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The war on Christmas, then and now

In 2004, former conservative TV commentator Bill O’Reilly announced that his archenemy, the political left, was waging a war against Christmas by encouraging shoppers to replace the greeting “Merry Christmas” with the more inclusive “Happy Holidays.” In doing so, O’Reilly argued, the left was not only killing Christmas but also everything good and holy about the United States.

O’Reilly’s concern that there is one and only one proper Christmas greeting is only the latest in centuries of “attacks” on the sanctity of Christmas. In America, our oldest Christmas tradition is, in fact, the War on Christmas.

In 1647 England, the Puritans — before sailing to America — were much more destructive of Christian traditions than present day “politically-correct-pinko-commies.” While in control of Parliament, the Puritans went so far as to enact laws forbidding the religious celebration of the Day. They considered Christmas “a popish festival with no biblical justification,” and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior. Bah humbug, indeed!

Shops remained open for business but churches were shut down. Nothing escaped their anti-Christmas wrath. Yuletide delicacies like mince pies were blasted as “idolatry in crust.” Christmas Day did not regain its place in England as a national religious celebration until the reinstatement of the monarchy (Charles II) in 1660.

After founding the Massachusetts Bay Colony, American Puritans, like their brothers in England, outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony was fined five shillings and forced to worship the gods of religious intolerance.

In 1620, the Pilgrims of Plymouth Rock fame shunned the holiday and forbade its observance in their new American colony. The observance of the holiday was banned in Boston until 1659.

Over the centuries, official observance of Christmas in the United States was sporadic. Each state decided for itself how it would honor or ignore the season. When, in 1752, Britain adopted the Gregorian calendar, scattered parts of the colonies refused to celebrate Christmas on the new date, Dec. 25, and eventually merged Old Christmas into the new Epiphany, Jan. 6. To this day, some residents of North Carolina’s Outer Banks double dip by celebrating Christmas on both dates. Dec. 25 was not proclaimed a national holiday until 1870, during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant.

Over the decades, the purchasing and giving of gifts gradually eclipsed the story of the Christ child as the focus of Christmas. The cheers of corporate board members celebrating record Christmas sales increasingly drowned the singing of carols out.

I am not, therefore, as bothered by those who advocate replacing “Merry Christmas” with “Happy Holidays” as by those who celebrate the birth of a child born into poverty by going into debt to purchase gifts that they can’t afford and which those receiving them may not even want.

Camping out on Black Friday in the cold and rain of a Walmart parking lot and stampeding over the bodies of fellow shoppers to be purchase the gift that “must be had” does not, it seems to me, honor the birth of a baby whose parents couldn’t swing a room for one night in a run-down motel.

I don’t get near as bent out of shape over the fact that someone doesn’t say ‘Merry Christmas’ to me upon entering Food Lion as I feel sorry for the family who spends the first six months after Christmas Day trying to get out of debt.

Referring to the season as “the holidays” rather than “Christmas” is not near as threatening to the simplicity and beauty of the season than around the clock TV ads designed to convince us that we have not honored the season unless we go into debt purchasing presents from international corporations driven by greed.

Christmas is in much greater danger from the success of multi-billionaire dollar marketing campaigns that replace the babe in the manger with an old man in a sleigh than the use of more inclusive seasonal greetings.

My most heartfelt Christmas wish has nothing to do with religiously correct greetings. It is that we might all — conservatives and liberals alike — be delivered from becoming absorbed in the rituals of greed and frivolity that mark the modern Christmas season.