Jason Zweig's argument rests on the work of Stephen Nissenbaum and Penne Restad, two authorities I've relied on more than once. On the strength of that I consider his argument sound, at least to the extent he argues Christmas went from a time of flamboyant excess in celebration to: “As soon as Santa Claus entered the picture,” says Prof. Nissenbaum, “people had to go shopping.”
Good enough to begin with. But it also utterly demolishes the supposed connection between Christmas and Saturnalia. It's a Christmas myth that just won't die,
even though Saturnalia has been dead as a holiday since at least the middle of the 4th century. The myth lives on because it sounds clever, and clever is easier than thinking. And because the cold, dead hand of Puritanism still rests on American popular culture.
For New Year, Posumus, ten years ago,
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!
That's Marcus Martialis, the 1st century Roman poet, tr. James Michie. The tradition of gift-giving there is between friends; not parents to children. The connection of Christmas Day to Saturnalia usually runs through the gift giving associated with the latter. This was gift giving between peers, though, not the gifting to children from adults through Santa Claus. (Nissenbaum points to that as a major shift in the 19th century.) Gift giving was associated with Christmas celebrations, mostly in the form of gifts to the poor from the rich. But these gifts were usually food and drink. That tradition has withered down to Boxing Day, not surprisingly a holiday unknown in America. Gift giving today is primarily an inter-family affair. The burden on adults at Christmas is gifts for children, not for friends. Saturnalia was about gifts to friends. And as I say, the Roman holiday died 1500 years before Clement Clarke Moore brought capitalism to Christmas’ rescue.
So, was Christmas connected to Saturnalia at all? Nope.
(that link is for those of you who want to get into the historical weeds of the issue.)
The Christ Mass was first observed in Alexandria, Egypt. Saturnalia was a Roman holiday. And by “Roman” I mean “City of,” much like Mardi Gras in this country means New Orleans, or Mummers means Philadelphia. Rome celebrated it, but not Alexandria. And by the time the Mass for the nativity was starting in Egypt, Saturnalia was already considered the “slave’s festival,” and on its way out in Rome. It overlapped the rise of the Christ Mass (not to be confused with the secular celebrations we call “Christmas”), but it no more affected our secular holiday celebrations than Mardi Gras celebrations in New Orleans affects our national non-observance of Epiphany or Ash Wednesday. If only because the roots of our secular Christmas lie in medieval Europe, not Roman Europe.
Most of the celebrations of Christmas we have today (in America, anyway) have roots in Tudor England and the court of Henry VIII. There was gift giving, but to my earlier point, Henry expected the best gifts to come to him. He was rather how you imagine Donald Trump to be on Christmas morning: his gifts are small, what he expects to receive is large. Not exactly the spirit of Saturnalia. Peer to peer gifting was far in the future from Henry; adult to child giving further away still. Today Christmas is for children, first and foremost. What Roman or pre-Christian history is that rooted in (indeed, concern for children is arguably a Christian teaching. It certainly isn’t a pre-Christian one)?
Henry’s Christmas celebrations also lasted for 12 days and included many feasts (mostly because the food was available and food storage almost nonexistent. Use it or lose it was the rule for much of Europe for centuries). It included the “Lord of Misrule,” usually a courtier given license to lead the drinking and carousing and general carrying on. That doesn’t reach back to Rome, either. But Puritans in America, like Increase Mather, tried to argue that it did.
In the Apostolical times the Feast of the Nativity was not observed....It can never be proved 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.
--Increase Mather, 1687.
“If it had been the will of God that the several acts of Christ should have been celebrated with several solemnities, the Holy Ghost would have made known to us the day of his nativity, circumcision, presentation in the temple, baptism, transfiguration, and the like.” . . . . “This opinion of Christ’s nativity on the 25th day of December was bred at Rome.”
Also Increase Mather.
Here we meet the great irony of American myths about Christmas. Most of them are thinly-veiled attempts to tell Christians their beloved Christmas is actually pagan. The irony is that argument starts with the puritans in America who aimed their criticism at Catholics (and Anglicans). The Puritans didn’t believe Catholics were Christians (or almost anybody else), so the cudgel they laid down is now picked up by others. Whatever the Puritans deemed “unChristian” they labeled “pagan,” and most commonly used that label to decry Roman Catholic practices. So if you’re concerned about the roots of practices, the practice of saying customs were “originally pagan” is itself originally anti-Papist. You’re really appealing to anti-Catholic bigotry, not to sweet, objective Reason.
Know your memes.
I mentioned Penne Restad earlier. Let me quote from her work Christmas in America, a bit:
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.
Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America, Oxford 1995, p. 7.
On the same page, Restad quotes William Prynne's Histriomatrix (1633):
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.
In fact, the idea that capitalism saved Christmas may be a sound one, but it doesn't mean Christmas sprang full-blown from the pen of Mr. Moore in 1823:
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
That passage is quoting an English actress touring America in 1832 (what there was of it). I especially like that "curse of labor" line, since the European celebrations of the season were meant to be a relief from that curse. But good Puritans that we Americans are, we still take our holiday all on one day and one day only, and work like dogs to get to it, and work almost as much to get over it. Gift giving and Christmas didn't get connected really until the late 19th century; there are some arguments the whole "shopping days until Christmas" didn't start until World War II, when shopping became a patriotic act (and a way to lift us out of the Depression). I'm not sure most Americans had even heard of "Saturnalia" in the 1940's.
But the connection of Christmas to parties among adults (or office parties) and Santa for the kids on Christmas morning, is really of very recent vintage; and it's a very modern, very tame version of Christmas compared to celebrations of the past. And the "past" does not mean "long passed:"
"Christmas that year, not one to look forward to, was one we should alway look back on."
That's the opening sentence of "Looking Back on Christmas" by William Owens. I don't know if it's memoir or fiction, but it's become one of my favorite Christmas stories. It's the story of a family gathering in rural Texas on Christmas Eve. The family gathers, then sits down to dinner, and after dinner:
After the first table [old Texas tradition my family carried on with in my childhood: the men ate first, then retired, and the women and children ate. Yeah, my wife was appalled by that, too, and it was long before we were married that she encountered it.] the men and the bigger boys built up a big fire in the pasture between the house and the front gate. Then, while the women stood on the front porch to watch, Uncle Charlie gave the little children firecrackers and showed them how to shoot them. He put a paper fuse against a live coal. When it had lighted he threw it away from the fire into the dark.
"Don't ever let one go off in your hand," he said, "And don't throw it close to nobody. Somebody might get hurt."
While we went through the firecrackers he had given us, the men made a trip back to the kitchen. This time they brought the jug with them and set it in the back end of a wagon. They brought out more fireworks, and Monroe had the sack of powder in his coat pocket.
"Time for a roman candle," Uncle Charlie said.
He took a long red roman candle and went to the fire.
"You all watch now," he said, "I'm gonna hold it like I was aiming to shoot the gate."
Charlie runs into the dark and let's the candle shoot balls of fire, then he gets Othal to join him in a roman candle battle. Full disclosure: I once did something similar with my cousin, although in summer, not winter. We used plastic tubes from his golf bag to launch bottle rockets at each other. We didn't even have the excuse of alcohol, we were just young and dumb.
Anyway, you get the flavor of the celebration. Firecrackers going off, then roman candles being fired at each other in close range. Then when those are exhausted and everyone's tired of running around and through the house:
Uncle Charlie was not ready for the fun to be over. He went up the steps and across the front porch. Aunt Niece was standing in the door, with the lamplight behind her. He lifted her chin with his fingers and went on past her, to the chimney corner where he kept his double-barreled shotgun. Then he came out with the gun under his arm and a box of shells in his hand.
Near the fire, he loaded both barrels and set the stock against his shoulder.
"You aiming at the gate?" Othal asked.
"You got to aim at something."
He fired, and after the first blast we heard shot rattle against the gate.
"Got it first shot," Othal said, and ran for his own gun.
In no time at all, five guns were blazing away at the gate, and the little children were running for hiding places under the house. I shivered at the sound, but felt safe, for their backs were to us and they were aiming at the gate.
Then Othal came running around the house, loading and firing as he ran, and some of the others took after him. The women had run inside, but I could hear them telling the men to stop. Too scared to stay under the house, I crawled out and started for the door. In the darkness I can straight into Otha's knees, and he let a double-barreled blast go off right over my head, leaving a burning flash in my eyes and a ringing in my ears.
The gate was "a wide, heavy gate made of oak timbers fourteen feet long and an inch thick." However, the next morning: "We went to look at the gate, and found it half hanging from the posts, with the timbers drilled and splintered by shot." The story ends this way:
Uncle Charlie came in with a backstick for the fireplace. My grandmother was waiting for him.
"You ruint the gate," she said.
"I reckon we did."
He laughed and the light in his blue eyes showed he was not sorry. She frowned and went out to the front porch.
Aunt Niece came in, with a peeled orange in her hand.
"Christmas gift," he said to her.
She went up to him and stuck a slice of orange between his teeth. They were both laughing without making a sound, and once he leaned over and kissed her.
"I had me some Christmas," he said.
Not so long ago, that story. It wasn't just in the 1800's that Christmas was a lot different.