Many social conservatives want to see a "War on Christmas," but probably more accurate a description comes from the title of Steven Nissenbaum's history of the holiday, The Battle for Christmas. It's not so much that we have a war on Christmas as we have had over the centuries a lively debate about what Christmas is and isn't. And yes, through the years some people have wanted not to celebrate it at all (but mostly those people were Christians--more on that later).
The date December 25
was taken for Christmas back in the 4th century, not because anyone had
evidence that this is when the famous little tyke was born, but because
those crafty Christians wanted to annex the pagan winter festival. From
the Roman Saturnalia onward it was--and remained--a time of drinking and
debauchery for many centuries. In 16th-century England, it was the
center of a festival of misrule, in which people boozed it up, and the
poor went door to door essentially demanding "trick or treat"--give us
good food or money or gifts or we'll wreck $#!+. Think of carols like
"We wish you a merry Christmas" and all its demands for figgy pudding,
as well as all the wassailing songs and their demands. "Here we
come a-wassailing," for instance, first reminds the listener that "We
are not daily beggars / That beg from door to door, / But we are
neighbors' children / Whom you have seen before"--and then they go on to
ask for money, cheese, some of the Christmas loaf, and (of course!) some
wassail. And in "Wassail, wassail," after they spend innumerable verses
building up the master of the house, they get to the point, asking for
drink and to be let in by the fire.
The holiday as a
festival of misrule was basically accepted by the upper classes, too, as
a sort of pressure valve for the lower classes. The social hierarchy is
inverted once a year: no big deal. The wealthy would get angry with
particular wassailer or particular acts (the common folk could get pretty rowdy and
destructive if their demands weren't met!), but overall the drinking and
singing and demands for food and drink and gifts were tolerated.
exactly this reason, Christmas had a hard time making its way across
the pond. The Puritans outlawed it on the basis of its nature as a
holiday of drinking and debauchery, as well as on the argument that the
Bible doesn't indicate when Jesus's birthday was, thus God has no
interest in having us celebrate it. Nonetheless, people rather like an
excuse to drink and revel, especially in the bleak midwinter, so it
continued on the edges of legality in New England and had a bit more
success in other parts of the country. Since it couldn't be ended, it
ultimately ended up tamed--by a rather unlikely force.
the mid-to-late Nineteenth Century, retail stores were just starting
to take off. Standardized manufacturing was just getting going on a
large scale, and retail stores were outlets for all these material
goods. The problem? America was firmly entrenched with the so-called
Protestant Work Ethic. That is, people worked hard, saved their money,
and didn't buy stuff they didn't need. Retailers knew this would never
do, so they are the ones who took the largest steps to inventing the
Christmas holiday as we know it. They made Santa Claus big (okay, years
of cookies and 2%-to-whole milk did that) and they marketed
Christmas as a time of love and good-will and--you guessed it--gift
giving. They employed writers to create the stories that presented this
kind of Christmas. They made people nostalgic for a type of Christmas
that hadn't even existed before: a warm, cheery, wholesome holiday--and
it became precisely that. The St. Nicholas mythos got drawn into it (and
St. Nick pulled to Christmas from his normal place at--duh--the feast of St.
Nicholas in early December). And some of our ideas were just flat-out made up. In the
process, Christmas went from being a public holiday to a private one,
from one celebrated in the streets with the community to one celebrated
at home with the family. From a drunken revel for adults to a child-centered holiday of gift giving.
I didn't get much further in
the book, but I reckon it likely that, once commercial forces had
sanitized Christmas and made it good and pure, Christianity decided it
was high time to get back in the Christmas game, and they set about
re-holy-daying it. That is, they claimed it for their own now that it
was a wholesome time. And who can blame them? It's a nice little
But, of couse, retailers did their job too
well. We've gone from the protestant work ethic to the consumerist spend
ethic, and whether we work enough or not, by Visa we can spend! We
don't just spend the money we have, we spend the money we will have, which is just a more positive way of saying the money we haven't.
As the culture has changed and become more materialistic, so too has
the holiday become ever more materialistic. Religion, naturally enough,
fights against this tendency (we're reminded that "Jesus is the reason
for the season," i.e. not Santa Claus or gift-giving). So, too, do more
secular types who nonetheless see something negative in crass
Secular though I may be, I have at least
that much spiritualism that I mistrust unchecked materialism--even as I
enjoy the hell out of a limited degree of it. Because yes, I like stuff,
just like most Americans do. But not to the exclusion of all else, and
not beyond a certain point. There's a limit to how much stuff any person
needs, and there are a lot of things more important than stuff. As long
as we don't lose sight of those philosophical touchstones,
gift-giving during this season is a wonderful, wonderful thing.
Gift-giving is--to steal a phrase--an outward and visible sign of an
inward condition. It's most meaningful when it comes from the heart and
speaks to the heart, when it's freely given and not expected as a duty.
me, Christmas isn't a religious holiday, though they're welcome to keep
claiming it. It's a social institution that's evolved through many
different forms and ultimately is--or will be--whatever we make of it.
Although the name puts a distinctly Christian stamp on it, our brief
look at its history shows us what an uneasy time religion has had
throughout the centuries in trying to claim it. That's why I say it's a
social institution: it has shaped our culture and been shaped by
our culture, and anyone who participates in that culture, it seems to
me, has a claim on that tradition in whatever form they choose to stake
that claim. There was a festival at the winter solstice before
Christianity claimed it by naming it Christmas, and I'd wager that in
many places there was such a celebration long before Jesus was born. We need a
holiday at this time of year, which is probably why many religious
traditions--as well as non-religious traditions--have a holiday at this
time of year. I suspect that even if something happened that caused
everyone to cease believing in Jesus, we'd probably still celebrate
Christmas, because it's just the sort of thing we want.
Never has that been more true than now, when I have one little girl and another on the way--the magic of Christmas has become for many of us the magic of childhood, as we adults are fueled by their excitement. And really, both of our mythologies speak to this reverence for childhood, whether it's the story of Santa Claus bringing toys to good little girls and boys or the story of a child born in humble circumstances and destined to change the world.
In the interest of full disclosure, I should say two things: 1) this is based almost exclusively on Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas and 2) I've published versions of this in three previous years on this and my former blog.