First, Christmas as we know it in America didn't really get started until the 1820's. It wasn't widely celebrated until the 1860's, and didn't become an official national holiday until 1870. So the "observance" of it (whatever that means) is not all that old. (For a bit of perspective, A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, and many scholars today attribute the "revival" of Christmas celebrations in England to Dickens). And from almost the moment the holiday was observed as a holiday, it was connected to commerce. So the connection between Christmas and shopping, in America, is as old as Christmas in America itself.
Now there are all kinds of nonsense about Christmas being "stolen" by the Church from pagan rituals, as if the Church were a monolithic power which imposed its will on people, or performed clever subterfuges to foil their innate desires, or simply forced them to "Christianize" what were otherwise "pagan" rituals. Which is, anthropologically and historically and even sociologically speaking: balderdash. As succinct and reliable a history as any on the Web is at New Advent, the Catholic encyclopedia. It's notable that the Christ Mass (from which "Christmas" is derived) didn't exist until the 11th century (quite some time after the collapse of the Roman Empire, and the extinction of the Empire's culture. Not too many Saturnalia's going on in the 11th century, in other words.). The first recorded observance of the birth of Christ (which is what, according to Linus Van Pelt, "Christmas is all about". I'll explain my "neutrality" on that point in a moment) is in Egypt in 200 C.E. Again, not a hotbed of Roman culture. Undoubtedly, though, the same Roman culture which inspired the idea of a republic among the "Founding Fathers" in America, and gave London it's "circus," and left behind ruins that the Danes who told the story of "Beowulf" thought the work of "giants," left its mark on celebrations around the time of the winter solstice. So probably there was a habit of exchanging small gifts among friends at the time eventually set aside for Christmas. But it wasn't the church that "stole" that from the pagans because they needed it. As I say, the Church seems to have gotten along without a formal recognition of Christmas for most of its first millenia. (If you want an idea how winter became the birthdate for Jesus, look at the New Advent link above. There are as many explanations as there are scholars to explain it, though, so don't imagine any one explanation is the "truth."). It wasn't, as I say, that "the Church" stole anything (and the distinction between the Church and the people will become important in a moment). More like something survived, or more likely, was revived. Which means the modern assumption:
Capitalism has of course very successfully colonized established holidays, in much the same way as Christianity nicked Halloween, etc., from the pagans. Christmas is nowadays pure capitalism; Santa is all about the advertising, and the marketing, and the purchasing of consumer products, despite what the kitsch figurines tell you.is not all that historically sound. Which is where I want to take us, tripping lightly through the thorough and excellent scholarship of Penne L. Restad and her book, Christmas in America (New York: Oxford University Press 1995). It is from that book that the historical information in this post, comes.
The fact is, Christmas as we know it and celebrate it in America, is pretty much an invention of the market place, and has only and ever tangentially been related to Christmas as a religious observance, as the "Christ Mass" held to honor the birth of the Savior. It's more like the two celebrations occur coincidentally at the same time of year, than that one is a vulgar and degrading corruption of the Platonic ideal of the other. Once you understand that, the picture becomes much clearer; or perhaps darker.
If you want to understand how Christmas got started in America, consider the example of the European Feast of Fools. As New Advent says, it was "a celebration marked by much license and buffoonery." Scholars again differ on the reach and importance of this festival; some crown it as a n important "release valve" of the tensions and pressures of feudal society. Others, like Michel Foucault, downplay it was limited to northern France and a few other regions of Europe, and always opposed by the Church. The lesson for us is that this 'feast' was a folk celebration, not a church one, and its irreverence was tolerated by the Church because they couldn't stop it, more than it was encouraged as a way of reminding the peasants of their place in the hierarchy (a comparison to Christmas in the slave holding South will prove instructive here, if I remember to mention it again). Christmas, too, was a folk celebration, one more honored in the British South (thanks to the presence of the Episcopal church) than in Puritan New England (where it was officially banned for a time, in at least some of the New England states). Restad's history presents Christmas as largely a folk celebration, in contrast to Thanksgiving, which was vigorously promoted in the 19th century by Sara Josepha Hale, who did more than any individual to promote Thanksgiving as a national holiday (ironically, the objections to it were on church/state grounds. It was argued that a national day of giving thanks would violate the First Amendment, an objection that was finally obviated by the times, when Lincoln established that later became the holiday) Aside from the religious entanglement objection, Thanksgiving was regarded as more of a "New England" celebration than a national one, for much of that century. Christmas, on the other hand, crept into public celebrations from many lands and many hands, and was early on largely disconnected from any religious observance, and while promoted as connected to the Christchild, was really no more dependent upon Church sanction than it is now. The idea, in other words, that there was a "pure" Christmas observance once upon a time, which the marketplace or the public square corrupted, is as false as the idea that the Christmas celebration we know now descended in an almost unbroken line from the Saturnalia. It just happens that people like an excuse to exchange gifts and eat a lot of food, and especially for people from a northern European culture, winter is a jolly good time to do that.
The interesting thing about Christmas in America is that it's always been a glorious bastard, a jackdaw of a project grabbing "Christmas trees" from Germany (which may, or may not, be related to the "Paradeisbaum" of the medieval German morality plays) and decking the halls and boar's heads and feasting from England (which may or may not be related to, or even influenced by, Druidic practices. It's always seemed like a bit of a stretch to me to go from kissing under the mistletoe directly back to Frazer's "golden bough"). Carols were a medieval creation coming, per Restad, from pagan folk dances that people liked and simply "Christianized" (like most things, the Church couldn't beat 'em, so it joined 'em), although many of the carols we know today are products of the mid- to late 19th century (so it goes). As Restad points out, Christmas in America was cobbled together from European bits and pieces, and the parts that fit in America stuck, and the parts that didn't fell away.
We forget, too, that America initially had no holidays. Europe had them because of the church, which was universal throughout the different countries of Europe, and because of local customs. But without a universal church, or established local customs, America went, for almost a century, without any national holiday which all citizens could claim as their own. Ironically, again, that holiday became Christmas; but not because all Americans were, or were even presumed to be, Christians.
Stephen Nissenbaum argues that the American Christmas was formed more by Clement Clark Moore's poem than any other single source. Accepting his position arguendo, what is most notable about "The Night Before Christmas" is that it creates a holiday and the celebration of it, without ever getting closer to religion than the word "Christmas" (which the Puritan New Englanders despised as a "Romish" word, but which, by Moore's day, had lost almost all religious connotation). This was more a feature than a bug in the 19th century. Dicken's Christmas Carol comes closer to invoking the religious reasons for the season, but he does it mostly in terms of Victorian sentimentality, than in terms of any church doctrine. Penne Restad points out that Christmas was grabbed onto by merchants in America almost as soon as it emerged as a public celebration. The emergence of the holiday coincided with a renewed interest in the power and importance of domesticity, an interest probably prompted by the Industrial Revolution and the quick acceptance by Americans of the ideals of the Romantic movement. Personally I think it was a combination of Romanticism and the Pietistic movement of the 17th century, which effects lingered long in a Protestant dominated culture, but Restad makes clear the connections between the desires for domestic values and the importance of a uniting holiday, one everyone could gather into despite cultural ("Germany" as we know it, for example, didn't exist in the 19th century. We often overlook how many cultural differences there were between Europeans, differences that carried over into America) and doctrinal differences. In this sense, Christmas was the first truly "American" holiday. Grafted onto European roots, without doubt; but made a holiday both observant Christians and non-Christians (and yes, there were some, even in the 19th century!) could engage in. It's not at all insignificant that Christmas in America began as a religious observance almost anyone could join, and quickly became a public holiday everyone could revel in. And aside from the Puritan's objections to the holiday's Catholic roots, it was the revelry they objected to almost as much.
I have a book of Texas related Christmas stories, one of which tells the fictional story of an East Texas Christmas celebration. The celebration consists largely of a family gathering in the isolating woods of East Texas farms, and the children setting off firecrackers, followed by the men firing off guns and drinking rather heavily. To modern sensibilities, it's a bit of a frightening tale, and you keep expecting someone to get hurt in the semi-controlled mayhem. The climax of the festivities comes when the men take their shotguns and fire at the target of the gate down the drive from the house. They end up splintering it into kindling, and it was a nice, new gate. Fireworks exhausted and shotgun shells expended and whiskey consumed, they go to bed and wake early the next morning to eat a simply country meal. But the story closes with the family patriarch, who did the most damage to his own gate, kissing his wife (in public!) and grinning widely as he says: "I had me some Christmas!" No presents, no treats, no store-bought goodies except the firecrackers and the shotgun shells, but a raucous celebration nonetheless. Connected to the Feast of Fools, or Saturnalias? Not likely; but as I say, it's a good time of year to celebrate a bit freely.
As for the Roman Saturnalia, this will give an idea how it was celebrated:
For New Year, Posumus, ten years ago,I'm not sure what the Church took from that, but it wasn't much of a bargain.
You sent me four pounds of good silver-plate.
The next year, hoping for a rise in weight
(For gifts should either stay the same or grow),
I got two pounds. The third and fourth produced
Inferior presents, and the fifth year's weighed
Only a pound--Septicus' work, ill-made
Into the bargain. Next I was reduced
To an eight-ounce oblong salad-platter, soon
It was a miniature cup that tipped the scales
At even less. A tiny two-ounce sppon
Was the eighth year's surprise. The ninth, at length,
And grudgingly, disgorged a pick for snails
Lighter than a needle. Now, I note, the tenth
Has come and gone with nothing in its train.
I miss the old four pounds! Let's start again!
Martial, tr. James Michie
Where were we then? Oh, yes: Christmas has always been two things at once, especially in America. It's never been a particularly religious holiday, so much as it's been a holiday named for and celebrated around a religious observance (which is still more honored in the breach than in the keeping). Christmas became, almost as soon as it was universally celebrated, a celebration of hearth and home, of domesticity (to this day, does a Christmas tree remind you first of Rockefeller Center, or of your childhood home?) Restad shows us that the Christmas tree itself became an American custom because it came with stories of German families gathered around a small tree on a table top, revealed in all its decorations and offerings of presents by the parents to the excited children. It was the American twist that the tree got bigger and bigger until it had to scrape whatever ceiling it was placed under from the floor on which it had to sit. Some things truly never change.
So is our Christmas ruined by all this commercialism? Depends on whether or not you agree with Linus about "what Christmas is all about." I like his answer, personally. But that's the answer for some of us; it isn't, and doesn't have to be, the answer for all of us. Let it be unto you according to your...well, faith, is how the German E&R Church concluded that blessing. But this isn't necessarily a matter of faith. So let it be unto you according to your best interest. Keep Christmas as it best suits you. And may it be a blessing unto you. Now, and into the ages.