Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin recently came out with a book about the Christmas season, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas. It's both a tribute to the winter holiday—there's a recipe for Christmoose Chili and Rice Krispie Treats—and a screed reflecting her perception of an American attempt to destroy the December holiday season. As she writes: "There are many people who haven't merely lost, misplaced, or forgotten the true meaning of Christmas, they're trying to actively target it to destroy it. And these true Scrooges have a frightening amount of power."
"Amidst the fragility of this politically correct era," Palin said when introducing the book, "it is imperative that we stand up for our beliefs before the element of faith in a glorious and traditional holiday like Christmas is marginalized and ignored."
If Christmas is really under attack, this is news to most Americans, who celebrate the holiday to ridiculous excess. Americans spend some $3 trillion a year on Christmas shopping and celebration. Almost 20 percent of all industry sales in the entire country come from holiday shopping. Some 12 percent of Americans start Christmas shopping in September, and many stores this year will open on Thanksgiving Day to give Christmas shoppers a head start on their buying. If there's really a war going on, Christmas is winning.
But Palin's book comes as part of a longtime conservative concern that there's some PC liberal war on Christmas, and Christianity itself. Last year, conservative commentator Bill O’Reilly (admittedly no supporter of Palin) referred to a war on Christmas as "symbolic of the entire culture war."
"Legions of media ... have formed a secular clown posse," he explained, and "some far-left folks want to diminish Judeo-Christian tradition and rename the Christmas tree." Wow. "Secular forces" O'Reilly said, were "on the march."
Use whatever metaphor you'd like, but "war" might be slightly melodramatic. And historically insensitive. There has been a war on Christmas before, a very real war that resulted in widespread death and dramatic change to the way people celebrated the holiday.
In the aftermath of the Russian Revolution, the Soviet Union instituted a program to rid the country of all religious behavior. Top of the list: Christmas. Communist leaders worked to actively suppress Christmas, and all other Christian celebrations, as bourgeois and superstitious. There were several anti-religious campaigns, the most dramatic of which occurred in the 1920s. According to a piece published by the School of Russian and Asia Studies:
In 1925, Christmas was effectively banned under the officially atheist Soviets, and was not to return to Russian lands until 1992. The New Year celebration usurped the traditions of a Christmas Tree (Ёлка), Santa (known in Russian as "Дед Mopoз" or "Grandfather Frost"), and presents. In the Russian tradition, Grandfather Frost's granddaughter, the Snow Maiden (Снегурочка), always accompanies him to help distribute the gifts. Elves are not associated with the holiday.
The state prohibited people from selling Christmas trees. There were even festivals, organized by the League of Militant Atheists, specifically to denigrate religious holidays. Their carnivals were inspired by similar events staged by activists after the French Revolution. From 1923 to 1924 and then again from 1929 to 1930 the "Komsomol Christmases" and Easters were basically holiday celebrations of atheism.
This was about as much fun as it sounds. According to amateur historian (and just sort of all-around entertaining British guy) Humphrey Clarke:
On Orthodox Christmas day ... processions formed up at noon and paraded until dark. The marchers included students, members of women’s organisations and working class youth, with horsemen following behind holding anti-religious banners. These were followed by trucks bearing clowns mocking God, a figure of God embracing a naked woman, and mock priests and rabbis chanting indecent versions of religious liturgies and standing in ridiculous poses. This parade culminated in images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Osiris being burned on the bonfire.
During the same period, soldiers destroyed churches and appropriated their assets. They removed all Christmas decorations and declared the 25th and 26th days of December "Days of Industrialization." This meant that everyone had to go to work all day to celebrate national industrialization. Factories missing workers could punish them for truancy. Under Soviet leadership, soldiers and bureaucrats also converted houses of worships into bath houses, granaries, and "museums of atheism."
During the first five years of Soviet power, Bolsheviks executed more than 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests and 28 bishops. In the 70 years of Soviet rule, it is estimated that the state murdered between 12 and 20 million Christians in its various anti-religious campaigns.
In 1922, in reaction to a famine in Russia, Soviet leaders began a campaign to appropriate church valuables. Soviet leaders arrested and executed bishops, priests, and the devout laity for refusing to surrender church property for the sake of helping the starving people. One archbishop was buried alive. Another bishop was apparently strapped to the paddle wheel of a steamboat and cut up by its rotating blades. Eight metropolitans, 20 archbishops, and 47 bishops of the Orthodox Church died in the Solovki Camp of Special Purpose, the first Russian concentration camp, in the 1920s. Tens of thousands of laymen were executed by firing squad for their collaboration with the church.
Between 1929 and 1940, the Soviet government eliminated churches, such that there were almost 30,000 before the campaign began and fewer than 500 Orthodox across the country just 11 years later, according to Dimitry Pospielovsky in A History of Soviet Atheism in Theory, and Practice, and the Believer. Schools instituted anti-religion classes and infused anti-religious sentiment into all courses taught in Soviet schools.
According to a 1945 article published in Workers International News:
In order to get funds for buying foodstuffs abroad in order to relieve the famine, the Soviet Government decreed the confiscation of gold, silver and precious stones belonging to the Church. The Patriarch ordered the clergy to resist and a bitter struggle resulted in the course of which 45 clergy were executed and 250 sentenced to long terms of imprisonment.
Religion, they believed, could be liquidated, like the kulak, by a stroke of the pen. The Society of Militant Atheists, under Stalin's orders, issued on May 15th 1932, the "Five Year Plan of Atheism" – by May 1st 1937, such as the "Plan", "not a single house of prayer shall remain in the territory of the USSR, and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for the oppression of the working masses."
But it didn't really work out that way. The people of Russia, somewhat sensibly, just transferred their traditions to another day. New Year's Day became celebration day (they had it off anyway), complete with a New Year's tree.
In 1937, Father Christmas, re-engineered as "Father Frost" or Ded Moroz, returned to public life in Russia. With Joseph Stalin's approval, he appeared at the Moscow Palace of Unions to celebrate the season and distribute gifts. Stalin ordered the performer to appear in a blue coat, apparently so no one would think he was that Santa.
Soviet holiday decorations also included a Mrs. Claus-type figure, Snegurochka ("Snow Maiden"), and someone called New Year Boy, in Nativity-like scenes. The practical Soviet leaders realized that if Ded Moroz could play Santa, he could just as well do double duty as St. Joseph.
Christmas became a public holiday again after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991. And the New Year's tradition remained. Today, in a nation famed for its vodka-fueled drunken excess, New Year's remains a night in which most people stay home with their families.
Palin writes that "the war on Christmas is the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture, and make true religious freedom a thing of America's past. The logical result of atheism, a result we have seen right in front of our eyes in one of the world's oldest and proudest nations, is severe moral decay."
She worries about a future visiting a grandson at a college where the institution has expelled all of the Christian groups and academic administrators equate the end of Christmas celebrations with the end of slavery.
But, despite what the former governor thinks, there is no war on Christmas here in the United States. But even if there were, all of those traditions, and probably even Palin's moose chili, would survive just fine. Maybe we would just eat it on a different night.