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When Starbucks announced that their 2015 holiday cups would simply be red, a debate flared over whether the company was conducting a “War on Christmas” with its rather neutral expression of holiday cheer. But modern concerns about a war on Christmas are hardly new, writes Carl Philipp Emanuel Nothaft: In fact, the first war on Christmas occurred in the 16th century.

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Though it’s widely accepted that December 25th is not the actual day of Jesus’ birth, the date has been controversial since the popularization of the holiday. Nothaft writes that during the Reformation, bitter arguments arose over the date. December 25th came into popularity in the 8th century, when the Venerable Bede, an English monk, used the date of the winter solstice as Christ’s birthday. Bede formed his opinion using Latin sources that emphasized solstice symbolism, but also hinted that the birthday could have fallen earlier.

The date remained uncontested until the 16th century, writes Nothaft. When scientists and chronologers took up the question, they tried linking together biblical events with the plausibility of things like a census being called during the rainy winter months. One scholar, Beroaldus, even suggested that Christmas be moved to the autumnal equinox instead.

Anti-Catholic sentiment led to acrimonious debate as well. Protestant theologians, struggling to separate themselves from Catholicism, also attacked the church’s calendar. Nothaft writes, for example, that Swiss theologian Rudolf Hospinian suggested that the Catholic church chose December 25th in order to convert the pagan Roman Saturnalian feast into a Catholic one.

“The debate over Jesus’s birth date was more than a sterile and technical question of historical chronology,” writes Nothaft—rather, it was rooted in Calvinist and Reformist rejections of existing forms of worship. By attacking the historical basis of Christmas, Protestant theologians could challenge Catholic dogma and lay claim to religious practice. The argument culminated when the Puritan-led English Parliament banned the celebration of Christmas in 1647.

Christmas was reinstated in 1660 when King Charles II was restored to the monarchy, but debates about how and when to celebrate it have continued throughout the centuries. Perhaps the next time you pick up that red cup, it will remind you of the timelessness of the debates over a seemingly-timeless holiday.


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Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. 72, No. 4 (October 2011), pp. 503-522
University of Pennsylvania Press