Friday, November 11, 2005

Yes, Virginia, there is a "War on Christmas"

But it didn't start with "liberals" and the U.S. Supreme Court:

"Into what stupendous height of more than pagan impiety...have we not now degenerated! [Christmas out to be] rather a day of mourning than rejoicing, [not a time spent in] amorous mixt, voluptuous, unchristian, that I say not pagan, dancing, to God's, to Christ's dishonour, religion's scandal, charities' shipwracke and sinne's advantage."
You want to hear someone rail against Christmas, John Gibson? You could learn a thing or two from this guy.

That's from William Prynne's Histriomastrix (1633), quoted in Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America (New York: Oxford 1995, p. 7). Prynne, as you might imagine, was a Puritan, in England, in the 17th century. Their issue was the issue of my grandparent's Primitive Baptist lay preacher: "whether there should even be an observance of the day." Maybe the "liberals" have more in common with the Puritans than we realized, eh, Bill O'Reilly?

O'REILLY: By the way, if Alito is confirmed, that will be a good thing for conservatives. That's the bottom line. Because Alito will take a more traditional view than a [Supreme Court justices Stephen G.] Breyer or a [Ruth Bader] Ginsburg. OK? He'll look at things, and he'll say, "You know, the Founding Fathers didn't want partial-birth abortion. The Founding Fathers didn't want all mention of Christmas stricken from the public arena." That's what Alito will do. He's a traditionalist. He's going to rule that way.
Now, "Founding Fathers" obviously would have to be stretched a bit, here, but since the Founding Fathers included Puritan New England, we should start the question of the "War on Christmas" by asking: when did this start? And it turns out it started long before the nation was founded.

In fact, it started with those "Pilgrims" whose landing on Plymouth Rock we'll be celebrating in a few weeks. As Restad puts it:

It fell to Puritan reformers to put a stop to the unholy merriment [of the English Christmas celebration, which had little to do with giving gifts and much to do with getting drunk] and to bend arguments over the proper keeping of Christmas into an older and more basic one--whether there should even be an observance of the day. Defying the decisions of the Anglican Convocation of 1562 to maintain the church calendar, the Puritans struck Christmas, along with all saint's days [no Hallowe'en!], from their own list of holy days. The Bible, they held, expressly commanded keeping only the Sabbath. That would be their practice as well.
Restad, p. 7

The Christmas Dickens tried to re-create actually arose about this time, interestingly enough. Shanges in social life actually transformed Christmas "into 'a symbol for hospitality towards the poor, and understanding between the different levels of society, and happier and more prosperous times in now neglected villages.' King Charles I went so far as to direct his noblemen and gentry to return to their landed estates in midwinter in order to keep up their old style of Christmas generosity."

I mentioned the Pilgrims. They "arrived at Plymouth in December 1620, [and] spent Christmas building 'the first house for commone use to receive them and their goods.' " And, in words that I could find on the Internet today, Increase Mather wrote in 1687:

In the Apostolical times the Feast of the Nativity was not observed....It can never be proved t that Christ was born on December 25....The New Testament allows of no stated Holy-Day but the Lords-day...It was in compliance with the Pagan saturnalia that Christmas Holy-dayes were first invented. The manner of Christmas-keeping, as generally observed, is highly dishonorable to the name of Christ." (Restad, p. 14)
Because, as I said, people drank a lot, and got rowdy. Dishonoring the name of Christ in the name of commercialism came after Clement Moore's "Night Before Christmas." (This according to Which, of couse, is the Christmas Mr. Gibson and Mr. O'Reilly want to preserve. And they defend it so they can make money off of it.

But let's come forward a little bit. By 1832, surely Christmas was being observed in America. No, not according to the English actress Fanny Kemble:

Christmas day is no religious day and hardly a holiday with them: New-year's day is perhaps a little, but only a little more so. For Twelfth-day, it is unknown; and the household private festivals of birthdays are almost universally passed by unsevered from the rest of the toilsome days devoted to the curse of labor."
Restad, p. 17. Other 19th century Americans remember only Thanksgiving and the 4th of July as holidays; Christmas was not celebrated.

According to Restad's history, this didn't change until about the middle of the 19th century. Which means O'Reilly is right: "The Founding Fathers didn't want all mention of Christmas stricken from the public arena." It wasn't there in 1776, anyway. Or at anytime in the 18th, into the mid-19th, century. Whether or not it should be "stricken from the public arena" was never a question for them.

Christmas became an official national holiday on June 26, 1870. (Restad, p. 104) And then the second "war on Christmas" started: the war on what it should be about. Clement Clark Moore did more to change that than Ebenezer Scrooge did, actually. Moore's poem "The Night Before Christmas," another historian has argued (and my inability to find that book this morning has caused great consternation in the household), turned the home invader (which some of the rowdier Christmas revels turned into) into a kindly old peddler who meant no harm, and only brought beneficence, not drunkenness and mayhem. And from then on, the "war" was over what commercialism was doing to the "Christian holiday."

(The book is The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum. Finally remembered that much.)

Which culiminated, I guess we could say, with Charlie Brown.

So Mr. Gibson's "war" is just the newest front in this on-going battle. And he and FoxNews are just bringing the forces of commercialism to bear, once again, in defense of Christmas, for the purposes of....commercialism.

Really brings Christmas close to a person, doesn't it, Charlie Brown?

[UPDATE: Found my copy of Nissenbaum's book, finally. I'll try to post some of his more interesting insights as the holiday nears. He has a great deal of information about the "traditional" celebrations of Christmas, and how and why it became such a commercial holiday in America, as well as how tightly it has ever been connected to more somber religious observances.]

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