Christians Claimed It First, but Businesses Made Christmas Their Own

By Shankar Vedantam
Monday, December 25, 2006

Fifty-five years ago yesterday, priests at the Dijon Cathedral in eastern France enacted a rather unusual Christmas pageant for the benefit of several hundred schoolchildren: They hanged and burned Santa Claus.

The priests accused Santa of occupying more and more space during Christmas and compared him to the cuckoo, which usurps the nests of other birds. What would those priests do today, in an age when inflatable Santas dot the landscape? They would probably say Santa got off too lightly back in 1951.

Were the priests right? Arguments about the meaning and symbolism of Christmas are now an annual ritual and often spring from the idea that the festival has one unchanging meaning. But even a brief history of Christmas reveals a different portrait: The festival has been claimed, rejected and reinvented over the centuries. Festivals such as Christmas reflect a nation's culture and psyche, and as the nation has changed, the meaning of Christmas has also changed.

"The dynamics of culture and society are played out in these events," said Jack Santino, who studies folklore and popular culture at Bowling Green State University in Ohio. "The deepest, most serious problems and values of a society as a group are dramatized by how people celebrate and who they celebrate with and who they identify themselves with."

Perhaps the earliest claim on Christmas was the strategic decision by the early church to Christianize non-Christian festivals that occurred around the winter solstice.

"In the early centuries of the church, they debated whether they should fix a date to celebrate the nativity," explained Santino. "They chose December 25: 'People are celebrating the birth of the sun, and we should convince them to celebrate the birth of the Son.' "

The growth of Santa as the predominant icon of Christmas in much of the world grew out of the efforts of retail wizards such as John Wanamaker and Rowland Hussey Macy, founders of the modern department store. Much like the early church fathers, Wanamaker and Macy systematically laid claim to a Christmas of their own making in the 19th century.

By this point, said Russell W. Belk, a sociologist and anthropologist at York University in Toronto, Christmas had already been through several incarnations -- Christians in the United States had initially resisted Christmas because it was seen as tied to the Catholic calendar, but waves of European immigrants brought traditions of Christmas celebrations with them. Still, the idea of giving gifts to relatives was not the norm, especially among English immigrants, where Christmas gifts were primarily seen as acts of benevolence toward servants and slaves.

"A Christmas Carol," Charles Dickens's 1843 morality tale about a greedy merchant transformed by Christmas into a generous soul, was part of the process by which Christmas became a festival that primarily celebrated the family. But even as millions of people were moved by the redemptive tale of Scrooge, real-life merchants were far more likely to change Christmas than to be changed by it, as Leigh Schmidt, the head of Princeton University's religion department, pointed out in his book "Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays."

Business magnates who had once protested that holidays such as Christmas were a drain on the economy spotted the business potential of Christmas and encouraged the idea of gift-giving among family. Where Christmas gifts had once been primarily about charity, advertisers and marketers encouraged the notion that Christmas was primarily a family celebration and stressed the importance of reciprocal gift exchanges for friends and relatives. By the 20th century, American marketing geniuses led by Coca-Cola had seized on the advertising potential of Santa Claus. Although Santa's ancestors in Europe and Asia had various religious connotations, the modern Santa is an American invention, with growing appeal in Europe and around the world.

"Coca-Cola to some extent owns Christmas," said Belk. In the 1930s, he added, "they had a painter commissioned to do one painting of Santa Claus every year . . . it seems likely that the red color of Santa's outfits came from Coca-Cola's paintings."

Children in non-Christian and non-religious homes in the United States now expect gifts at Christmas -- and the practice is increasingly popular around the world as well. Santa is huge in Japan, for example, where Christians make up only a tiny slice of the population. In the United States, Christmas celebrations have also exerted a gravitational force on non-Christian festivals: Hanukkah and Kwanzaa share the modern Christmas notion of giving and receiving gifts.

The annual disagreements about the meaning of Christmas reflect the competition to define Christmas in a diverse nation. For a religious and still predominantly Christian nation such as the United States, Christmas remains Christianity's most important claim on the public calendar. This Christmas is very much about Jesus. But for a nation that also worships at the altar of capitalism, Christmas offers a good part of the retail economy a chance to move the accounting ledger from the red to the black. The patron saint of this Christmas is Santa Claus.

© 2006 The Washington Post Company