The Pilgrims of old New England, we have read, had to work on the very first Christmas they spent here (1620); Christmas was routinely dismissed as a "Papist" invention. In fact, observance of Christ’s Nativity was generally outlawed before the second half of the 19th century (1856). According to Father Francis X. Weiser, "those who refused to go to work on Christmas Day were often dismissed," and, in New England, factory bosses would "change the starting hours on Christmas Day to five o’clock" so as to deliberately make Mass attendance impossible without the risk of losing one’s job. And up to 1870, public schools demanded full attendance, with sanctions threatening suspension for noncompliance. (Handbook of Christian Feasts and Customs: Harcourt, Brace, 1952)
Has anything changed, really? Isn’t Christmas under assault today from various quarters in American society, from avowedly atheistic sources as well as the aggressive forces of compulsive secularism and a pseudo-sophisticated coalition of mindless academics and the media? (Included in this group are those who disrespect religion and those who ignorantly propose that anything religious does not comfortably "fit" according to the absurd theory that God and God-talk can never be inserted into the public forum.
There are people who literally hate Christmas, and they are the ones who keep "getting the press" (as the saying goes). Somewhere each December, certain ominous "predictions" about Christmas are inevitable; e.g., court action aimed toward destroying a neighborhood Manger Scene; advertisements selling "holiday shopping bargains," new regulations banning caroling in public schools which (it is rarely emphasized) depend upon taxes paid as much by Catholics as by others, the widespread co-opting of religious traditions, Christmas symbols such as the Christmas tree, Christmas lights, Christmas foods and customs – without any historical attribution.
Christmas is undoubtedly a religious observance; the very descriptive derives from "Christ" and "Mass." Growing up here in Connecticut, I was immersed in the Catholic meaning of the Solemnity, and never needed to explain it to a world that alters the true significance of words and events by inventing descriptives to suit their own agendas (e.g., "pro-choice" to mask the term "abortion," which is the deliberate destruction of an innocent human life). (Death is what is chosen in the usual "pro-choice" disguise.)
The Christmas tree is a religious symbol, one which Christians in general embrace and hold sacred. There is a special blessing for the tree given in the Church’s official Ritual. It is not simply a secular item, regardless of what some media or schools or even courts have said (without prejudice to their legal competence, of course). Christianity is rightly ours, in other words, and as Christians, we take pride in it. If others do not like it, that is their problem.
Why is it that those who assault or undermine religious practices are applauded for "feeling offended"; do Christians ever try to compel non-Christians to display a Christmas tree? Can’t others step aside and let Christians live by their traditions and devotions? Those who claim to be "offended" by Christmas trees are not being forced to follow suit.
Moreover, carols also go to the heart of Christmas. They are beloved by us. In a sense they are minor "credos." Each time we sing or hear "O Holy Night" (Contique de Noël), we kneel in spirit before the great Mystery of the Incarnation, one of the four principal doctrines of faith. We rehearse, in a special way, our belief that the Second Person of the Blessed Trinity became incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary and was born into our world as our Savior. This is our faith. Others are free to adopt this same faith. We do not coerce its acceptance nor forbid others to respect our way. The same doctrine is there, for special expression, in the Adeste Fideles or Stille Nacht.
There are those who do not accept the doctrine underlying Christmas carols. But they are free to believe or not to believe. Why should we be penalized or ridiculed or assaulted for what we believe? Are Catholics not free to express their faith? Even publicly?
Christians, it occurs to me, should really be more cautious about what stores they frequent at this time of the year. Stores that avoid the word "Christmas" can hardly be said to be tolerant toward Christians. Isn’t the basic reason for Christmas shopping contained in the very word, Christmas"?
Aren’t we as Christians, engaging in gift-giving this time of the year in response to Christ our Savior’s reaching out to us? Do not the Christmas tree and Christmas carols remind us of the same?
Why are we insulted or rejected for all this? The answer lies in Simeon’s prophecy spoken over the Infant Christ; namely, like him, we too are "Signs of Contradiction" in an often rather hostile world.
Thus, we heartily cry out, this season, "Merry Christmas!" (The word "merry" originally meant, in old English, "blessed." This is why the Christmas carol "God rest ye Merry, Gentlemen" has a comma after the word, "merry.")
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript