The Real War on Christmas and Other Weird Holiday Laws

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So This Is Christmas

If you buy into the annual "War on Christmas" argument, a 65% supermajority of the population is being persecuted by secular culture warriors who want to destroy the best holiday on the calendar. Probably for socialism. It's true that there was a war on Christmas at one point both here and in Europe. Far from liberal PC-police, however, those who waged the war were the moral and intellectual predecessors of many people who imagine it now — the Puritans. Today, the words "Merry Christmas" are exchanged openly even in America's most almondy-milky cities, but that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of odd and archaic laws, ordinances, and statutes that regulate the holiday season.

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The Puritans Actually Waged War on Christmas

American satirist H.L. Mencken famously said, "Puritanism is the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy." When the Puritan movement emerged in the 1500s in Anglican England, early leaders like Philip Stubbs lived that image by raging not only against vices like gambling and alcohol, but also theater, fashion, and even Christmas. Just like now, Christmas then was all about feasting, celebrating, and gift-giving, but the Puritans saw Christmas as a frivolous distraction from piety that encouraged immorality and excess. In 1645, they succeeded in getting the British Parliament to outlaw celebrations on traditional festival days — most notably Christmas.

Related: 15 Classic Destinations for an Old-Fashioned Christmas

oliver cromwell

Oliver Cromwell Upped the Ante

During his reign as Lord Protector of the Commonwealth of England, Scotland, and Ireland, Oliver Cromwell put his Puritan loyalties on full display when the holiday season rolled around. Running the show for much of the 1650s, Cromwell doubled down with harsh punishments for anyone caught attending or hosting a special church service on Christmas. In 1656, shops and markets were ordered to stay open on Dec. 25 — Sunday was reserved for strict religious observance — and military troops confiscated any food they believed was being prepared for celebratory Christmas Feasts.

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Bah Humbug Went International

Bah Humbug Went International

The British did with Puritanism what they did with everything else in the 17th century — exported it to its colonies. Three years after Oliver Cromwell sucked the joy out of Christmas in his neck of the woods, his counterparts across the Atlantic did the same. In 1659, Colonial America's Puritans outlawed the celebration of Christmas in Massachusetts, stating: "They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday." They also banned Easter.

Related: 41 Weird Laws From Around the World

Portrait of the President Ulysses S. Grant close up from 50 dollar bill
Dmytro Synelnychenko/istockphoto

Holidays Won the War

When Puritanism began to decline at the start of the 18th century, festive and celebratory holidays started making a comeback. Those sentiments came to a head on June 28, 1870, the greatest moment in the history of American holidays. That day, President Ulysses S. Grant signed a law giving Thanksgiving, New Year's Day, July 4, and Christmas Day status as federal holidays.

Related: Vintage Photos of Christmas Parades From When You Were a Kid

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There Are Still Some Odd Holiday Laws on the Books

The Puritan Christmas police handed down 5-shilling fines to anyone caught enjoying the holidays in Massachusetts. Oliver Cromwell outlawed caroling as sinful. Today, stores start converting to Christmas in late summer, Hallmark replaces Hollywood in December, and — despite the hysteria between commercial breaks for gold and reverse mortgages on certain news programs — there is no War on Christmas. There are, however, a few wacky laws on the books governing what you can and can't do.

Related: Classic Holiday Movies That Still Hold Up

Arkansas Bans Booze

Arkansas Bans Booze

Although only about three dozen of Arkansas' 75 counties are officially dry, Santa stays sober on Christmas statewide. If you were thinking of spiking the eggnog or holiday punch on Dec. 25, you'd better plan ahead. Arkansas bans all liquor sales on Christmas Day.

Related: A Century of Magical Holiday Photos

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Bill Oxford/istockphoto

But Drink Up in Indiana

It had been illegal to buy or sell alcohol on Christmas Day in Indiana since Prohibition, but the Hoosier State finally let its hair down in 2015. That year, then-Gov. Mike Pence, of all people, signed House Bill 1542, which repealed the longstanding statewide ban on selling booze between 3 a.m. on Dec. 25 to 7 a.m. on Dec. 26.

Related: Weird and Crazy Alcohol Laws Around the World

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Phake Trees in Philly

If buying or even cutting down a Christmas tree is a cherished memory and tradition, you might want to avoid moving to Philadelphia. Thanks to a particularly zealous fire code, natural-cut trees as "decorative vegetation" — aka: Christmas trees — are prohibited in multi-unit and high-rise buildings in the city. Single- and two-family homes can get the real thing, but for everyone else, it's polyvinyl chloride or nothing at all. 

Related: Creative and Unusual Christmas Trees and Decorations You Can Still Get

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Nicola Colombo/istockphoto

Light Trespassing in New Jersey

Across the river from Philly is New Jersey, which is infamous for its "light trespass" laws. Many towns there have the right to regulate outdoor light displays that are deemed to be excessive or directed toward a neighbor's house in an intrusive or annoying way. It's an inexact standard that is usually handled on a case-by-case basis, but in the Garden State, one-upping the Joneses on Christmas can only go so far.

Related: Dazzling Christmas Light Displays to Visit in All 50 States

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Keep Your Receipt

In Michigan, a law that dates back to the mid-1990s requires Christmas trees to come with proof of ownership. It's illegal there to cut, remove, or transport Christmas trees without a receipt or other "bill of sale" or "evidence of title."

Related: 32 Holiday Traditions That Are Disappearing


The Grinch Town of Wausau Finally Relented

When articles about a ban on snowball fights in the city of Wausau, Wisconsin, went viral in 2019, it was believed that the law was signed in 1962. It was since discovered that the Grinch-like ordinance dated back to at least 1884 — in Wisconsin, no less, a place known mostly for dairy and snow. The language in the law mentioned snowballs by name but intense media heat forced Wausau to reconsider. Then, in January 2020, one of the world's greatest winter pastimes became legal again in Wausau when the snowball ban was lifted. There's no word on pardons for the 10 or so people who received citations under the ordinance over the past 15 years.

Related: Beautiful Photos of Winter Wonderlands Around the World