Monday, December 20, 2010

Christmas Wars and Battles: a general history of a major holiday that's sometimes private

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 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' chidren / 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 (they could get 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.

For 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, therefore 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.

In the mid-to-late ninetheenth 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 pulled to Christmas from its normal place at (duh) the feast of St. Nicholas. 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.

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 holiday.

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 materialism.

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.

For 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's 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 every religious tradition--as well as non-religious traditions--has 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.
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 two previous years on my former blog.


  1. Of course, to the Puritans wealth (and the moderate display of it) was a sign of God's grace. "If I can afford this house, this car, this lifestyle, surely God approves of me." Similarly, poverty was a sign that one did not have grace. We've just given those concepts a shot of steroids.

    I'm with you, though; the winter solstice is the perfect time for a holiday. There is something sacred about it, no matter what your theology.

  2. That's a good reminder, that there *was* a basis for conspicuous consumption hidden in American culture, even if it did have to wait for mass production to really flourish. I've taught American Lit often enough that shouldn't have left out that strand!