather that this isn’t easy to arrange. Asthma medication can be carried with the student during PE, though sharing an inhaler with another student experiencing an asthma attack is considered grounds for suspension. Students who need ibuprofen for menstrual cramps or something in that vein are SOL as I understand it. Any student actually carrying a medication would be subject to suspension and review for possible expulsion; in some schools this is extended to anything that looks like a pill and cannot be positively identified as a non-drug. The whole thing is patently ridiculous, and unfortunately seems to be par for the course for American public school administrators.

  • velkyn

    My support to you, Eric. I’m not suprised at all that a supposed Christian is treating you so badly. Thank humanity for the ACLU!

    To dream the impossible dream
    To fight the unbeatable foe
    To bear with unbearable sorrow
    To run where the brave dare not go

    To right the unrightable wrong
    To love pure and chaste from afar
    To try when your arms are too weary
    To reach the unreachable star

    This is my quest
    To follow that star
    No matter how hopeless
    No matter how far

    To fight for the right
    Without question or pause
    To be willing to march into Hell
    For a heavenly cause

    And I know if I’ll only be true
    To this glorious quest
    That my heart will lie peaceful and calm
    When I’m laid to my rest

    And the world will be better for this
    That one man, scorned and covered with scars
    Still strove with his last ounce of courage
    To reach the unreachable star'Toole/impossibledream-lyrics.htm

  • Ebonmuse

    That’s a horrifying story, Eric. I applaud your contacting the ACLU (and I hope you’ll keep us posted), but it doesn’t sound like the cross is the root problem here. From your description, it seems like the chief of police has been especially willing to abuse his power and tyrannize people to achieve his own ends. Has there been any media coverage of any of this? Are there local newspapers that you could get interested in past abuses as they relate to this case?

  • Eric

    I was on Air America yesterday Ebon. Sam Seder, in for Rhandi Rhodes this past week, spoke with me on air for about 2 1/2 minutes about the cross issue here in Skagway. There was a large number of callers after that to discuss this issue. The nice thinsg was that this was a nationally syndicated radio show, so it got national attention.

    Our local paper is owned by a man who is not exactly a pit bull reporter or a bastion of journalistic integrity. The new paper came out today and I was made to look like the town kook, you know “the idiot atheist” trying to take away tradition and such…That said, the attorney from the Alaska ACLU was informed on the new updates, and the city council had a session and voted to “keep the cross lit up.” Regardless of the consitutional issues, they are leaving it up. It is in the hands of the ACLU now and I am incredibly glad they are taking the case. The attorneys are volunteer, so I am making a donation to them for my holiday charity donation (and a micro-loan at

    The thing that sucks, and I am sure I am not the first to encounter this, is I have received a bit of “silent support” from those who agree with me but are too timid to speak out against the main stream. That hurts. And, like said before, I am now having to try to explain why I did this to people I have known for years as friends who are now tossing me aside and acting like I was satan his-own-bad-self. Makes it tough in a small little town like this, but it came down to having to speak up.

    Anyway, I will post the newspapers link when the new edition is online (he usually takes about a week lag time to get the online updates after the new paper comes out) so when it does, I will post the link. I will keep you all informed.

  • Eric

    Now, I am NOT Ansel Adams, but here is a link to some photos of the cross on the Mountain side. They are the first three photos. You can click on the photos and then go to “All Sizes” to see larger versions.

    Understand that when this is lit up, it can be seen like a beacon all over the valley and on the opposite mountain/hillside (where I live)

    I’ll keep you updated.

  • KShep

    Eric—–You’re a brave man, and I congratulate you for standing up for what is right. That cross shouldn’t be there, period.

    There is a similar cross (although NOT lit up) near my town of Jackson, Mi, on top of a hill called Sackrider Hill. This situation is a bit different, though, as the site used to be a privately owned site and was something of a mecca destination for some believers. To this day, there are occasional pilgrimages to the site. I have heard that there have been challenges to it’s constitutionality but those were struck down since the cross cannot be seen from the nearby roadway or some such thing. Or maybe the fact that the land had been originally established for this use and the court upheld that tradition.

    At any rate, I’m not too upset about it since no one has to look at it.

    PS—-you’re way closer to Ansel Adams than I’ll ever be!!

  • DamienSansBlog

    Ditto on the bravo for…um…Eric-o?

  • Eric

    And in a quick little update, I was in our local grocery store a couple days ago and had a woman i have known for quite some time come up to me and out of the blue YELL at me, inf front of a few others, “Are you the horse’s ass who is trying to remove OUR cross?” She then proceeded to berate me. I was shocked a bit and finally said, “Cary, you are a christian correct? So forgive me.”

    She just tore into me further.

  • Eric

    And here is a link to the Dec 21, 2007 Air America Randi Rhodes show I was one regarding the cross issue. If it doesn’t work, I’ll try again.

    (you are going to have to listen through the whole show to get to my part.)

  • OMGF

    Do you know the time on the clip that you show up?

  • Eric

    I am going to guess it was about 45 minutes into the show (and it should be with the guest host Sam Seder, not Randi Whodes. If I got the link wrong, I’ll try ot dig around again.”

  • OMGF

    It appears that one needs to register in order to hear it.