America has a new commander-in-chief ready to fight against the so-called “War on Christmas”: President-elect Donald Trump.
At a rally in Michigan on Dec. 12, Trump repeated a promise that when he gets into office, everyone will start saying “Merry Christmas” again.
Trump was tapping into a sentiment that conservative pundits love to promote ― the idea that the left has launched a war against Christmas, with the goal of stripping the holiday of its religious context. It’s a war that isn’t fought with military action, but with nonbelievers speaking out against nativity scenes on public property, or by businesses using snowflakes, evergreen trees, and Christmas colors to advertise their holiday products, instead of using an illustration of Jesus in a manger, or other images that are identifiably Christian.
But Christmas wasn’t always the all-American, religious holiday that Trump and other “war on Christmas” generals make it out to be.
Jim Johnson, a scholar of American history and a curator at The Henry Ford, told The Huffington Post that Christmas, as we know it today, is made up of traditions woven together over the last 150 years.
“The unification of our approach to Christmas was a very gradual thing,” Johnson told The Huffington Post. “The family-oriented holiday that we know today, where we decorate our homes, gather, engage gift, and make pleasant, warm memories, is a newcomer on the calendar.”
It turns out, Christmas in America was always a battle between the sacred and the profane. Below, HuffPost has put together a list of seven things to keep in mind the next time someone claims there’s a “War on Christmas” going on in America:
Christmas was once illegal in America.
The Puritans considered Christmas a frivolous embrace of earthly vices.
In 17th century England, Christmas was a lively festival, complete with rowdy carolers, plays, feasting, and other kinds of merrymaking. It was a time of holiday “misrule,” when normal social relationships were turned upside down. People would cross-dress, and the wealthy would invite peasants inside their manors for a feast.
The pilgrims at Plymouth Colony were working in the fields during their first Christmas in America. Between 1659 to 1681, people celebrating Christmas in Massachusetts Bay Colony would be slapped with a fine of five shillings.
Christmas wasn’t always a pleasant, family-friendly holiday.
Despite the Puritans’ attempts to reign it in, Christmas celebrations in America did happen during colonial times. Gentry in Virginia would throw small parties to mark the occasion, and Catholics in Maryland treated it as a high holiday on the church calendar, Johnson said.
But for many others, Christmas was an excuse to have a wild party.
Johnson said that up until the Civil War, American Christmas tended to be a drunken holiday for the lower classes, especially in the eastern cities ― a time for men to go gallivanting in the streets, blowing trumpets, and burst homemade fireworks. People would crash into the houses of the upper classes, put on a Christmas show, and refuse to leave until they were plied with money, food, or alcohol.
A particularly violent Christmas riot in 1828 led New York City to create a professional police force.
“If you were dropped into Philadelphia on Christmas Eve of 1835, you’d think it was Times Square on New Year’s Eve,” Johnson said, to describe the chaotic celebrations.
Christmas wasn’t a federal holiday until 1870 ― close to 100 years after America’s founding.
It took decades for anti-Christmas sentiment to die down, particularly in New England. Until at least the 1850s, New England businesses and schools remained open on Christmas Day, and people were expected to go to work. Some churches didn’t hold religious services to mark the holiday.
Alabama was the first state to declare Christmas a public holiday in 1836, and other states slowly began to follow the trend. Christmas became a federal holiday in the District of Columbia in 1870, and later expanded to federal employees outside of the city.
We can thank the intellectual elite, immigrants, and the Brits for today’s American Christmas traditions.
According to Stephen Nissenbaum, author of The Battle for Christmas, New York’s intellectual elite were involved in an effort to turn Christmas into a more genteel, domesticated holiday. Writers like Clement Clarke Moore and Washington Irving painted a picture of a quiet, family-oriented celebration. Charles Dickens, author of A Christmas Carol, toured America in 1867 and 1868 to give public readings of his work ― and the Americans loved it.
Around the same time, immigrants were bringing in their own traditions. German immigration reached a high point in the 1850s, and these new Americans introduced neighbors to the practice of decorating Christmas trees.
The Christmas Tree, one of Christmas’ most cherished symbols owes its popularity to Britain’s royal family, which has German roots. In 1848, a drawing of Queen Victoria and Prince Albert celebrating the holiday around a Christmas tree was published in a London newspaper. The trend soon swept through America.
Our image of a traditional Christmas comes from America post World War II.
The period immediately following World War II was a time of prosperity in the country, and according to Johnson, the “classic, nostalgic Christmas memories” often come from that era. It’s the period that gave Americans cherished movies, like “It’s A Wonderful Life,” and “Miracle on 34th Street.” NORAD’s official Santa tracker launched in 1955, Dr. Seuss published “How The Grinch Stole Christmas” in 1957, and the White House began sending out formal Christmas cards.
“[The post-war era] is part of our classic memories of Christmas,” Johnson said. “A lot of people in their 50s and 60s today want to hearken back to that time period.”
Some Christians still don’t celebrate Christmas.
The theological dispute that the Puritans had with Christmas has never completely been resolved.
Christmas was rarely discussed or formally celebrated in Baptist congregations before the twentieth century. The Southern Baptist Convention, currently America’s largest Protestant denomination, didn’t attach religious significance to the holiday before the Civil War. Some ministers associated it with worldliness and paganism. But as Christmas grew in popularity during the Victorian era, Baptist churches slowly began to incorporate Christmas into their church services -- a development that would have disturbed Baptists of an earlier era.
The “War on Christmas” is more about nostalgia than it is about religion.
When people like Trump claim they want to make it easier for Christians to say “Merry Christmas” again, they are conveying nostalgia about a time when the religious group in power ― Protestant Christians ― didn’t have to worry about accommodating and welcoming people of other faiths into the country. They’re expressing fear about slowly eroding privilege.
But Christmas isn’t inherently a Christian holiday, or one that was important to Americans since the country’s founding. Even if it is considered a religious holiday today, most of the activities that have become associated with the holiday either have roots outside of Christianity, or are imbued with secular meaning.
If you’re looking to defend American values, defending the way Americans celebrate Christmas in 2016 may not be the right place to start.
However, the holiday is still thoroughly American, just not in the way Trump and his supporters are claiming. It’s evidence of the incredible contributions that immigrants have made to this country, of Americans’ endless capacity to innovate, and of the country’s ability to craft new narratives about itself.
“Americans have taken bits and pieces from all sorts of cultures and religions,” Johnson said. “And made it bigger and better in a truly American way.”
In that sense, Christmas is American as you get.