Sunday, December 12, 2004

So, where did Christmas come from?

First, if you want the "definitive" history, go to Penne Restad's Christmas in America (Oxford University Press, 1995). I'd also recommend The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum.

There are a lot of traditions around "Christmas" that are as old as America itself. One is not going to church on Christmas Day. The Puritans considered that "too Papist," so the day itself didn't even figure on their religious calendar. Not surprisingly, the observance of Christmas day services still lingers only among those churches closest to the Roman Catholic (well, in the Western traditions), and in rural areas (the German country church I pastored in seminary continued the tradition;we "revived" it with a "communion" of hot chocolate and cinnamon rolls; a cause of some concern in the seminary community, by the way.). And, when the holiday was observed, it was seldom done in a "religious" manner, or for religious reasons.

The fact is, few holidays were celebrated in America as late as 1832 (glancing through Penne for this; this post is not a scholarly review). And actually the Christmas we observe now (or wish we observed) is made almost entirely of nostalgia, formed of unequal parts of Dickens' four Christmas novels, and Washington Irving's essays on a "traditional" English Christmas. Dickens and Irving appealed to a sense of a "family" holiday, instead of a communal one (the first Thanksgiving, for example, went on for 3 days. It takes a village to throw that kind of party). And that appeal slowly turned the tide, just as the middle class was beginning to rise in both Europe and America (at the same time as the Romantic movement became mainstream, and for the same reasons. It's no accident the Christmas tree is first observed in Germany by Coleridge, and comes "quickly" to England and America.)

The other culprit that helped: Moore's "Night Before Christmas." Remember Santa, the peddlar from whom nothing is to be feared? That was Moore domesticating the holiday, making it safe for middle class families.

Obviously, it's complicated, and this isn't doing the subject justice. But the very idea that Christmas was once a religious holiday that's been corrupted by the world is wrong. It has always been a "worldly" holiday; which was the main reason the Puritans objected to it. Cotton Mather (who really wasn't all that bad), asked: "Can you in your consciences think that our holy saviour is honored by mirth, by long eating, by hard drinking, by lewd gaming, by rude revelling, by a mass fit for none but a Saturn or a Bacchus, or the light of Mahametan Romandon?" Sound familiar? And to at least some of that, my answer (given the actions of the Jesus of the Gospels), would be: "Yeah!"

There's more to be said about it; especially how the holiday was "domesticated" by Clement Moore. But there has always been a "battle for Christmas," even over the name "Christmas" (Xmas?), and probably there always will be. And it will always be two different holidays: one for gifts, one for observant Christians. It is, really, the point at which the two coincide and, largely, reconcile.

1 comment:

  1. i find it rather strange how in the same words of admittance to a pagan day the desire for observance of that day - i personally think that people choose to incorporate or change things even within religion to suit their environment, to do what makes them feel most comfortable.

    as the 25th of december is / was a day of remembrance for the birthday / rebirth of the sun god, in the same way as easter has nothing to do with Jesus, the name even being derived from a goddess, the adoption of the pagan festivities and therefore the sanctification of them to be called by another name i consider to be pure and unadulterated hypocrisy. even if you call a spade a fork, no matter who you fool into accepting it as a fork, a spade is what it remains.

    the concept of family may well have developed from the books quoted, yet that still deviates from the reasons for it being named Christmas day and further continues to pull the wool over peoples eyes so to speak, although i think that in essence most people prefer it that way - to see only what they desire to see.

    to even consider that paganism and christianity can reconcile in some way is in itself an anomaly. it is the need for a sense of belonging that drives people to religion and that also drives them to incorporate the things that make them feel comfortable into that as well. i can understand that and accept that, but i think it should be done with reality and facts in mind, instead of under a blanket of hypocrisy.