A War on Christmas? What Christmas Are You Talking About?

What traditions does the phrase “the holidays” conjure for you?

Mad shopping crushes on Black Friday? Lighting the Hanukkah menorah? Trimming a Christmas tree?

In recent years, a new holiday tradition seems to have emerged in America. From pundits to Presidents, the airwaves fill each December with people decrying the so-called “War on Christmas.”

As a historian and museum President, I find myself wanting to ask “War on whose Christmas?”

Those bemoaning the “War on Christmas” harken back to a mythical past in which our nation all came together to celebrate the holiday in the same way. I’ve got bad news for these folks: those times never existed.

GettyImages-51242515 A contemporary cartoon showing the Archbishop of Canterbury, William Laud (1573 - 1645) at the dining table with a doctor and a lawyer, circa 1635. Kevin Jennings writes that, although Christian, Puritans made observing Christmas a crime, as they associated it with pagan traditions. Hulton Archive/Getty

The Puritans who came to New England in the 1600s, for example, actually made observing Christmas a crime, as they associated it with pagan traditions that predated the Christianization of the holiday.

What we think of as Christmas today – with the tree, the gifts, and the big dinner – was largely an invention of the 19 th century Victorian era, brought over to us by German immigrants. For most of our history, the “Christmas” pundits are so busy defending today didn’t exist.

Even in more recent times, the ways Americans celebrated “the holidays” varied widely. This holiday season we are opening a new exhibit at the Tenement Museum entitled Under One Roof, dedicated to the 20th century immigrant experience in America by telling the stories of families that lived in an historic tenement house at 103 Orchard Street in New York City.

When I think of the families whose stories we tell in this exhibit, I am struck by the different ways they observed “the holidays.” Holocaust survivors fleeing a war-torn Europe and arriving in America in 1947, Kalman and Rifka Epstein were Jewish, meaning they didn’t celebrate Christmas at all.

They may have very well have taken their daughters Bella and Blima out to a Chinese restaurant on Christmas Day (a common practice among many Jews): as they came from a non-Christian culture, many Chinese also did not observe Christmas, so Chinese restaurants generally were open for business on a day when many others were closed.

The patriarch of the Wong family, who also lived at 103 Orchard, worked in just such a restaurant, so he may have been serving families like the Epsteins on Christmas Day.

Bella Epstein’s best friend, Rosetta DiBenedetto, probably celebrated the holiday -- as many Italians do -- with the Feast of the Seven Fishes on Christmas Eve.

And the Velez family -- Puerto Rican migrants who arrived in the 1950s – may have celebrated Christmas but were also looking forward to Three Kings Day on January 6, when Puerto Ricans throw a huge celebration commemorating the arrival of the three “wise men” who visited Jesus on Epiphany.

The fact is, “the holidays” have always meant more than Christmas in America, and Christmas never meant the same thing to everyone, even Christians. So why are some folks so intent on rewriting the past to suggest we all used to celebrate in the exact same way?

I think George Orwell, in his prophetic novel 1984 , explained why when he said, “ Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past .”

By rewriting the past to reduce the multiple ways Americans celebrated the holidays to a single unitary “Christmas,” those in the present can cast suspicion on difference and project a future where we are all uniform: no room for different traditions, no room for new ideas brought by immigrants, no diversity in our nation.

Such a rewriting of history is not based in historical fact but in politics, and is not only disrespectful to our ancestors but dangerous for current and future Americans who don’t fit some prescribed “norm.”

Rather than celebrate a past that never existed, we should honor the past that did – one in which a diversity of holiday traditions were observed.

Diversity is what makes America America, and the different ways we celebrate the holidays is a wonderful and affirming reminder of the richness of our culture.

The “War on Christmas?” Bah, humbug, I say.

Kevin Jennings is the President of the Tenement Museum and served as Assistant Deputy Secretary of Education under President Barack Obama from 2009 to 2011. Founded in 1988, the Tenement Museum tells the story of American immigration through the personal accounts of immigrant families, allowing visitors to encounter immigration as a vital force in shaping the nation’s culture, economy, and society.