Donald Trump’s supporters may claim that he won the War on Christmas but the debate about the festival has actually been raging for two thousand years.
Philosophers, clerics and politicians have been complaining about the festival since ancient times – long before it came under assault from political correctness.
Critics in the year 400 AD claimed that Christmas was too commercial and that the obsession with money was an ‘entrance to sin’.
They warned that children were being taught to be greedy and getting so many gifts made them ‘sordid’.
The debate about Christmas has raged ever since; the Nazis tried to ban it, the Chinese got rid of it and the English suspended the festival in the 1600s because it was too rowdy.
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Traditional: Christmas has now been attacked for almost as long as it has existed. The Adoration of the Child and Angels, by Lorenzo di Credi, was a product of the Renaissance – which was quickly followed by the Reformation and a war on Christmas
Killjoy: This was how Christmas was banned in Boston in 1659 – one if the many attempts to stop the most popular of feasts
In the 20th century political correctness and atheism took over – and changed Christmas in one English town to ‘Winterval’.
Canadian historian Gerry Bowler argues in his book: ‘Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday’, that the Christmas has endured despite all of this.
Bowler writes: ‘There is a history of opposing, controlling, reforming, criticizing, suppressing, resurrecting, reshaping, appropriating, debating, replacing, and abolishing the world’s most popular festival.
‘It continues to this very day.’
During his election campaign President-elect Trump mentioned Christmas so much that it nearly became a campaign issue.
He said that it was an example of where political correctness had gone too far and that after he was elected people would be free to say ‘Merry Christmas’ without shame any more.
Trump has accused President Obama of refusing to acknowledge the holiday – Mr Obama he has done so many times – and threatened to boycott Starbucks because its cups were not Christmasy enough.
According to former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, Trump won the War on Christmas, but Bowler makes clear that the conflict has been raging far longer than the President-elect has been alive.
In fact it took just 200 years after the birth of Christ for Christian writers to start openly asking if Jesus had really been born – and questioning when he was actually born.
Roman all over the place: Christmas’s date began to be fixed after Constantine (left) made Christianity the legal religion of the Roman Empire in 312AD. But the date appears most likely to have been chosen because it was the feast already of the popular military god Mithras (left)
Sextus Julius Africanus, a Christian traveler and historian, said that Jesus was conceived on March 25 meaning his December birth was unlikely.
Origen, a theologian, said that the birth of Christ should not be acknowledged because only pagans celebrated their birthdays.
The mood changed in the year 312 AD with the accession of the emperor Constantine who made Christianity a legal religion meaning its followers could celebrate how they saw fit.
But the controversy did not end there and December 25th was actually chosen by the Roman Church as the date to celebrate Jesus’s birth, possibly because it was the birthday of the military god Mithras.
Gift-giver: The pagan practice of presents was spun by the church as emphasizing donations to the poor and celebrating the human nature of Jesus. By far the most popular of the saints was Saint Nicholas,
This caused immediate conflict as other Christian churches in the empire had chosen January 6 as the day the festival should be.
It would be 431 AD before Alexandria gave up celebrating in January, Jerusalem held on until the sixth century and the Armenian church to this day has Christmas on January 6.
Writings from 380 AD by Nazianzen, the archbishop of Constantinople, gave another kind of warning about Christmas which proved to be prophetic.
He wrote: ‘Let us not put wreaths on our front doors, or assemble troupes of dancers, or decorate the streets.
‘Let us not feast the eyes, or mesmerize the sense of hearing or prostitute the sense of taste or gratify the sense of touch. These are ready paths to evil, and entrances of sin’.
By the year 400 Asterius, the Bishop of Amasea – in modern-day Turkey – was making complaints that sound rather familiar today as well.
He wrote about how people ‘stalk about open-mouthed, hoping to receive something from one another…the mouth is indeed kissed but is it the coin that is loved’.
Asterius said that people should ‘give to the crippled beggar…give to the widow instead of the woman of the street…lavish your gifts upon the holy virgins singing psalms unto God’.
Bowler writes that nobody was willing to give up their pagan celebrations so the church slowly began to accept and accommodate them
The pagan custom of leaving food out for the gods in midwinter was co-opted as a Christian act, as was decorating the house with greenery which had outraged clerics in earlier times – today it is an essential part of Christmas.
The pagan practice of giving gifts was spun by the church as emphasizing donations to the poor and celebrating the human nature of Jesus.
By far the most popular of the Saints was Saint Nicholas, the most powerful and the patron of sailors, Vikings, Russians, thieves, perfumers, picklers, florists and many more.
He supposedly saved the daughters of prostitutes by delivering bags of gold in the night and some time in the 12th century he began delivering presents to children too, according to popular mythology.
By the Middle Ages Christmas had assimilated dozens of pagan traditions; sacred words put to popular music became carols and the quiet time in agriculture in December had been formalized as the 12 days of Christmas.
But tension over the festival was never far away and in 1100 the Patriarchs of Constantinople cracked down on frivolity during December.
In Paris theologians bemoaned how over Christmas there was so much unruly behaviour – like priests who dressed as women and made indecent gestures at the public.
One group of young clerics held a ‘Feast of the Ass’ in which they honored the donkey who carried the Virgin Mary by bringing a real life donkey into the church and braying loudly together.
Such behaviour angered the King of France and in 1445 Charles VII sent out a letter condemning what he called a ‘great shame and scandal’.
By 1500, Bowler writes, Christmas had become ‘solidly entrenched’ in European cultures but the century marked a sustained attempt by the authorities to clamp down on its excesses.
Fun all the way: Medieval Europe largely reveled in Christmas, with the 12 days of Christmas growing out of the quiet agricultural period. But France’s King Charles VII was less happy – writing a letter in disgust at the behavior of his subjects in Paris
Killjoys’ comeuppance: After the English king Charles I was beheaded in 1649, Christmas was under sustained attack until the monarch made a comeback. A pamphlet made the case for the feast which would ‘bring good cheere’ but there were riots against the crackdown on fun
In England Henry VIII banned masked revelers from going door-to-door to present plays in exchange for donations.
Saint Nicholas came under attack during the rise of Protestantism and in Perth, Scotland, any baker who observed St Obert’s Eve on December 10 had to pay 20 shillings to the poor and sit in a seat of repentance in the church.
James VI of Scotland, who assumed the English throne in 1603 as James I of England, saw things differently and believed that Christmas represented tradition, respect for authority and was good fun.
That view came under attack after his death when, in 1633, William Prynne, an English lawyer, wrote a tome called Histriomastix in which he said Christmas was an ungodly mixture of ‘canall [ie carnal] pompe and jollity’.
The government of King Charles I responded by putting him in the pillory, cropping his ears and branding his cheeks with the letters SL, meaning ‘seditious libeler’.
After the English Civil War a Protestant Parliament passed a law banning Christmas in 1645 and replacing it with a day of fasting instead, a decision which sparked outrage.
Pro-Christmas riots happened in many English towns and shopkeepers who tried to stay open and prove it was just another day had their stores ransacked.
The worst violence was in Canterbury where protesters took control of the entire city.
During another riot in Ipswich a man called ‘Christmas’ was killed, leading to the claims that Protestants had ‘killed Christmas’.
A woodcut from 1652 featured in the book shows a man telling a festival fellow: ‘Keep out, you come not here’ to which he responds: ‘O Sir, I bring good Cheere’.
Only with the restoration of the monarchy in England in 1660 was Christmas reinstated but the damage was done and late December descended into general debauchery.
The singing of Christmas carols became associated with ‘Chamberling’, meaning sneaking off for illicit sex, British historian Henry Bourne wrote.
In 1828 in New York working class people celebrated Christmas by walking down the Bowery hitting drums, kettles and blowing horns and whistles – vandalizing anything they could along the way.
They staged an impromptu demonstration outside a high society ball and then invaded a church full of black worshippers and tore the place to pieces.
As the New York Gazette reported at the time, the mob: ‘Poured all their violence against the poor colored people, whom they pursued in all directions beating them with sticks and pieces of rope’.
Violent unrest happened in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, where newspapers reported that Christmas revelers threw firecrackers at women.
It was at this low point in the history of Christmas that its remaking began.
Bowler writes that a group of poets and authors were responsible including Washington Irving and prominent merchant John Pintard, who talked about Saint Nicholas in lectures.
In Christmas 1822 the pro-Christmas movement achieved a breakthrough when Clement Clarke Moore, a New York landowner, wrote a series of verses about a visit from Saint Nicholas became incredibly popular.
They moved the focus of Christmas away from drunkenness in taverns to families at home celebrating together.
In ‘Account of a Visit from St Nicholas’ the template for Santa was all there – the mysterious character who comes down the chimney carrying toys, the ’round belly’ and a beard ‘as white as snow’.
This 1822 version of Santa was even pulled by a sleigh.
Resurrection: Old Christmas by Washington Irving, part of his reimagining of the festival as a happy and respectable one – which transformed its reputation
Central place: Santa was co-opted to support the war effort – the Civil War, that is. In 1863 Harper’s Weekly, Santa appears in a cartoon by Thomas Nast bringing gifts to the Union troops and dangles a puppet in the image of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
The mythology continued to develop over the next century as Santa was co-opted to support the war effort – the Civil War, that is.
In 1863 Harper’s Weekly, Santa appears in a cartoon by Thomas Nast bringing gifts to the Union troops and dangles a puppet in the image of Confederate President Jefferson Davis.
Shopkeepers got in on the act by claiming that Santa had been seen in their stores choosing his toys.
Gradually excess began to creep back into Christmas but instead of alcohol and sex, this time it was buying goods.
Entire industries sprang up selling jewels, books, ornaments for Christmas. Bowler argues that this new Christmas just ‘didn’t have time for old-fashioned riotous assembly’ – people were too busy buying stuff.
Over in England a Christmas revival was taking place too, spurred by a renewed interest in carols like ‘Good King Wenceslas’.
Charles Dickens’ novel ‘A Christmas Carol’ turned Victorian Christmas into a ‘crusade against selfishness and greed’, Bowler writes.
Queen Victoria also loved Christmas as it was a time for family and many of her subjects followed her example.
But, inevitably, there was a backlash and the old arguments about Christmas resurfaced like there was no proof Jesus was born on December 25, manmade festivals were idolatry and the general misbehavior was to be discouraged.
A vicar in Leeds made a girl remove her crosses from some Christmas decorations she made for her church because some parishioners objected to what they called an ‘obnoxious symbol’.
A group calling itself the Protestant Truth Society was blamed for vandalism, mob violence and for filing lawsuits against Christmas.
Even the New York Times cautioned that young children who expect too much from Christmas were left with ‘nothing but the cold grey morning air of satiety’ after it was over.
Modern Christmas: Bing Crosby was making the theme tune for Christmas in 1942 – when Hitler was trying to abolish it in favor of a pagan and Nazi-friendly version
Universal symbol: Possibly America’s most famous tree is in front of the Rockefeller Center in New York
Parents became worried children would give up on religion when they realised Santa didn’t exist.
One satirical magazine published Santa’s mock suicide note, complete with a picture of his dead body being pulled on a sled by a grieving mother.
The caption read: ‘Poor Santa Claus departs this earth, not because he did wrong, but because he could not survive the attacks of those who regard happiness as a sin’.
Women’s magazines complained too and said that their readers spent the whole of December shopping, battling crowds, decorating and cooking.
Bowler says that these attacks did not constitute a War on Christmas because nobody wanted to see it abolished or ‘driven underground’.
However the period did mark one of the first attempts by non-religious groups to stake a claim to the holiday.
In France atheists talked about a ‘Religion of Humanity’ and that Christmas should be a ‘Positivist Christmas’. In Britain socialists saw traditional Christianity as oppressive and Christmas was an extension of that.
More would follow in years to come, but first Christmas had to survive the 20th Century and the damage that would be done to it, not least by Communists.
On December 25 1919 Russian leader Vladimir Lenin sent out a notice putting the Cheka, or the Secret Police, on alert to shoot anyone who did not turn up for work on Christmas Day because they were celebrating it.
Communist Christmas hater: In 1919, Russia’s first Communist leader, Lenin, ordered that anyone taking the day off to celebrate would be shot
Nazi Christmas hater: Hitler wanted the feast paganized with both St Nicholas and the Christ-child replaced by a version of the god Wotan. There was even a Nazi Silent Night
During a campaign against the Russian Orthodox Church tens of thousands of priests were murdered and tens of thousands more were shipped off to gulags.
In 1924 the Central Committee of the Communist Party set up an ‘Anti-religious Commission’ which published a propaganda magazine called Bezbozhnik.
One cover showed Christ being dumped by the proletariat and called for Christmas to be replaced by secular celebrations.
The commission wrote anti-Christmas carols and and posters with the caption: ‘Down with religious holidays!’
By 1930 the Soviets had tried to ban Christmas entirely and told citizens that gifts in December were presents from Stalin, not St Nicholas.
Angels were called ‘end-of-year winged figures’ and there was even an attempt to change Christmas to Stalin’s birthday, December 21st.
In Czechoslovakia Santa Claus was replaced by ‘Dado Moros’, the Russian term for ‘Little Father Frost’ who brought no gifts but did talk about the ‘happy life of young builders of Communism’, according to a report by the New York Times in 1952.
In Nazi Germany Adolf Hitler attempted to paganize Christmas by replacing St Nicholas and Christ with ‘Knecht Ruprecht’, a version of the Germanic god Wotan.
Communist Christmas hater: Fidel Castro banned Christmas from 1967 until 1997. Christmas came back in honor of Pope John Paul II visiting the one-party state
During WWII Germany used Christmas for propaganda and a chilling Christmas card shows a dark figure of a soldier which represented the ghosts of dead servicemen returning home.
Nazi schoolchildren were encouraged to sign a different version of the carol ‘Silent Night’ with the lyrics: ‘Silent night, Holy night, All is calm, all is bright, Adolf Hitler is Germany’s star, Showing us greatness and glory afar, Bringing us Germans the might’.
China and Cuba took a different approach and banned Christmas entirely.
The ban in Cuba would last from 1967 to 1997 when it was lifted in honor of Pope John Paul II.
Having survived all that Christmas came under attack from atheists because they said it involved lying to children.
A group calling itself the New Atheists, led by Richard Dawkins and other left-wing commentators, said that parents should tell their children from day one that it was them who brought their presents, not Santa.
Catherine Dunphy, a former Catholic turned humanist chaplain at the University of Toronto, came up with an amended version of the 12 Days of Christmas that talked about ‘biologists dissecting’ and ‘agnostics wondering’ instead of the traditional lines.
Bowler reels off numerous other examples, like how in 2011 Santa Monica atheist groups took over an area used for a nativity display with pictures of signs and pictures of Jesus, Satan and Neptune.
They wrote: ’37 million Americans know a myth when they see one…what myths do you see?’
Christmas has also survived ‘appropriation’ by every group imaginable, Bowler writes.
In the 1960s civil rights groups invaded department stores singing ‘I’m Dreaming of a Back Christmas’. The Black Christmas movement tried to get African Americans to frequent black-owned businesses.
Climate change activists have tried to co-opt Santa to warn about the melting of the glaciers in the North Pole.
The Australian Conservation Association produced a killjoy report that buying Christmas clothes would produce 720,000 tons of greenhouse pollution.
Articles in the British Medical Journal have complained about alcoholism around Christmas time and the American Dietetic Association has issued warnings about children eating too much candy in December.
Infamous ‘rebranding’: The English city of Birmingham was condemned for its ‘Winterval’ slogan
More killjoys: The long-running view that Christmas is making people too acquisitive has surfaced since AD400 and its latest incarnation is online
The English branch of PETA, the animal rights group, even claimed that eating too much meat over Christmas could leave men impotent – and they should go vegetarian instead.
Britain has suffered other Christmas-related issues and 1995 Birmingham City Council decided to call its festive celebrations during December ‘Winterval’, sparking national outrage and mockery.
In 2005 the London borough of Lambeth called its Christmas lights ‘Winter Lights’.
The city of Dundee in Scotland has attracted controversy for callings its festive celebrations the Winter Night Light festival.
Symbol: Starbucks came under fire in 2015 a Christmas cup devoid of Christmas symbolism
Walmart used to tell its staff to say to customers ‘Happy Holidays’ but relented after criticism – and said they could use ‘Merry Christmas’.
Anti consumerist groups have also taken aim at Christmas.
A 2002 poster from the Buy Nothing Christmas movement featured a picture of Jesus and the words: ‘Where did I say that you should buy so much stuff to celebrate my birthday!?’
Polish artist Lukasz Ciaciuch disliked American consumerism so much that he did a painting showing Santa in handcuffs and face down on the hood of his car as he is arrested.
Christmas has endured feminist critiques too including professor Tricia Cusack, an art historian from Birmingham University in the UK.
She argues that snowmen are ‘rotund relics of Bacchanalia that reinforce traditional gender stereotypes’.
It is no coincidence that snowmen are always white, professor Cusack argues.
And if your snowman is outside it is reinforcing the idea women should be in the home.
But in spite – or maybe because – of the attack from religious fanatics, pedantic theologians, militant feminists, aggressive atheists, humorless bosses, irritated authoritarians, parsimonious parents and even animal rights activists down the centuries, it remains our favorite feast, and shows no signs of dying yet.