By Adon Taft,

Many Americans see the present politically correct view of the holidays as a jihad against the Christian celebration of Christmas.

Retail chains now mandate that clerks greet customers with “Happy Holidays” rather than the traditional “Merry Christmas.” Scattered school districts have banned the singing of Christmas carols, and many have relabeled the holiday from classes the “winter break.” Nativity scenes or even decorated trees (if they are called Christmas trees) in public places prompt legal challenges because the observance of the Western world’s most popular and widely celebrated — whether by believers or not — religious holiday may be offensive to some.

But the knotty subject of Christmas has been controversial from the beginning. Scholars still debate when and where the birth of Jesus Christ, the event the holiday ostensibly marks, actually occurred. One thing is certain: it was not Dec. 25. It probably was in March or April in Bethlehem (because of where shepherds would have had their sheep at the time), though some scholars say October. The exact year is uncertain because of the change in calendars since that time.

It was three centuries later that Constantine, the first Christian emperor backed by a Catholic bishop, picked the December date. He wanted to give a Christian spin to the popular Roman festival supposedly marking “the birthday of the invincible sun.” The newly designated holiday would celebrate “the birth of the Son of God” in keeping with the Church’s view of Jesus.

At the time of His birth, the appearance of the baby acknowledged by Christians to be the Messiah, or Savior, had been seen by King Herod and his religious advisors to be a threat to the authority of the monarch and the state religion. So, according to the biblical account in the book of Matthew, the king ordered that all the infants aged 2 or younger in the Bethlehem area be put to death in hopes of including Jesus among those slaughtered.

Tipped off by an angel, Joseph and Mary had taken Jesus to Egypt where they waited until the death of Herod before returning to Israel to raise Mary’s son, whose life and death was and remains controversial.

It was what many take to be the deeper meaning behind the sweetness and light most of us associate with the birth of the baby Jesus and today’s celebration of Christmas that brought conflict of religious ideas and eventually the violent physical death of Christ on the cross. For believers, that was the ultimate meaning — that the sacrificial offering for man’s sin had been made by God Himself after spending a short life on Earth as a godly man teaching and showing the way to a forgiven and everlasting life.

Consequently, the death of Christ meant more to the early Church than the anniversary of Jesus’ birth which had no particular significance in the Church calendar before Constantine. Since then, the observance of the holy day has been sporadic, in part because of its association with the pagan holiday and subsequent pagan traditions such as the Christmas tree.

Any celebration of the Dec. 25th date was banned in 17th century England under the Protestant rule of Oliver Cromwell and in the early days of colonial America. It was a crime to celebrate that day in Massachusetts from 1659 through 1681.

But by the 19th century in this country, the celebration of Christmas — spurred by such events as the publication of literary works such as Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, Washington Irving’s The Keeping of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall, and R. H. Hervey’s The Book of Christmas — was growing in popularity.

Alabama became the first state to make Christmas a legal holiday, in 1836. By 1907 every contiguous state had followed when Oklahoma proclaimed the holy day an official holiday. Similar growth in the recognition of the event occurred in Europe and other parts of the world.

Secular and commercial observances of the season blossomed along the way. Macy’s department store first stayed open till midnight on Christmas Eve of 1867 and in 1874 was decorating its windows for the occasion. Today, the store-sponsored, nationally televised Christmas parade is a staple of the season.

Now not only do some Christians feel threatened by what they consider a jihad against the observance of their holy day, there are complaints that the holiday is too commercialized and has lost its “good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.”

“And suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God, and saying, Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, goodwill toward men.”—Luke 2:10-11,13-14

Adon Taft is the retired religion editor of The Miami Herald.

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