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.