James P. Freeman: A war on Christmas started in Boston and continues there

  "The Examination and Tryal {Trial} of Father Christmas  ( 1686).''

"The Examination and Tryal {Trial} of Father Christmas (1686).''

Vice President Mike Pence was probably just following the many examples of his superior. On the South Lawn at the White House, celebrating the passage of the Republican tax cut with President  Trump and many members of Congress, Pence proclaimed an outrage:  “Merry Christmas America.” Good Lord!

That happy holiday affirmation confirms (fulfilling another Donald Trump campaign promise) that Christmas is back at the White House. This comes after years of increasing dilution — denial? — of the holiday by a public intent on rapacious diversity at the expense of traditional customs. And inclusivity. Ponder this thought:  Had the Affordable Care Act of 2010 been signed into law around Christmas time, President Obama likely would have uttered, “Season’s Greetings America!” Still, Vice Presidents say the darnedest things. (Joe Biden, notwithstanding.)

But the war on Christmas began in Boston, surprisingly. Where it continues.

Christmas did not originate as a Christian holiday. The upper classes in ancient Rome celebrated Dec. 25 as the birthday of the sun god Mithra. The date fell in the middle of Saturnalia, the monthlong festival of the Unconquered Sun, dedicated to feasting, singing, and gift-giving. Mithraism spread throughout Europe; as did Christianity. In the 4th century, Pope Julius I chose Dec. 25 for the Feast of the Nativity, as a way of adopting and absorbing these pagan traditions.

Much later, some Protestants in Europe and Puritans in the New World were determined to purify religious belief and remove everything that was not directly commanded or described in the Bible. They believed that the Dec.  25 date was pagan in itself, a concoction of the Roman Catholic Church. (A footnote to history, the Bible doesn’t actually mention a specific date for Jesus’s birth.)

The early settlers in New England were particularly contemptuous of Christmas, nicknaming it “Foolstide.” On May 11, 1659, Christmas was banned by the General Court in the Massachusetts Bay Colony, founded in 1630 in what would become Boston. As americanheritage.com explained, “This decree was passed more than a generation after the landing of the Pilgrims (1620), but it was merely a legal expression of the attitude they brought with them on the Mayflower.”

The law was repealed in 1681. But Christmas was still far from popular with the Puritans in New England. “Their dim view of what they regarded as pagan revelry or, alternatively, papist idolatry,” American Heritage writes, “was so pervasive that over a hundred years later Christmas in New England was a dull affair compared to the festive holiday of New York and points south.”

But anti-Christmas sentiments weren’t based purely on theological grounds. Around the time of the Revolutionary War, “Christmas celebrations were associated with the British monarchy and [still] shunned in Boston,” recalled New Boston Post. As late as 1850, New England schools and shops were open on Christmas Day. Over time, there was a greater cultural acceptance and recognition of the day as Puritanism faded. To help settle the matter, President Ulysses S. Grant formally declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870. But not much was settled.

Flash forward …

Today, christianity.com says, “Our secularized society frantically chases the celebration but isn’t too keen on preserving the source.” It lamented five years ago that “in polite company it is no longer proper to greet with ‘Merry Christmas’''. Those feelings were articulated, if not reinforced, years before, by affectations like “Season’s Greetings” and “Happy Holidays.” All in the name of inclusiveness.

Who can forget Boston’s contribution to inclusiveness in 2005 B.T.? (Before Trump.)

The city’s Department of Parks and Recreation in November of that year officially renamed the giant spruce on Boston Common (an annual gift from Nova Scotia) a “Holiday Tree” instead of a Christmas Tree. That move, noted The Harvard Crimson, “sparked controversy over the role of religion in municipal holiday celebrations.” A new Puritanism, perhaps?

Jeff Jacoby, columnist for The Boston Globe and self-described practicing Jew, responded. “And so it begins again — the annual effort to neuter Christmas,” he wrote, “to insist in the name of ‘inclusiveness’ and ‘sensitivity’ that a Christian holiday celebrated by something like 90 percent of Americans not be called by its proper name or referred to in religious terms.” And Jacoby continued, “suppressing the language, symbols, or customs of Christians in a predominantly Christian society is not inclusive. It’s insulting.” Imagine the horror if Christians started referring to the Menorah as a “Holiday Candelabra.” Or worse, the renaming of Ramadan, the Muslim holy month.

But many did not take heed to Jacoby’s thoughtful piece. The latest assault on Christmas in 2017 A.T. (After Trump) comes wrapped in ribbons and bows from Boston University.

As reported by New Boston Post’s Evan Lips, the assistant director of B.U.’s Core Curriculum, Kyna Hamill, who is also a senior lecturer, argues that the Christmas carol “Jingle Bells” has “racist origins.” In her research paper “The Story I Must Tell:  Jingle Bells in the Minstrel Repertoire,” Hamill writes, “The legacy of ‘Jingle Bells’ is one where its blackface and racist origins have been subtly and systematically removed from its history.”

Cover the kids’ ears and delete the downloads. Hamill determines that the song’s origins “emerged from the economic needs of a perpetually unsuccessful man, the racial politics of antebellum Boston, the city’s climate, and the intertheatrical repertoire of commercial blackface performers moving between Boston and New York.” Halt the sleigh!

This song now joins other Christmas music featuring offensive gestures, suggestions, implications, as only deep-thinking progressives and/or arrested-development academics can muster:  “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” (bullying, LGBT youth allegory); “Santa Baby” (seduction); and “White Christmas” (no explanation necessary).

Not to be forgotten, of course, is the now-scurrilously controversial “Baby, It’s Cold Outside.” Though written in 1944, as America was fighting a two-front battle liberating freedom across the globe during World War II, current interpretations hear sinister connotations (date-rape and slut-shaming). Last year, given these sensitive times, the song was rewritten by a millennial singer-songwriter couple — modern-day Puritans — to emphasize “affirmative consent.” 

But not all reason and hope are lost.

A surprising defender of the faith, if not the music, comes in the form of Massachusetts Atty. Gen. Maura Healey. Appearing last year on the WGBH radio show Greater Boston, she said “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” didn’t need a rewrite. “I don’t think that is necessary or accomplishes what we need to accomplish when it comes to the actual work we need to do,” she said. In fact, “I like the song … I like all these songs and I love this time of year when we’re hearing all these songs.” Healey’s statement is proof that a progressive can be right at least once in a lifetime.

As for readers of this column (and always-outraged social justice warriors in Boston): "Nollaig Shonadhuit! Mo’adim Lesimkha! Feliz Navidad! Merry Christmas!''

James P. Freeman is a New England-based writer, a former banker and a former columnist with The Cape Cod Times. This piece first appeared in New Boston Post. His work has also appeared in The Providence Journal, newenglanddiary.com and nationalreview.com.