I t was banned for more than two decades, a major European country didn’t recognize it publicly for more than 300 years and its supporters once rioted in a city known mostly for its piety.
We’re talking about—are you ready for this?—Christmas.
The history of our most famous and cherished holiday is so long that some changes were inevitable over a couple of thousand years.
For starters, the early church couldn’t decide when to celebrate the birth of Christ. For several centuries it was observed on Jan. 6, and this was a thousand years before the change from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar which scrambled all the dates.
Some small factions of Christendom still use Jan. 6.
By the late Middle Ages Christmas had acquired so many secular trappings—lavish dinners, games, merrymaking— and become so merged with civil, not religious, observances, that when the Reformation came along there was a reaction against Christmas itself.
The Puritans banned it during the 1640s and 1650s, on both sides of the ocean. It was serious. Between 1659 and 1681 it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Boston. Some historians say it didn’t become fashionable to observe Christmas again in the Boston area until the mid 1800s.
During this time there were “pro-Christmas” riots in Canterbury, England, home of Canterbury Cathedral. Rioters decked out doorways with holly and evergreens.
Legality was restored but Scotland still didn’t publicly recognize Christmas again until 1958!
Churches began a move to restore Christmas’s spiritual meaning and save it from getting too secular. In the U. S. it was criticized for being “too British.”
But the holiday made a huge U.S. comeback in the 1820s with Moravian immigrants contributing Christmas trees and nativity scenes and Clement Clarke Moore’s famous “Night Before Christmas” poem.
Nevertheless, in the 1850s, author Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a very modern-sounding phrase: “The true meaning of Christmas is not found in a shopping spree.”
In 1870, Christmas was finally declared a federal holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant.
Of course, all of that is just “background noise,” mankind trying to comprehend that singular miracle in the Judean hills two millennia ago. Merry Christmas, 2012—M.B.