- Kimimasa Mayama/Reuters
• Starting with Bill O’Reilly in the early 2000s, many figures on the American political right have argued that there is an ongoing war on Christmas.
• Observers have questioned the reality of such a conflict, given the holiday’s prominent place in US culture.
• But throughout history, governments and societies – including certain Christian sects – have tried to do away with the festivities.
Every December, Americans take part in a time-honored tradition: letting slip the dogs of the war on Christmas.
Some folks assert that there’s a concerted effort in American society to secularize or erase Christmas, while others call this belief ludicrous. Writing in Politico, Daniel Danvir estimates the most recent iteration of the clash began in 2004, with ousted Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly firing the opening salvo. Since then, “…the War Over Christmas has become tarted up, 24-houred and Twitterized – even as it has grown drearily routine, an annual pageant in which culture warriors line the trenches,” Danvir wrote.
The results? “Xmas” has gotten a bad rep in some circles. US President Donald Trump has shouted about bringing back “Merry Christmas” at rallies, while First Daughter Ivanka Trump stoked controversy by wishing people “Happy Holidays” on Twitter. The Yuletide tension between the First Family notwithstanding, this fearsome fight mostly occurs between pundits – Business Insider’s Mark Abadi reports most people don’t give two sugar plums about your choice of season’s greetings.
But that doesn’t mean there haven’t been so-called wars on Christmas in the past – sometimes waged by Christians themselves.
Here’s a look at historic instances during which Christmas was banned or twisted beyond recognition:
A group of radical Christians outlawed Christmas — and sparked riots — in 17th century England
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People weren’t happy when England’s Puritan Parliament banned outright Christmas in 1647.
The Puritans had just seized the country from King Charles I. The sect’s central quest was to purge the Church of England of all Catholic influences. They viewed Christmas as a mess of a holiday, full of vice and lacking in scriptural basis.
To signal their disdain, the blog History Extra reports Puritans in London would open up shop, show up to Parliament, and shut down their churches on Christmas Day. They even blasted Yuletide delicacies like mince pies as “idolatry in crust,” according to Gerry Bowler’s “Christmas in the Crosshairs.”
But a lot of their fellow subjects didn’t agree. In fact, according to “The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern English Literature and Religion,” riots broke out in London, Ipswich, and Norwich and other cities. The pro-Christmas residents of Canterbury even took control of their city in defiance of the Puritan leadership.
Christmas only returned to England in an official capacity when Charles II restored the monarchy in 1660.
Many early American colonists hated Christmas, too
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The puritanical anti-Christmas vibe wasn’t contained to England. It seeped over to the American colonies, too – especially New England. The pilgrims of Thanksgiving fame shunned the holiday in 1620 and did not observe it. Nor did the Puritans who arrived in later years. In fact, much to the dismay of the non-Puritans living in New England, observance of the holiday was banned in Boston until 1659.
Even the early days of the United States, the holiday wasn’t a terribly big deal. In urban areas, Christmas was oftentimes marred by violence – often against African Americans and Catholic immigrants – and vice.
The Christmas spirit as we know it today only began to take hold in the mid-1800s. In 1870, President U.S. Grant declared Christmas Day a national holiday, TIME reported.
French revolutionaries rebranded Christmas cakes and renamed the holiday ‘Dog Day’
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The decadent aristocrats weren’t the only ones in the French revolution’s crosshairs. The increasingly anti-clerical movement also ultimately went after two unusual enemies of the revolution – Christmas and cake.
According to “Christmas in the Crosshairs,” Christmas was renamed “dog day” to mock the holiday, as the government shut down Catholic churches, drowned priests, and established a national, atheistic substitute: the Cult of Reason.
The revolution even went after bakers who dubbed holiday cakes “galette des rois” – or king cakes – after the three magi. Those were rebranded “liberty cakes” or “equality cakes,” while mothers who bore sons were permitted to celebrate “the Festival of Birth” around Christmastime.
Nazis rewrote Christmas carols to reflect their fascist ideology
- Wikimedia Commons
Jesus’ status as a Jewish preacher proved problematic in Nazi Germany. But instead of doing away with the holiday altogether, the fascist regime twisted the celebration.
The Nazis focused on any alleged neo-pagan – and, in their minds, Germanic – origins of some of the holiday’s traditions.
They even rewrote Christmas carols to reflect their ideology. Writing in The Conversation, George State University professor Joe Perry broke down one such song, “Exalted Night of the Clear Stars”: “Verses of stars, light and an eternal mother suggest a world redeemed through faith in National Socialism – not Jesus.”
The Soviet Union shoved the festivities back to the New Year
- Oleg Nikishin / Stringer / Getty Images
To this day, New Year’s Eve is a bigger deal than Christmas in Russia. That’s when the Russian version of Santa – Ded Moroz, or Father Frost – gives presents to all the good kids.
After the October Revolution, public religious displays, including Christmas celebrations, were largely eliminated. The practice of discouraging, persecuting, and completely banning religious practice also spread to Soviet satellite states, like Albania, Romania, and East Germany.
But replacing the festivities was easier said than done. Foreign Policy reports Soviet efforts to introduce a brand new holiday failed.
Under Josef Stalin, in 1935, the tree and Ded Moroz became attached to the New Year.
“It became a civic, celebratory holiday, one that was ritually emphasized by the ticking of the clock, champagne, the hymn of the Soviet Union, the exchange of gifts, and big parties,” writes Emily Tamkin in Foreign Policy.
Fidel Castro cancelled Christmas to get people to focus on a sugar harvest
- Keystone / Stringer / Getty Images
Fidel Castro was never a fan of Christmas.
In 1959, Santa Claus was labeled a symbol of American imperialism in Cuba, TIME reported.
Then, in 1969, Castro took it a step further, when he banned Christmas. The reason? He wanted to keep people from getting distracted from the ongoing sugar harvest, according to The Independent.
Brunei won’t let people celebrate the holiday ‘excessively and openly’
- Wikimedia Commons
Christians in Brunei are free to celebrate Christmas – as long as they keep in quiet and alert the authorities first, The Telegraph reported.
The country’s ministry of religious affairs argued people “celebrating Christmas excessively and openly” could “damage” the beliefs of the country’s Muslim majority. That means Santa hats, religious songs, and Christmas decorations are off the the table in Brunei, which is ruled by a wealthy sultanate. The government adopted the ban – and a harsh penal code, according to The Independent – in 2014.
Saudi Arabia still arrests people for ‘plotting’ to throw Christmas parties
- Jordan Pix / Stringer / Getty Images
In Saudi Arabia, planning a Christmas party is a risky undertaking.
Lebanese tabloid Al Ahkbar reported the country’s religious police arrested 41 people who were “plotting to celebrate Christmas” in 2012. Saudi Arabia doesn’t recognize any religion other than Islam, despite the fact that about 1.2 million Christians likely live in the country.
The Jerusalem Post reported that, in most cases, the government looks the other way when it comes to most private Christmas celebrations.