Cromwell and communists banned Christmas, too

On Oct. 4, the US Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal on the ban on “celebratory religious music” upheld by the Third Circuit Court of Appeals in the South Orange-Maplewood district in New Jersey. The issue was first raised in 2004 when a parent sued the school board after it issued a memo before its December concert clarifying its ban on religious songs in performances, a policy enacted in the 1990s. Parents and opponents organized an “illegal” night of Christmas and Hanukkah festivities. Before the memo was issued, Christmas carols were sung in school concerts.

On Sept. 9, in Virginia, the Loudon County Board of Supervisors upheld a policy allowing unattended displays on the grounds of the courthouse after a resident-led commission advocated its ban. According to the commission, this was due to the  rising demand for limited space. Public outrage was sparked after the commission denied an application to put a Christmas tree on the court grounds.

The removal of Christmas references is a well-known phenomenon throughout North America, and is typically justified in the name of ‘inclusion.’ Advocates do not want to ‘impose’ a particular religious holiday on another group, in the name of tolerance. These instances of political correctness are commonly followed by a public outcry.

Toronto has had its own Christmas controversies. In 2002, officials from city hall published a news release in which they referred to the Christmas tree at Nathan Phillips Square a “holiday tree.” After public backlash, Mayor Mel Lastman, ordered city staff to call it a Christmas tree and then introduced a bylaw preventing it from being named anything else.

Christmas controversies continued in Canada’s largest and most multicultural city. In 2006, Justice Marion Cohen ordered that a Christmas tree be removed from a provincial courthouse at 311 Jarvis St. She wrote in a letter to employees that non-Christians are “confronted” with the tree which made them feel as if “they are not part of the institution.” Premier Dalton McGuinty then spoke out against her decision as unfair to one group’s traditions: “At Queen’s Park we celebrated Diwali a few weeks ago, as well at Queen’s Park we celebrated Eid. Next week I believe I’m participating in a lighting of the menorah celebration,” he said. “What we’re saying is, let’s share these opportunities, let’s better understand those celebrations.” After the outcry, the tree was moved to an administrative corridor.

There are now several campaigns to protect and recall the true meaning of Christmas and its traditions. In the United States, Focus on the Family, the Liberty Counsel and the American Family Association each compile blacklists of retailers who do not acknowledge Christmas in their advertisements In Canada, the Knights of Columbus’ ‘Keep Christ in Christmas’ campaign encourages Catholics to spread awareness of the real meaning of Christmas.

There is also an awareness that the growing commercialization of Christmas is usurping its original meaning. Owing to this, German Catholics belonging to a church aid organization, Bonifatiuswerk, have reacted by advocating “Santa Claus-free zones.” Santa Claus is, to them, “an invention of the advertising industry designed to boost sales,” and “a representation of consumer society [which] has little to do with the historical figure of St. Nicolas.” They seek to replace this popular image with that of St. Nicolas, who emphasizes inner as opposed to material wealth.

Santa Claus, though, has also been the victim of overt political correctness. At Christmas time last year, Australia’s Monash University published a study in the British Medical Journal condemning the figure of Santa Claus as a negative role model for children. The authors inform readers that “there is a correlation between countries that venerate Santa Claus and those that have high levels of childhood obesity,” and it is possible that “Santa promotes a message that obesity is synonymous with cheerfulness and joviality.” Therefore, say the study’s authors, Santa ought to go on a diet, be left celery and carrot sticks instead of cookies, and find a more active mode of transport than a sleigh.

Unfortunately, the idea of reconstructing a traditional image to create a state-sanctioned role model has been used before by far less of a benevolent regime. Before becoming president, Ronald Reagan used his radio broadcasts to attack the anti-Christmas action of communist leaders in the Soviet Union. He said Moscow, “eventually began banning Christmas commemorations,” as “St. Nicholas was replaced with Did Moroz, or Grandfather Frost. This Stalinist creation wears a red cap and long white beard of Santa Claus, but he delivers gifts to children on New Year’s Eve. Christmas trees were also banned, but people continued to trim their New Year’s trees. Communism folded all Christmas celebrations into a New Year celebration.” Before Christmas traditions were adapted to New Year celebrations, the traditional Russian fir tree was banned and Grandfather Frost, the Russian form of Santa or St. Nicolas, was “unmasked as an ally of the priest and kulak,” according to Karen Petrone, author of Life has Become More Joyous, Comrades: Celebrations in the Time of Stalin.

In the early years of New Year’s Day festivities, production was especially emphasized, as workers were entertained by reports of the productivity of the worst workshop with street organ music playing in the background. A brigade from the Meierkhol’d Theatre sang to workers in a Moscow factory, “if 1,000 people were to choose not to come to work on a religious holiday it would cost the factory 48,000 rubles.” As the need came to increase the morale of the Russian citizenry, New Years began to be celebrated as more of a form of pure enjoyment shorn of religious significance and national elements were incorporated.

The U.S.S.R., though, was not the first country to ban Christmas. In 1647, the Puritan-dominated English Parliament passed a law abolishing the holiday. Under Oliver Cromwell’s rule following the execution of Charles I, Christmas customs, services, and festivities were prohibited. This sparked riots and people were jailed for defiance of the law. The Puritans thought Christmas encouraged English debauchery during feasting. They also suspected Christmas of being an expression of Catholicism, as the holiday was, in fact, called “Christ’s Mass” and not decreed in the Bible. Christmas was therefore called Christ Tide and declared a day of fasting and prayer. It was only reinstated after the Restoration in the 1660s.

British bishops and the Vatican are now worried that Christmas will be banned again in the name of not offending people of other faiths and convictions. The Equality Act, which came into force this October in Britain, could pose a significant threat to the autonomy of religious institutions in a secular country seeking to impose its values on others. “Under existing legislation we have seen the development of a risk-averse culture with outcomes as ridiculous as reports of a local authority instructing tenants to take down Christmas lights in case they might offend Muslim neighbours, or of authorities removing the word Christmas out of cultural sensitivity to everyone except Christians,” said the Catholic Bishops Conference of England and Wales in its evidence presented before a parliamentary committee examining the bill in November 2009. “If this bill is serious about equality, everything possible must be done to avoid it having a ‘chilling’ effect on religious expression and practice.”

Concerns about equality and not offending others often run only one way. In 2008, Home Depot eschewed use of the term Christmas on their website, while employing Hanukkah in its holiday advertising. Several years earlier, the Miami Herald wished a Happy Hanukkah in the days before Christmas on its banner and a Happy Kwanza on its front page on Dec. 26, but did not wish a Merry Christmas to its Christian readers anywhere in its pages. In 2005, Lowe’s used the term holiday tree to advertise their Christmas trees in English but used árboles de Navidad (Christmas tree) in their Spanish advertising. In 2007, Lowe’s began selling “Family Trees.”

Successful campaigns against avoiding the use of Christmas in commercial advertising have resulted in numerous chains including Sears, K-Mart and the Gap to reinsert Christmas messaging and acknowledging the Christmas gift-giving season rather than the holiday gift-giving season.

While authorities and corporations continue to try to ban any vestige of religious observance or acknowledgement, the public continues to pushback, defending Christmas trees, carols, and expressions of good wishes. A generation after the politically correct term Happy Holidays was inserted into the public conversation, a large number of Christians are still resisting. Many public officials are backing down and many companies are reversing course. But, as Tom Fleming of Chronicles magazine wrote a decade ago, the war against Christmas is at heart battle for the soul of society, secular versus religious. It is yet another battleground in the culture wars.