One thing is certain, if the Pilgrims arrived in America today, they would be singing on the same sheet of music as the ACLU—and it wouldn’t be Silent Night.
The ACLU has taken the view that Christmas-related carols and plays are a threat to the separation of church and state. This is not new thinking. Four hundred years ago the Pilgrims in New England felt the same. In the 1600’s, they banned all Christmas activity and December 25th became just another working day.
Blame It On The Tudors
When the Pilgrims settled in America, they left behind centuries of bloody religious wars in Europe. I was a fan of the Showtime series, The Tudors. It provided juicy details on how Henry VIII threw out the Catholic Pope in England in 1532. He dissolved the monasteries so he could place himself as head of the Anglican Church and marry Anne Bolyn. Upon Henry’s death, his daughter Mary killed most of the reformists—hence her name Bloody Mary—as she tried to reinstate Catholicism as the official church in England
When Oliver Cromwell and his Puritan army took over England in 1645, they vowed to rid England of decadence, and as part of this effort, cancelled Christmas. The Elizabethans partied hard and the Holiday had become a bawdy, rowdy celebration, both inside the church on the streets. When the Pilgrims came to America in 1620, they were as orthodox in their Puritan beliefs as Cromwell. They wanted to worship in private, free from government regulation and censure. As a result, Christmas was not a holiday in early America. In fact, Congress was in session on December 25th, 1789, the first Christmas under America’s new constitution.
So, why was December 25th chosen as the day to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ? The Bible gives us few clues, only that shepherds were staying out in the field overnight when Jesus was born (Luke 2:8), but the nights would have been very cold if he was born in December. Also, if the shepherds were watching their flocks, it implies a date in spring or summer when the sheep were foraging in the hills. In the winter, they were usually kept in shelters.
Centuries before Jesus was born, ancient Rome celebrated the darkest days of winter. They rejoiced during the winter solstice, when the worst of the winter was behind them and they could look forward to longer days and more sunlight. The winter solstice was a time of celebration: people took off work and went to lavish parties, played games, gave gifts, decorated their houses—you get the idea.
It’s suspected that the early Christians appropriated pagan festivals and traditions of the season as a way to stamp them out. The nativity was first celebrated in 354 when Pope Liberius decided to add the birth of Jesus to the church calendar. The earliest English reference to December 25th as Christmas Day did not come until 1043.
Evolving Christmas Traditions
The tradition of St. Nicolas is a little easier to pinpoint. St. Nicolas was born in 280 in Asia Minor. He was a Christian priest who later became a bishop. He was a rich person and traveled around the country giving gifts of money and other presents. A modest man, he didn’t want the children to know where the gifts came from so he often dropped them off in the dead of night. By the end of the 1400’s, St. Nicolas was the third most beloved religious figure, after Jesus and the Virgin Mary.
By the middle of the 19th century, most Protestant churches in America were celebrating Christmas a religious holiday. It did not become a federal holiday, however, until June 26, 1870 when President Ulysses S. Grant signed a bill into law.
Now, December 25th is currently celebrated two ways: one, as a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ, and second, as a time of Santa Claus and presents. It has evolved, over time, from a raucous carnival holiday into a family-centered day of peace and nostalgia. Many Christians, however, see a trend evolving over recent years that is diminishing the religious aspect of Christmas and making it more of a family holiday. In fact, it’s hard to find Christmas cards anymore; most of them are Holiday cards. Conservatives claim that the ACLU and others are “taking the Christ out of Christmas.”
Separation of Church and State
America was founded on the belief that religion was a private matter and that the government had no place in it. I believe this still to be the best course of action.
If I any doubt about the cruelty and hatred that can be inflicted on my fellow human beings in the name of religion, I need go no further than the events of 9/11, the conflict in the Middle East, or those countries where strict Islamic law is enforced.
It is ironical that the Pilgrims left England because they wanted to pursue religious freedom, and in that quest, instilled a basic American value for the separation of church and state. And now, that same basic value is threatening the way many Christians in this country celebrate one of the most holy of holidays.
© 2010 LaRaeQuy. All rights reserved.
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