Friday, December 21, 2012

When Christmas Was Banned in Massachusetts

By Kevin Seamus Hasson

(The Wall Street Journal) Does it sometimes seem as if the Christmas wars—namely the battle between secularists and believers over how and where Christmas and Hanukkah (not to mention other faiths' holidays) should be recognized—have been around forever? If so, you're not far off. The opening shots of the war, at least in America, were fired in Plymouth Colony itself. And after nearly 400 years, it's past time we learned our lesson and ceased hostilities.

Both factions still make the same fundamental mistake the Pilgrims did in Plymouth Colony. In Plymouth, culture was served up in one simple, strong flavor: Pilgrim. The Pilgrims were in charge and they knew it. Dissidents, and they were few, were not allowed to voice their dissent, let alone protest.

The contrast between October and December 1621 in Plymouth is a telling illustration of culture Pilgrim-style. In October, the Pilgrims held what has come to be called the First Thanksgiving. It lasted several days, featuring marksmanship and other contests in addition to good food. In short, it was about as communal and festive as the Pilgrims could ever be. Two months later, however, on "the day called Christmas Day," their leader, Governor William Bradford, recorded in his journal that he "called them out to work."

That was normal. For the Pilgrims, Dec. 25 was a day just like any other. Christmas, they thought, was a "papist" invention. Unlike their feast days, they couldn't find it in the Bible, so they wouldn't celebrate it. The previous year, they had spent their first Christmas in Plymouth splitting lumber.

But a year later not everyone agreed. Some newly arrived colonists objected that "it went against their consciences to work" on Christmas. So Bradford grudgingly excused them "till they were better informed" and led the wiser, more veteran colonists away to work. Returning at noon, however, he was horrified to discover the newcomers "in the street at play, openly" engaged in various sports.

In other words, the newcomers were doing exactly what the Pilgrims had done two months earlier. But this was different. This was no Pilgrim-proclaimed holiday. This was that dangerous innovation—Christ's Mass.
The governor knew what he had to do. He confiscated their sports equipment, telling them that if they insisted on celebrating Christmas as a "matter of devotion" they could do so privately at home, "but there should be no gaming or reveling in the streets." It was no isolated tantrum. A generation later, the colony formally outlawed Christmas for 22 years.

The double standard was blatant. Only two months before they suppressed the Christmas revelers, the Pilgrims had held their own "gaming and reveling" for Thanksgiving. They knew well that it's only natural for people to want to celebrate special times together. A holiday spent in enforced privacy is not much of a holiday at all.

Suppressing the Christmas revelers was obviously a cruel thing to do. But here we are, nearly 400 years later, still debating whether to allow religious holidays out in public or, God forbid, on public property. Some alarmists fear public display of any faith tradition but their own. Others seek to paper over the nation's diversity of traditions by insisting on a homogenized, religion-free culture. (If they had lived in Plymouth Colony, no doubt their answer to Christmas would have been to ban Thanksgiving, too.)

All the alarmists agree on this much, though: Others' holiday celebrations are tolerable only in private, and never in the public square—a vintage 1621 solution. "Ah, but you see," they all say, "religion in public is uniquely divisive. That's why the Constitution restricts it."

Nonsense. Elsewhere in the world, people fight and even slaughter each other over ethnic differences at least as much as they do over religious ones. And our Constitution bars government ethnic preferences just as stringently as it does religious ones. Yet our courts are not clogged with English-Americans seeking to enjoin St. Patrick's Day parades. It's obvious that municipal embrace and even sponsorship of them is not a harbinger of ethnic cleansing to come. It's simply government acknowledgment of one of many ethnic elements in our culture.

There's no reason—constitutional or otherwise—why governments cannot do the same and welcome public displays of menorahs, Christmas trees, nativity scenes and the like as simply some of the many religious elements in our culture.

Four hundred years is plenty long enough. Let's climb out of the 17th century and call a halt to the Christmas wars.

Mr. Hasson is the founder of the Becket Fund for Religious Liberty and the author of "The Right to be Wrong: Ending the Culture War Over Religion in America" (Image, 2012), from which this is adapted.


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