Catholic Transcript Magazine of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Hartford Connecticut

Tuesday, April 24, 2018

MsgrLiptak_TNQ. Is it really true that our Pilgrim forefathers once actually prohibited the celebration of Christmas here in New England?

A. Not only was Christmas once outlawed here in New England, but, after reading the signs of aggressive secularism and materialism, it could happen again.

The Christmas celebration was introduced to North America by missionaries (e.g., the French "Blackrobes") and immigrants both Catholic and protestant. Spanish settlers here (e.g., in Florida) celebrated Christmas as early as the 16th century; the French in what is now Canada, during the 17th century.

Nonetheless, the Puritans who settled in New England viewed Christmas largely as a "papist" invention. In Boston, Christmas was an ordinary working day until at least 1856, and laborers who refused to work on Christmas Day were either docked in pay or, in many cases, dismissed from their jobs. Father Francis X. Weiser, whose historical survey I rely upon in this area, recounts that factory managers or owners would even schedule earlier work hours than usual (e.g., beginning at 5 a.m.), deliberately to prevent their Catholic personnel from attending Mass. And up to 1870, in Boston, public schools were in session; among penalties for noncompliance was public dismissal.

Immigrants from, first, Ireland, France and Germany; then from southern and eastern Europe, really turned the tide, as it were, in publicly observing Christmas in America. All of them brought the Christmas Crib or Manger; the Germans, especially, transplanted the Christmas Tree. The Irish emphasized Christmas candles in windows. And all carried with them their traditional Christmas carols (e.g., Adeste Fideles, Silent Night) as well as legion Christmas foods and other customs (e.g., "Christmas Angels," the blessing of unleavened wafers known as Oplatki; the placing of straw under tablecloths).

Of course the Christmas Liturgy is another chapter. It includes the Midnight Mass, plus the "three Masses of Christmas," plus the ringing of special bells for the hour preceding midnight. There is also the custom of placing a statue of the Infant Christ in the Manger before Mass (or during the Liturgy of the Word).

Because of various forces hostile to Christianity (or to religion in general) arrayed against the celebration of Christmas today, Catholics have a special calling not only to defend Nativity customs, but especially to embrace them in their homes, neighborhoods, towns and cities.

The Christmas story, as related by St. Luke, bids us all to "be not afraid," in the words of the angel. Take a stand; be not afraid. This is a very holy time of year; Christmas needs safeguarding.