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The Madera Tribune

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Letter: MERRY CHRISTMAS and HAPPY NEW YEAR!

December 21, 2019

Sincerely. And I even managed to say something meaningful that fits on a bumper sticker or a red baseball cap.

 

Remember Bill O’Reilly’s made up “War on Christmas” from 15 years ago? The Fox commentator’s ratings gimmick became a rallying cry for those who didn’t understand that our country had real problems to deal with in 2004. Afghanistan. Terrorism. Iraq. Budget deficits. A pending recession/depression. Racism. Immigrant bigotry. Sexism.

 

And, of course, it was sexism that took out O’Reilly. His sexism. But the War on Christmas made him and the Fox network at lot of money, a Christmas theme in and of itself. Interestingly (to me), this little stroll down memory lane has caused me to research the history of Christmas in a diverse America.

 

It’s complicated.

 

The Puritans of the New England colonies banned the celebration of Christmas in the early 1600s. They viewed Christmas as a pagan tradition promoted by Catholics. Neither were welcome. They saw celebrations of individuals with gifts of material goods, overeating, and drunkenness as not being in the community’s best interest.

 

The Massachusetts Colony banned the celebration of Christmas in 1659. Those who were caught celebrating were fined 5 shillings. Ahh. Talk about a war on Christmas!

 

I’m simply glad that they didn’t ban Boston Baked Beans or the Boston Pub Crawl. Now that would be a sin!

 

Christmas was more likely to be celebrated in the 1700s in colonies in which German immigrants were located. Christmas trees. Silent Night, Holy Night. St. Nick. But as the colonies moved toward war and independence, Christmas was viewed as an English cultural practice and, therefore looked upon with disfavor.

 

Gen. Washington took advantage of British troops and their German allies drunkenly celebrating Christmas as American troops crossed the Delaware River on Christmas Day to successfully attack the enemy in Trenton.

 

The New York City Police Department was created after a Christmas Day riot involving drunk and rowdy revelers in 1828. Where were the Puritans when we needed them?

 

Christmas became a federal holiday in 1870. By that time, the war on Christmas had already been won/lost? Christmas had become popular as a result of poems, greeting cards and a novel. And the emphasis was not on Jesus, Bethlehem and a manger.

 

Clement Moore published “A Visit From St. Nicholas” in 1823. That popular poem starts with “Twas the night before Christmas…” and ends with “a Happy Christmas to all”. It’s a joyous celebration of Santa, his sleigh and reindeer (Donder, Blitzen and, in some parts of the country, Chewy and Tavo), sliding down a chimney, presents, and laughing children. Nothing religious there.

 

The phrase “Merry Christmas” was popularized through the Charles Dicken’s novel “A Christmas Carol.” The book’s Christmas story, again, did not focus on the religious, biblical and Christian meanings of Christmas. Instead, it was a more general anthem for spending time with family and being charitable. Clearly, those themes mesh well with religious messages, too. But religion was not the focus of the novel.

 

Currier & Ives prints were immensely popular before, during and after the American Civil War. Many of those lithographs popularized winter scenes of snow, warmly wrapped people and horse drawn sleighs. Some are still used on Christmas greeting cards. But they don’t present scenes of a religious Christmas.

 

Louis Prang introduced Christmas cards in 1875. His cards featured marching frogs reminding Americans that “A jolly time just to remember That Christmas comes on the 25th of December”. I have no interpretation for that.

 

The religious focus of Christmas tended to be regional. The American South, not greatly influenced by Puritans, tended to emphasize Christmas as a religious holiday. Northern states were slow to come around because of their anti-Christmas beginnings, a reflection on what can happen when you mix religion and politics.

 

By the time the 19th century turned into the 1900s, commercialism ran rampant. Buying presents was heavily promoted in catalogs distributed by Sears and Roebucks and Montgomery Ward. We have not looked back.

 

I never got to ask my dad how he celebrated Christmas in December of 1944. He was fighting the Germans at the Battle of the Bulge. That battle took place during one of Europe’s coldest recorded winters from December 16, 1944 through January 25, 1945. The fighting was in Belgium, France and Luxembourg. 610,000 American troops suffered 89,000 casualties: killed, wounded, captured and MIA.

 

I doubt that dad and the men with whom he served cared about a war of words featuring Merry Christmas vs. Happy Holidays. They had other important battles to fight. Their war with Mother Nature and Adolf Hitler prevented many of those men from coming home. Too many.

 

This is not to minimize the Christian religious aspects of Christmas in American history. The religious Christmas celebration has existed in our country since the coming of Europeans. But they have coexisted at best. And at worst, they were outlawed and ignored. But they have existed. And they still do. We certainly see that in Madera.

 

But let’s be honest. Not every American believes in a higher being. That’s a fact. Not every American who believes in a higher being is a Christian. That’s a fact. And the First Amendment to our Constitution allows for this kind of freedom of religion. (There are five rights in the First Amendment.) That’s a fact.

 

Therefore, whether we celebrate Christmas or not, whether the celebration is religious or not, and whether we say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays, both, or nothing, we should all be able to agree on at least this: PEACE ON EARTH AND GOODWILL TOWARDS ALL!

 

MERRY CHRISTMAS. HAPPY HOLIDAYS.

 

— Charles Wieland,

 

retired Superior Court Judge,

 

Madera

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