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War on Christmas? Blame Christians

Starbucks got a lot of flack because they used plain red cups this year instead of ones decorated with snowflakes as in years past.  Steven Colbert had a funny bit about it.

But did you know that from a historical perspective, it was Christians who don’t like to celebrate Christmas?

Christ was crucified as a criminal, and of course Christians were persecuted so it comes as no surprise that Christmas wasn’t celebrated for a few centuries.  The ancient Romans had a month long winter celebration of feasting and drunkenness in December, known as Saturnalia, named for the god Saturn.  These celebrations were more along the lines of Mardi Gras or Carnivale.  Juvenalia celebrated the children of Rome as well.  Mithra was another celebration in which shepherds came to worship him at his birth (sound familiar?)

The ancient Christian church was happy to have anyone claim to be Christian, and let them celebrate any way they wanted.  By the Middle Ages, in England there was some desire to have a special Christ Mass (later called Christmas).  However, even with a special Christmas Mass, Christmas was really a carnival, full of revelry.  According to Stephen Nissenbaum, a historian featured on the History Channel’s Christmas Unwrapped:  The History of Christmas

If you went to England around Christmastime, or anytime before say 1800, you’d probably feel ill at ease.  You wouldn’t think it was Christmas at all.  What would you think it was?  Maybe Mardi Gras, maybe New Year’s Eve, maybe Halloween because Christmas in old time England was really a carnival.

Narrator, “The houses of London were littered with brawling, drunken villagers and couples engaged in the most unholy activities, and each Christmas a student or beggar was temporarily put in charge after being crowned “The Lord of Mis-rule.”  The rest of the peasantry also go their once a year chance to grab power from the ruling classes.”

Nissenbaum, “They would go around to the houses of the rich, they would bang on the door and demand entry.  Once they were let in, the lord of the manor had to give them the best stuff that he had.  He had to give them his best food, the best beer, the best of everything.  But if he didn’t they would threaten or actually perform a trick.”

This does sound suspiciously like a Trick for Treat!  I think they have mixed up Halloween with Christmas.  Nissenbaum even notes some historical demographers noted a “bulge” in the conception on children around Christmas.

In the 1600s, Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans overthrew the English monarchy and in 1652 prohibited the celebration of Christmas, requiring shops to stay open.  Cromwell died in 1658, and Puritans weren’t able to keep control of the government and the monarchy was re-established in 1660 when King Charles II was restored.  One of his first acts was to restore celebration of Christmas.

Of course these same Puritans landed in Plimouth, Massachusetts in 1620 (it is now spelled Plymouth).  These Puritans were even more orthodox than those in England. In 1659, Christmas was outlawed in Massachusetts as they followed their English pattern, and even fined people 5 shillings for celebrating Christmas.  The ban in America lasted about 20 years, much longer than the ban in England.  But the ban wasn’t universal in the original 13 colonies.  John Smith, who settled in Jamestown, Virginia, didn’t have any problems celebrating Christmas back then, and they are noted for drinking eggnog (spiked with rum).

Following the American Revolution, Americans wanted to forsake English holidays, and decided to boycott Christmas.  Congress met in regular session on December 25, 1789 and continued to meet on Christmas Day for the next 67 years, almost to the time of the Civil War.

In 1828, the New York City Council instituted a professional police force in response to a Christmas riot.  Hoping to change the drunken ways Christmas was celebrated, Washington Irving and Charles Dickens wrote a some Christmas stories to change how Christmas was celebrated, focusing on rich and poor working together to bring Christmas goodwill.  A Christmas Carol is still a popular Christmas story.  From the DVD, the narrator notes,

19th century Americans were discovering Christmas after a 200 year drought of Puritan disapproval, but the holiday would never have taken hold if society wasn’t ready for it.”

Nissembaum notes that the families raised children primarily to be used as a cheap labor force.  Following the Industrial Revolution, families began to treat children differently, being more focused on children and less focused on them being a source of labor.  Christmas was a big part of this change, and Nissenbam notes that this was

“The moment in Christmas where parents started to pay attention to their children, I sometimes come to think of this as the invention of quality time in the family.  Parents would discover the joy that they could pay out of watching the joy of watching the faces of their children when they gave them presents.”

The DVD notes that Americans wanted to celebrate Christmas but didn’t know how to do it.  In 1848, the London Illustrated News showed an illustration when Victoria, Queen of England celebrated Christmas with her new husband Prince Albert who imported the Christmas Tree, a traditional German way of celebrating Christmas.  Suddenly Christmas trees were all over both England and America.  Celebrations were no longer drunken revelry.  But here’s a really interesting fact from the DVD about American Christmases.

By mid-century Christmas was everywhere in America, in the streets, in the homes, in the marketplace.  The one place you could not find Christmas was in church.  Most Americans were Protestant, and the Protestant Church had ignored Christmas for years, but Protestant Victorians longed for official religion on this sacred day.

Leigh Eric Schmidt, historian, “What a number of them do initially is say well, we can’t find a Christmas service in our Baptist Church or Presbyterian Church, let’s go see what the Catholics are doing, or let’s go see what the Episcopalians are doing and increasingly that puts pressure on the latter-day Puritans to have Christmas services in a way in which lay people began to expect it.”

Santa Claus is such an integral part of American Christmas, but how was he developed?  As a marketplace invention (ain’t capitalism grand?)  Santa Claus was developed in America, but has some Dutch roots.  December 6 is Saint Nicolas Day, and in Holland he was known as Sinter Klause.  The Dutch brought his tales of gift giving to America.  Clement Clark Moore, an Episcopal minister capitalized on jolly Saint Nick and wrote the poem Twas the Night Before Christmas.  Of course Santa was the man who came down chimneys to give gifts.  At first, the minister denied writing the poem, but when it became so popular that children began scanning the skies for reindeer, he finally admitted writing it even though the poem didn’t have anything to do with Jesus.  Thomas Nast a cartoonist for Harper’s Weekly, created a cartoon of Santa Claus in 1863, the big elf, and his version stuck.

Nissenbaum, “Santa Claus provided a way for children and parents to pretend that Christmas presents were not in the realm of the commercial marketplace, that Christmas presents existed in the realm of pure domestic affection, so Santa Claus played a very important role…

People complain that Christmas is now too too commercial, and not enough on the Christ child, but Christ has rarely been the sole focus of Christmas.  Penne L. Restad, historian from the University of Texas says,

People say that Christ has been lost in Christmas.  Implicit in that is the idea that Christ had ever been totally the center of Christmas.  As Christmas has been celebrated ever since it has been instituted as a feast of the Nativity, there has always been other ritual, other ceremony, other activity associated with Christmas in addition to Christ.

The narrator continues, “Perhaps Christmas in America is a combination of the sacred and the secular and less a competition between the two.”

Restad, “I think that if people had Christmas with just the Christ in it, it would not be a holiday that would come out into the streets the way that it does because the trees, the carols, the shopping, all of that becomes the cultural material that holds the religion in place.”

I think it’s pretty funny that people are upset that Starbucks doesn’t include the “Christian” symbols of snowflakes and snowmen.  Furthermore, we can’t really blame “political correctness” for the War on Christmas.  Puritans literally began the War on Christmas.  (At least they succeeded somewhat in that it is no longer just a drunken holiday.)

What do you think about the idea that Christmas celebrations are better due to the combination of the sacred and secular?  Does this make the Christmas season more or less special?  Are you surprised that Protestants were traditionally anti-Christmas?  Do Mormons need to continue to pressure leaders (as the Protestants did) to have better Christmas services?


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