The Christmas controversy
Midvinterblot. Painting by Carl Larsson in the Swedish National museum’s stairway (detail march 2008.)
Christmas controversy refers to controversy or disagreement surrounding the celebration or acknowledgment of the Christmas holiday in government, media, advertising and various secular environments. In the past, Christmas-related controversy was mainly restricted to concerns of a public focus on secular Christmas themes such as Santa Claus and gift giving rather than what is sometimes expressed by Christians as the “reason for the season”—the birth of Jesus. The term “Xmas”, a popular shortened form of the word Christmas that originates from the use of the Greek letter chi to represent “Christ”, has been a particular topic of controversy.
Modern-day controversy occurs mainly in western countries such as the United States, Canada, and to a lesser extent the United Kingdom, and usually stems from a contrast between the holiday’s significant social and economic role in these countries and its strong association with Christianity in an increasingly multiculturally-sensitive and religiously diversifying society. In recent decades, public, corporate, and government mention of the term “Christmas” during the Christmas and holiday season has declined and been replaced with a generic term— usually “holiday(s)” or “winter”— to avoid referencing the holiday by name. In addition, popular non-religious aspects of Christmas, such as Christmas carols and decorated trees, are still prominently showcased and recognized, but are vaguely associated with unspecified “holidays” rather than with Christmas.
Supporters of using terms such as “holidays” in place of “Christmas” argue that many of the symbols and behaviors that western societies have come to associate with Christmas were originally syncretized from pre-Christian pagan traditions and festivals that predate Jesus, and thus need not be directly associated with Christmas. Specifically, symbols and behaviors such as caroling, decorated trees, mistletoe, holly wreaths and yule logs, have pre-Christian origins. It has also been further argued that as western society continues to diversify culturally and religiously, public recognition of a potentially sectarian holiday, such as Christmas, may be seen as non-inclusive or offensive to non-Christians or non-celebrants in general.
The expression war on Christmas has often been used to denote Christmas-related controversy in the media. The term gained notability thanks in part to its use by conservative commentators such as Peter Brimelow and Bill O’Reilly during the first few years of the 2000s decade.
The claim among Brimelow, O’Reilly, and some other prominent media figures and personalities was that any specific mention of the term “Christmas” or its religious aspects was being increasingly censored, avoided, or discouraged by a number of advertisers, retailers, government (prominently schools), and other public and secular organizations. A few non-Christian sources while accepting a commercial secular form of Christmas, disapprove of Christmas being subjected to a rigid secularizing politic correctness, and disagree with the notion that a secularized holiday is any more inclusive than Christmas.
Christmas Day is recognized as an official federal holiday by the United States government, and few have raised objections to this designation. However, many groups, such as the American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State, argue that government-funded displays of Christmas imagery and traditions violate the U.S. constitution—specifically the First Amendment, which prohibits the establishment by Congress of a national religion. The battle over whether religious displays should be placed within public schools, courthouses and other government buildings, has been heated in recent years.
Supreme Court rulings starting with Lynch v. Donnelly in 1984 have permitted religious themes in government-funded Christmas displays in their interpretation of the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, though the inclusion of such displays is not mandated. Since these rulings have been splintered and have left governments uncertain of their limits, many such displays have included secular elements such as reindeer, snowmen and elves along with the religious elements. Other recent court cases have brought up additional issues such as the inclusion of Christmas carols in public school performances, but none of these cases have reached the US Supreme Court.
A controversy regarding these issues arose in 2002, when the New York City public school system banned the display of nativity scenes, but allowed the display of supposedly less overtly religious symbols such as Christmas trees, Hanukkah menorahs, and the Muslim star and crescent. Such a policy angered many, including commentator Bill O’Reilly, who in 2006 said such a policy was “anti-Christian”. The school system successfully defended its policy in Skoros v. City of New York (2006).
In December 2007, a public controversy arose when a public school in Ottawa, Canada planned to have the children in its primary choir sing a version of the song “Silver Bells” with the word “Christmas” removed.
In the United Kingdom there have also been some controversies, one of the most famous being the temporary promotion of an extended winter holiday period including not just the normal Christmas festivities but other celebrations (in one year Halloween and the Chinese New Year) as Winterval by Birmingham City Council in the late 1990s. This remains a controversial example of “Christmas controversy” due to its prominent promotion of Christmas, as a religious event clearly called Christmas, as a part of the programme of Winterval events. A City council spokesman observed that:
“…there was a banner saying Merry Christmas across the front of the council house, Christmas lights, Christmas trees in the main civil squares, regular carol-singing sessions by school choirs, and the Lord Mayor sent a Christmas card with a traditional Christmas scene wishing everyone a Merry Christmas”.
There were also protests in November 2009 when the city of Dundee promoted its celebrations as the Winter Night Light festival, initially with no specific Christmas references.
Christmas tree controversies
Since the 1980s, there have been several instances in both the United States and Canada when official public mentions and references to Christmas trees were renamed to “holiday trees” for various reasons, mostly for an enforcement of separation of church and state or a recognition of cultural and religious diversity. Reaction to such renamings has been mixed.
One of the most prominent Christmas tree controversies came in 2005, when the city of Boston labeled their official decorated tree as a holiday tree, and the subsequent response from the Nova Scotian tree farmer who donated the tree was that he would rather have put the tree in a wood chipper than have it named a “holiday” tree. Donnie Hatt, the donor, was also quoted as saying “Ever since I was born, a tree was put up for Christmas, not for holidays, because if you’re going to do that you might as well put a tree up for Easter”.
Another controversy occurred in 2005 with the US builders hardware retailer Lowe’s. Signage for their Christmas trees read “holiday trees” in English, but read árboles de Navidad (Christmas trees) in Spanish rather than árboles de feriados. In 2007, Lowe’s started using the term “family tree”, sparking protest from the American Family Association, but they have since claimed that this term was only a printing mistake.
In 2009 in Jerusalem, Israel the Lobby for Jewish Values with support of the Jerusalem Rabbinate has handed out fliers condemning Christmas and have called for a boycott of restaurants and hotels that sell or put up Christmas trees and what the organization called “foolish” Christian symbols.
Reclamation of the term “Christmas tree”
In recent years, efforts have also been made to rename official public holiday trees back to Christmas trees. In 2002, a bill was introduced in the California Senate to rename the State Holiday Tree the California State Christmas Tree; while this measure failed, at the official lighting of the tree on December 4, 2007, California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger referred to the tree as a Christmas tree in his remarks and in the press release his office issued after the ceremony.
The Michigan Senate had a heated debate in 2005 over whether the decorated tree in front of the Michigan Capitol would continue to be called a holiday tree (as it had been since the early 1990s) or named a Christmas tree. The question was revisited in 2006, when the bipartisan Michigan Capitol Committee voted unanimously to use the term Christmas tree. And in 2007, Wisconsin lawmakers considered whether to rename the tree in the Wisconsin Capitol rotunda, a holiday tree since 1985, the Wisconsin State Christmas Tree.
The first documented Christmas controversy was Christian-led, and began during the English Interregnum, when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament. Puritans (including those who fled to America.) sought to remove elements they viewed as “pagan” (because they were not biblical in origin) from Christianity (see Pre-Christianity below). During this period, the English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas entirely, replacing it with a day of fasting and considering it “a popish festival with no biblical justification”, and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior. The Army were sent to raid homes and confiscate any cooked meat. This led to such resentment that it provoked riots in Kent, leading to the Second Civil War and the Siege of Colchester.
During the colonial period, celebrating Christmas was punishable by a fine and in 1776 it was still not widely celebrated.
There is also controversy concerning the precise date of December 25 as the presumed birthday of Jesus. The 25th of December was the date of the winter solstice in ancient times (before subsequent drift due to chronological errors in the Julian calendar eventually left the solstice on its present date of December 21.) As such, many pagan winter holidays occurred on this date, which marks the shortest day of the year and the point where the days become longer again. Many customs from these holidays, particularly from the pagan Scandinavian and Germanic celebration of Yule in northern Europe, are transparently present in later Christmas customs, suggesting that the date was appropriated directly from pagan customs and given a Christian veneer rather than being the true birthday of Jesus.
The pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a 12 day long “midwinter” (winter solstice) holiday called Yule (also called Jul, Julblot, jólablót, midvinterblot, julofferfest) beginning on December 25. Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath, the Yule log, and others, are direct descendents of Yule customs. As Northern Europe was the last part to Christianize, its pagan traditions had a major influence on Christmas. Scandinavians still call Christmas Jul. In English, the word Yule is synonymous with Christmas, a usage first recorded in 900. It is believed that the celebration of this day was a worship of these peculiar days interpreted as the re-awakening of nature. The Yule particular God was Jólner, which is one of Odin’s many names. The concept of Yule occurs in a tribute poem to Harold Hårfager from about AD 900, where someone said “drinking Jul”. Julblot is the most solemn sacrifice feast. At the “julblotet” you sacrifice to get the gods blessing on the forthcoming germinating crops. Julblotet was eventually integrated into the Christian Christmas. As a remainder from this Viking era the Midsummer is still important in Scandinavia and hence vividly celebrated.
Sol Invictus (“The Unconquerable Sun”), was originally a Syrian god who was later adopted as the chief god of the Roman Empire under Emperor Aurelian. His holiday is traditionally celebrated on the 25th of December, as are several gods associated with the winter solstice in many pagan traditions. It is highly unlikely that December 25 was simply set aside for celebration by the early Christians, since Jesus’ exact birthday was unknown.
Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans. Its importance was often considered secondary to that of Epiphany and Easter.
As was the case with other Christian holidays, Christmas borrowed elements from Pagan peoples, including yule logs, decorations such as candles, holly, and mistletoe. Christmas trees were seen as Pagan in origin. Cited as proof is Jeremiah, 10:3-4, which states, “For the customs of the peoples are false: a tree from the forest is cut down, and worked with an ax by the hands of an artisan. People deck it with silver and gold they fasten it with hammer and nails so that it cannot move.” The Advent period (originally a fasting period meant to point to the Second Coming of Christ), and gift giving (invented by Martin Luther to counter St. Nicholas Day, 6 December) were also Pagan in origin.
During the various Protestant reformations, these paganizing elements were a source of controversy. Some sects, such as the Puritans, rejected Christmas as an entirely Pagan holiday. Others rejected certain aspects of Christmas as paganizing, but wanted to retain the “essence” of the holiday as a celebration of the Christ’s birth. This tension put in motion an ongoing debate within Christianity about the proper observance of Christmas.
According to historian Ronald Hutton, the current state of observance of Christmas is largely the result of a mid-Victorian revival of the holiday spearheaded by Charles Dickens. In A Christmas Carol, Hutton argues, Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries.
Historian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to re-focus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one that was focused on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response.
Christmas was not proclaimed a holiday by US congress until 1870.
Early 20th century
In the early 20th century, Christian writers such as C. S. Lewis had already noted a distinct split between the religious and secular observance of Christmas. In Xmas and Christmas: A Lost Chapter from Herodotus, Lewis gives a satire of the observance of two simultaneous holidays in “Niatirb” (Britain backwards) from the supposed view of the Greek historian and traveller. One, “Exmas”, is observed by a flurry of compulsory commercial activity and expensive indulgence in alcoholic beverages. The other, “Crissmas,” is observed in Niatirb’s temples. Lewis’s narrator asks a priest why they kept Crissmas on the same day as Exmas. He receives the reply:
“It is not lawful, O Stranger, for us to change the date of Crissmas, but would that Zeus would put it into the minds of the Niatirbians to keep Exmas at some other time or not to keep it at all. For Exmas and the Rush distract the minds even of the few from sacred things. And we indeed are glad that men should make merry at Crissmas; but in Exmas there is no merriment left.” And when I asked him why they endured the Rush, he replied, “It is, O Stranger, a racket. . . ”
The December 1957 News and Views published by the Church League of America, an organization co-founded in 1937 by George Washington Robnett attacked the use of Xmas in an article titled “X=The Unknown Quantity.” The claims were picked up later by Gerald L. K. Smith who in December 1966 claimed that Xmas was a “blasphemous omission of the name of Christ” and that “‘X’ is referred to as being symbolical of the unknown quantity.” Smith further argued that Jews introduced Santa Claus to suppress the New Testament accounts of Jesus, and that the United Nations at the behest of “world Jewry” had “outlawed the name of Christ.” There is, however, a well documented history of use of Χ (actually a chi) as an abbreviation for “Christ” and possibly also a symbol of the cross.
The Soviet Union and certain other Communist regimes banned overtly religious Christmas observances. Most customs traditionally associated with Christmas (like decorated trees, presents, and Ded Moroz) were later reinstated in Soviet society, but tied to New Year’s Day instead; this tradition remains as of the present day. It should however be noted that most Russian Christians are of the Orthodox community, whose religious festivals (Christmas, Easter etc.), do not necessarily coincide precisely with those of the main western Christian churches (Catholic or Protestant).
Certain Christian groups, such as Jehovah’s Witnesses, the Iglesia ni Cristo and some Reformed and fundamentalist churches, continue to reject the holiday.