- - Tuesday, December 23, 2014

On their first Christmas in the New World, the Puritans in Massachusetts did not celebrate the holiday at all. Instead, they worked in the fields. In fact, the colony outlawed the celebration of Christmas from 1659 to 1681. Anyone caught celebrating was fined five shillings.

Why? Early in 17th-century England, Christmas was celebrated much as it is today — as a religious festival and an important holiday. During the 12 days of Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary, holly and ivy. Christmas Day church services were packed. Gifts were exchanged at New Year’s, and Christmas boxes were distributed to the poor.

Great quantities of roast beef, minced pies and Christmas ale were consumed. People enjoyed dancing, singing and stage plays. This often led to drunkenness and promiscuity.

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Puritans of the 16th and 17th centuries were horrified. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes, author of the “Anatomie of Abuses,” complained that there was “more mischief in that time committed than in all the year robbery, whoredom and murder, and what is not committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”

Puritans were motivated in part by their hatred of Catholicism — what they called “popery.” They also saw nothing in Scripture that celebrated Christmas and charged that Dec. 25 was not the birthday of Jesus, but the date pagans celebrated the winter solstice.

Indeed, the pagan Scandinavian and Germanic people of northern Europe celebrated a 12-day winter solstice holiday in A.D. 900 called Yule beginning Dec. 25. Many modern Christmas traditions, such as the Christmas tree, the Christmas wreath and the Yule log are direct descendants of Yule customs.

Therefore, the first Christmas controversy was Christian-led and began when England was ruled by a Puritan Parliament. Puritans sought to remove elements they viewed as pagan (nonbiblical in origin). In 1647, the Puritan-led Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas. Incredibly, Parliament replaced it with a day of fasting.

Puritans brought that mindset to America, disapproving Christmas so totally that it was outlawed in Boston. The ban was revoked by English Gov. Edmund Andros, but it was not until the mid-19th century that celebrating Christmas became fashionable. By the Declaration of Independence in 1776, it was not widely celebrated in America. Christmas was not proclaimed a holiday by the U.S. Congress until 1870.

More recent controversies, such as what Fox News Channel host Bill O’Reilly called the “War on Christmas,” centered around the failure of businesses and schools to use the word “Christmas.” The American Civil Liberties Union and Americans United for Separation of Church and State filed lawsuits against government-funded displays of manger scenes and even such secular elements as reindeer, snowmen and elves. In 2002, New York City public schools banned the display of Nativity scenes but allowed Christmas trees and Hanukkah menorahs.

In 2005, Boston labeled its decorated tree a “holiday tree.” Result: The Nova Scotian farmer who donated the tree said he would rather have put it into a wood chipper than have it called a “holiday tree.” In 2005, the Michigan Senate debated whether its tree in front of the Capitol would continue to be called a “holiday tree,” as it had been since the 1990s. Finally, in 2007, it began to be called a Christmas tree.

Retailers are beginning to respond to customers outraged by their kowtowing to secularists dedicated to preventing any recognition of Christmas. When Target decided to banish the use of the word “Christmas” from its stores, online or advertising, the American Family Association initiated a nationwide boycott of Target that garnered 700,000 petition signatures within a week, persuading Target to reincorporate the word into its Christmas seasonal advertising.

The same thing happened when Lowe’s began selling “holiday trees” rather than “Christmas trees” a few years ago. It took a couple of years, but another American Family Association-led petition persuaded Lowe’s to backtrack.

In 2009, secularists struck again, forcing Gap Inc. to eliminate the word “Christmas” from its ads. Another boycott persuaded the company’s management to first temporize and then go back to calling “Christmas” by its rightful name.

The lesson is clear. American consumers value Christmas and will turn on those retailers who would ignore the most important Christian holiday of the year. Groups like the American Family Association play Paul Revere when firms try to secularize Christmas, letting consumers know who’s being naughty and nice. Companies like the Gap, Lowe’s and Target have learned a lesson that should not be lost on others: Consumers, when they know what’s going on, are prepared to vote with their wallets against retailers who cave into left-wing political correctness.

Michael J. McManus is president of Marriage Savers and a syndicated columnist.

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