Ruckus Around the Christmas Tree -- as Usual

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By Penne L. Restad
Sunday, December 25, 2005

At last, Christmas morning. May we now declare a truce in the Christmas culture war? All those poor salespeople who struggled to remember whether company policy was to greet shoppers with "Happy Holidays" or "Merry Christmas" are free to relax and settle down around their Christmas tree or holiday tree or whatever other seasonal symbol they prefer and celebrate in their own private way. For celebrate Christmas is something that almost all of us, apparently, do. A recent poll says 96 percent of Americans observe the holiday in some way or another.

In my house, the children, old enough to have wised up to Santa, waited patiently for us to build a fire and make coffee before they retrieved their old sequined red-felt stockings. Next came the gifts. I come from a tradition of morning openers. Some families insist on Christmas Eve, but that's not our way. At some point, we'll prepare dinner, but not for a while.

And so it goes, as it has gone in my family -- and in most of America -- for generations. Christmas has been our nation's most important holiday for well over a hundred years. But culturally, it's always been more than a religious day, however much the people who have pushed so hard this year to put "Christ back in Christmas" wish it weren't so. Moreover, just like this year, it has always been fraught with tensions.

From a rowdy public festival that upset Puritan sensibilities, it gradually came to center on home and family. But even then it generated complaints. People worried whether stockings full of toys and treats would spoil their children. They fretted over finding the appropriate gifts . And certainly over this: "Christmas has become too commercial." (What I want someone to tell me is: How much is just enough commercial?)

These past few seasons have been different. Yes, Christmas comes earlier and earlier every year (at least one person is obligated to say this each October). But as our nation becomes more diverse, we seem to be getting more and more confused about the holiday. I found this season particularly difficult. Whenever a salesclerk rang up my purchases and said "Merry Christmas!" I sized her up. What did she mean by that? Who told her to say that? If I don't say "Merry Christmas" back, will she think I'm an atheist? I became equally suspicious of the salesperson who exclaimed, "Happy Holidays!" Did I have to say the same back to him?

"Happy Holidays" as a greeting had actually served me well for a long time, especially with strangers. I didn't care if they were observant Christians or Wiccans or Jews or Buddhists. I just wanted to share a good feeling. But now there are those who want to establish Christmas firmly as a Christian holiday. Others protest that this is tyranny. A vast middling sector feels something like Rudolph caught in the headlights.

The battle of Season's Greetings got me down. So much controversy. Perhaps I am just overly sensitive, maybe a bit crabby. But it all makes me wonder what next season will bring, and the ones in the years following. For all of us, this year's Christmas culture war raised key questions about the holiday. What is Christmas? Who owns it? Do we need it? What will happen to Christmas as we know it?

As someone who has studied the history of the holiday in this country, I know this isn't the first war over Christmas. Its very origin almost guaranteed controversy. The Church created Christmas in 4th century Rome to compete with a December Saturnalia that had become increasingly focused on the veneration of Mithras, the sun god. Faced with what appeared to be the emergence of a competing monotheism, the Christian fathers countered with a Feast of the Nativity to be celebrated, strategically, on Dec. 25, in the very midst of the Roman revels. That Christmas survived for centuries after was due to the fact that it made ample room for the profane.

The Pilgrims and Puritans who settled New England 13 centuries later attempted to deal with Christmas by banning it. The Bible, they pointed out, makes no reference to an invented birthday for Jesus, let alone advocates revelry. When Plymouth Colony's Gov. William Bradford awoke one Christmas day to find that many of the non-Pilgrim colonists were in the streets, rowdily playing ball and generally having a very good time, he was angry, and scolded them for disrupting the settlement. If you have to keep Christmas, he warned, do it inside and out of our sight.

But generally, there were few quarrels about keeping Christmas in the colonies. Beyond New England, most other settlements varied in their tolerance and observance. Traditional religious and folk customs dictated the Christmases most settlers kept. America had become host to such a variety of Protestant denominations that their local practices produced not one American interpretation of Christmas, but many. Pennsylvania's Quakers, for example, had long testified against the keeping of Christmas. Episcopalians brought fresh greenery into their churches. Where Germans lived, Belsnickel, a sort of furry, stricter version of Santa Claus, demanded that children properly recite Bible verses. In the late 1700s, Philip Vickers Fithian, a New Jersey tutor at Nomini Hall in Virginia, experienced the schoolboys' ritual of locking the school master out of the school, a prelude to a holiday of "Balls, the Fox-hunts, the fine entertainments, and the good fellowship." The Christmas sermon, he noted, lasted but 15 minutes.

In the 1820s things began to change. Rapid growth, a thriving middle class and flourishing commerce heralded the emergence of the nation's market economy and a new, more standardized Christmas. It took shape in the cities, where residents put a new premium on civility, order and sentiment. The demands of business compressed the holiday from a season into a single day, and the raucous holiday street antics that had increasingly disrupted property owners ceased. Respectable citizens moved Christmas into their homes. They began to decorate Christmas trees, expect a visit from Santa and exchange gifts. For them, the question was not about religion, but about a well-regulated urban life and a proper place for family within it.

Moving Christmas off the streets solved some cultural tensions -- only to raise new ones. These tended to concern the amount of money and work involved in the festival. Merchants learned to capitalize on the sentiment of the season, and the subsequent intensification of shopping and gift-giving prompted more than one complaint that the holiday had grown wearisome. "One-half the populace seems possessed of a wild desire to purchase the things the other half has for sale," wrote an editorialist in one late 19th-century newspaper. But as time passed, the pairing of Christmas and commerce became even more tightly interwoven . And so it continues to be. Each year the amount of money spent on the holiday rises -- a new Gallup poll reports that this year the average shopper planned to spend more than $700 on gifts -- something the solvency of countless businesses depends upon. One might argue that the commercial aspect of Christmas has become the real basis of the culture's December unanimity.

In fact, it is the very promise of a unified culture that has created the latest tensions over December's celebration. Beginning with the idea that many of us participate in the seasonal buying spree, a vocal argument runs (although it is more unspoken than forthrightly asserted) that we are participating in Christmas as Christians. Therefore, "Merry Christmas" is the appropriate greeting. But this may not be the case. According to a 2001 study, 77 percent of Americans identify themselves as Christian. While this is a significant majority, it indicates that -- if the 96 percent Christmas-observers figure holds true -- some 19 percent of us who just opened gifts aren't necessarily Christians.

As we contemplate the meaning of Christmas this year, should some portion of the society be excluded from participating in our nation's foremost holiday? I hope not. I think the festival is more expansive and generous than that. Yes, we all come together in the public marketplace, but privately each of us highlights different aspects of the holiday. Maybe Christmas means doing something for someone less fortunate, or honoring Jesus's birth, or singing with a community of believers in church, or taking joy in children's delight -- or even savoring a Chinese meal and taking in a movie. The point is that we all find "merry" in our own particular way. It is not a matter of a consensus of speech, and certainly not of belief.

No, I see our celebration of Christmas as uniquely American -- it invites free expression. For Christmas to survive (and I'm sure business will adapt to meet whatever it determines the consumer wants so that it can ensure this), our private Christmases must continue to hold meaning for us.

So, I'm still confused. The historian in me knows that Christmas is always changing, but I have no idea how we might celebrate the holiday, say, 50 or 100 years from now -- except that it won't be the same. I just know that last evening, finally, it all quieted down. I went home, closed the door (gently), and have been enjoying my private Christmas ever since. I hope that all of you, in your own ways, are too.

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Penne Restad is the author of "Christmas in America: A History" (Oxford University Press). She teaches history at the University of Texas at Austin.

© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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