How Christmas Became Part of
Our Western Tradition
Q. How and why did Christmas come to be so fastened onto the "Christian" West? Was the impulse behind it religious?
For many people in the West Christmas (Brumalia) is the season that mixes "memory and desire" and December becomes the cruelest month in the year. Christmas is above all an anxiety-producing amalgam of family intimacy and rank commercialism that neither satisfies the spirit nor the senses.
As to how and why Christmas came to the United States (to take one example -- we have discussed how it came from Germany to the United Kingdom), is a very interesting tale. I don't think anyone will dispute that Santa [interesting that this is an anagram of 'Satan'] is more central to Christmas than Christ.
Stephen Nissenbaum, author of a new book called, The Battle for Christmas, and professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, writes: "There never was a time when Christmas existed in as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism". From the beginning, he insists, Christmas American style has been "commercial at its very core."
In the very beginning, as we all know, there was no Christmas. The Puritans of New England suppressed it, even for a time forbidding it by law. For one thing, they argued, the New Testament gives no date -- or season -- for the birth of Christ. For another, Christmas was identified in their minds with pagan rites and with papist practices. The puritan rule proved quite brief. Colonial Christmas was more like carnival time, when rowdies sullied the streets with public displays of eating and drunkenness. One custom was particularly disruptive: the "wassailing" in which packs of lower-class youths and workers would lay siege to the homes of the well-off, demanding free drink and food in a menacing game of trick or treat. Appeals to religion were unsuccessful. In Boston, first the Universalists and then the Unitarians opened their church doors on Christmas in the hope of bringing order to the yuletime chaos. But that brief experiment failed to dampen the raucous public spirit.
Until the first decades of the 19th century, Nissenbaum observes, Christmas "was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one." But by the end of the century it would be both. In cities like New York and Philadelphia, the "misrule" of Christmas mobs had become so widespread that it threatened civic life. Members of the emerging urban proletariat no longer confined their seasonal revels to their own neighbourhoods. The wealthy hired guards to protect their property. Shopkeepers barred their doors; innocent pedestrians stayed home.
Lacking anything like the sanctioned religious festivals of Catholic Europe, Protestant America invented a tradition for celebrating Christmas. In one of his many astonishing acts of historical reconstruction, Nissenbaum shows how Washington Irving and other New York "Knickerbockers" created in their stories a "tradition" of old Dutch family Christmas gatherings in the Netherlands that featured entertaining friends and family at home. But stories were not enough -- Christmas needed a myth.
Enter Santa Claus. In his poem of 1822, "A Visit from St. Nicholas", Clement Clarke Moore, the immensely wealthy son of New York's Episcopal bishop, gave Americans precisely the kind of non-threatening but "plebian" night visitor whom all classes would welcome. (His pipe, Nissenbaum notes, was short -- the kind working-men smoked -- not long, like those of the gentry). No longer a bishop, St. Nick still played the patrician rôle of distributing gifts to the dependent class. But instead of the working poor as a whole, the object of his largess was children.
Within five years of its publication, Moore's poem became a Christmas staple. More to the point, newspaper editorials began to speak of Christmas as "a festival sacred to domestic enjoyments." Although public drinking and merrymaking continued -- as it does in some precincts to this day -- the "real Christmas", Nissenbaum notes, was gradually identified with rituals that centred on children and took place in the quiet of homes. The old yule spirit of "letting go" in December was transformed: what was let loose, says Nissenbaum, was the purse strings of the parents. If Christmas was a time for giving gifts, they had to be purchased. By midcentury, Santa Claus was a common figure in stories and advertisements. And here was the greatest transformation. In the benign figure of Santa Claus, the commercialisation of Christmas was hidden behind the most tender of parental emotions. It was a miracle for 34th Street. No wonder Christmas is so exhausting for those who celebrate it.
This is the story of how Christmas came to America. Though it is certainly an improvement on the earliest colonial form, is it right? Who does it honour? Has it improved the condition of the poorer classes? Does it teach children right principals?
I have read many testimonies of people who when they were children belonged to Christian homes which celebrated Christmas. They were taught to believe in Christ as their Saviour and in Santa Claus as the distributor of gifts in a flying reindeer. When they started growing up and discovered that the Santa Claus story was a lie they also questioned the truthfulness of the divinity of Christ. Many, many such people have lost faith, feeling they were tricked.
But what about those who are taught that Santa Claus is a myth? That is certainly an improvement. And as Christians we are all in favour of promoting family solidarity and love. But what of perpetuating pagan customs? The Bible clearly forbids this. And what of the financial excesses of Christmas, buying people things they usually don't need and can't afford? Hardly in line with Christian stewardship. That we should occasionally spoil our children with treats is fine but not make an institution of it where gifts become "expected". New Covenant Christians believe in spontaneous gift-giving in moderation.
The impulse behind modern Christmas is undoubtedly primarily commercial. It is a money-raking season. And despite its toning down it is still a time for raucous behaviour, and increasingly so as humanity slides further down into the cesspit of sin. I would not be surprised if in a century, in many countries, people are behaving at Yuletide as they once did in colonial America.
This page was created on 8 April 1998
Last updated on 8 April 1998
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