War on Christmas: The Prequel

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Let’s not let the sideshow in Tennessee -- where, pretty much on cue, politicians have been waxing indignant over the call for “inclusive holiday celebrations” at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville -- distract us from the real war on Christmas: the one nobody at Fox News wants discussed.

Early campaigns to abolish the holiday form a largely forgotten chapter in American history. They were part of a larger cultural war, inspired if not actually led by the intellectual elite in Europe. Today the educational system and mass media of the United States make sure that everyone knows that Thanksgiving was first celebrated by the Pilgrims. But they somehow never get around to telling us about the Pilgrims and the other late-year holiday, the one they loathed: the ungodly, blasphemous abomination known as Christmas.

First things first. We need to go back a little farther in history to consider the cutting-edge scholarship of the 16th century. The hot field of the day was chronology, a controversy-laden discipline that you do not hear much about anymore and haven’t for a while. It was in part a response to the flood of new information coming into Europe about other parts of the globe and amplified by the invention of the printing press.

Chronologists scrutinized -- and struggled to integrate -- the historical record available from Jewish and Christian Scripture, the pagan authors of Greco-Roman antiquity, and newly available secular material from the Levant (what today is usually called the Middle East), such as the lists of Egyptian dynasties. The goal was to piece together into a coherent, consistent timeline running from the Garden of Eden down to the present. Chronologists knew they would eventually have to incorporate the records of far-flung civilizations in the Orient and the New World, but the documents at hand by the mid-1500s presented more than enough challenge at the time.

And the stakes were enormous, given the rift in Christendom. There were Catholic specialists in chronology, to be sure, but the painstakingly critical re-examination of the historical record had a particular urgency for reformers. Any established doctrine or traditional religious practice was fair game. If it did not find sanction in Scripture, it was surely a Romish affront to true Christianity -- and the Protestant chronologist could not help noticing that the Gospels were conspicuously silent on the date of Jesus’s birth.

Starting in the third or fourth century, it had been celebrated on Dec. 25. But as Carl Philipp Emanuel Nothaft writes in “From Sukkot to Saturnalia: The Attack on Christmas in Sixteenth-Century Chronological Scholarship,” the chronologists had no great difficulty challenging the date. (Nothaft is a long-term fellow at the Warburg Institute in London; his article appeared in the Journal of the History of Ideas four years ago.)




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