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12/21/2004                                                                                       View Comments

FORBIDDEN CHRISTMAS

Excerpted from "The History of Christmas"

Celebration of birthdays -- even including that of Christ -- was rejected as a pagan tradition by most Christians during the first three hundred years of Christianity, but the matter became increasingly controversial. The third century Christian writer Tertullian supported observance of Christ's birthday, but condemned the inclusion of Saturnalia customs such as exchanging of gifts and decorating homes with evergreens. Chapter 10 of the Book of Jeremiah begins by condemning the heathen practice of cutting a tree from the forest to "deck it with silver and gold".

Christmas as celebrated by Catholics and early Protestants a few hundred years ago was not the secular holiday we recognize today. It was a "Christes Maesee" (Old English for Christ's Mass) or Nativity service plus a large family dinner.

The English Puritans felt that there was "no biblical sanction" for Christmas -- regarding the holiday as Pope-ish and bacchanalian. Oliver Cromwell campaigned against the heathen practices of feasting, decorating and singing, which he felt desecrated the spirit of Christ. Cromwell's government abolished English Christmas celebration by an act of Parliament in 1647, and the ban was not lifted until Cromwell lost power in 1660.

A similar law forbidding Christmas celebration in New England was passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony Puritans ("Pilgrams") in 1659 (repealed in 1681). Wassailing (a door-to-door visiting of neighbors, drinking at each stop) was condemned as a source of public disorder. (Wassail is a hot spiced wine punch with tiny roasted apples or clove-studded oranges floating on top. "Wes hal" is Saxon/Old English for "be hale" or "be of good health". The fact that toast sometimes floated in wassail bowls has been given as an explanation for "toasting to health".) Thanksgiving was the most important festivity for the Puritans.

Although Christmas was not widely celebrated in New England until 1852, it was popular in the American South beginning with the Anglican settlement of Jamestown, Virginia in 1607. The Virginian colonists were the first to establish eggnog as a holiday beverage. ("Nog" comes from the word grog, meaning any drink made with rum.) Dutch influence in the settlement of New York City (New Amsterdam) helped make New York a mostly pro-Christmas state, although there was still an anti-Christmas New England influence. Christmas was not declared an American federal holiday until 1870.

In 1583 the Presbyterian church suppressed the observation of Christmas in Scotland because there are no biblical references to Christmas celebrations nor any biblical commandments to celebrate the birthday of Christ. The Church of Scotland continued to discourage the celebration of Christmas, which remained a normal working day in Scotland until the 1960s.

Modern Jehovah's Witnesses and other fundamentalists still regard Christmas to be a pagan holiday, which they do not celebrate.

Christmas was discouraged in the officially atheist Soviet Union, but a Festival of Winter was celebrated, and "Father Frost" would bring gifts to children at the New Year. Fidel Catro declared Cuba to be atheist in 1962, but did not prohibit the celebration of Christmas until 1969. Castro restored the holiday in 1997 when Pope John Paul II was permitted to visit the country.

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