Who really started the "War on Christmas?"

During the past few years, the so-called "War on Christmas" has been a staple of conservative broadcasters and the religious right. Their basic idea: Christmas is under attack by Grinchy atheists and secular humanists who want to remove any vestige of Christianity from the public space. Any criticism of public space devoted to religious displays -- mangers, crosses, stars -- is seen by these folks as part of an assault on "Christian values" in America. Mass market retailers who substituted "Happy Holidays" for "Merry Christmas" are also part of the conspiracy to "ruin Christmas."

It's a red meat issue that is good for ratings and direct mail fund raising. But the fact is, an increasingly secular America celebrates more than just Christmas at this time of year -- so "Happy Holidays" is not only appropriate, it makes good business sense. And most religious displays are not banned. Courts simply direct that one religion cannot be favored over another under the Constitutional protections of the First Amendment. Christmas displays are generally permitted as long as menorahs, Kwanzaa displays and other seasonal symbols are also allowed.

In other words, the "War on Christmas" is pretty much a phony war.

But where did this all start? The "war on Christmas" screamers might be interested to know that the first laws against Christmas celebrations and festivities in America came during the 1600s --from the same wonderful folks who brought you the Salem Witch Trials -- the Puritans. (By the way, H.L. Mencken once defined Puritanism as the fear that "somewhere someone may be happy.")

From the records of the General Court, Massachusetts Bay Colony, May 11, 1659

For preventing disorders, arising in several places within this jurisdiction by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other communities, to the great dishonor of God and offense of others: it is therefore ordered by this court and the authority thereof that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon any such account as aforesaid, every such person so offending shall pay for every such offence five shilling as a fine to the county.

The Founding Fathers of the Massachusetts Bay Colony were not a festive bunch. To them, Christmas was a debauched, wasteful festival that threatened their core religious beliefs. They understood that most of the trappings of Christmas --like holly and mistletoe-- were vestiges of ancient pagan rituals. More importantly, they thought Christmas -- the mass of Christ-- was too "popish," by which they meant Roman Catholic. These are the people who banned Catholic priests from Boston under penalty of death.

This sensibility actually began over the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell, a strict Puritan who took over England in 1645, believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of the sort of seasonal moral decay that Protestant writer Philip Stubbes described in the 1500s:

More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides ... What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used ... to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.

In 1644, Parliament banned Christmas celebrations. Attending mass was forbidden. Under Cromwell's Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the Puritan mission to remove all merrymaking during the Christmas period. To Puritans, the celebration of the Lord's birth should be day of fasting and prayer.

In England, the Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. In Massachusetts, the ban remained in place until 1687.

So if the conservative broadcasters and religious folk really want a traditional, American Christian Christmas, the solution is simple -- don't have any fun.

Read more about the Puritans in Don't Know Much About History and America's Hidden History