Is it really War on Christmas again? It seems to start earlier every year. I ask because of Sarah Palins new book and the attendant kerfuffle over a renewed War on Christmas.
You know, Christmas, that time of year when we see Christmas trees everywhere, Santas in the malls and ever-deepening price cuts at retail stores? The problem is apparently that the word Christmas is anathema to schools, in town squares and to those same retailers. Christmas pageants are now winter celebrations. Christmas trees in schools are holiday trees. The baby Jesus, the wise men and the manger have been relegated to the Island of Misfit Holiday Symbols.
As Americans, we inherit a long history of subverting the celebration of Christmas. Shaping the holiday to a particular end is nothing new.
Think about it. Those most Christian of Americas settlers, the Puritans, actually outlawed Christmas celebrations between 1659 and 1681. Revelers caught celebrating the holiday were hit with a fine (5 shillings). In many places, Dec. 25 was business as usual.
Of course there were Christmas services. This was Puritan New England; there were always services. Its simply that Christmas was viewed with extreme suspicion by religious and civic authorities. As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum put it in his wonderful 1996 book, The Battle for Christmas, authorities in New England saw the holiday season as one of rowdy public displays, of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging and even the invasion of wealthy homes.
Not to mention occasional public sex, apparently a real thing in England.
Yuletide was a time of upending the social order, which served as a sort of safety valve for the frustrations of those at the lower end of that order. Wassailing, in terms of heavy drinking and drunken brawls and light vandalism, allowed the lower classes to let off steam and, presumably, kept them in line the remainder of the year.
This first War on Christmas, then, was a war against public rowdiness. It continued into the early 19th century when upper-class merchants, realizing Christmas wasnt going away, adopted a new tactic. Writers such as Washington Irving and Clement Moore began reshaping the holiday by transforming the character of St. Nicholas from an austere fourth-century bishop known for miracles and secret gift-giving into a jolly old man with a belly laugh and a white beard.
He came to bring presents to the children and, implicitly, to deliver the message of a Christmas celebrated, quietly, with lots of presents, among the family in the home.
Its probably not a coincidence that this came about as industrialization was beginning to make consumer goods more readily available to more people. Advertising, catalogs and department stores would emerge in the decades to follow, and the image of Santa Claus would be used to entice shoppers. By the 1870s, it seems fair to say that Christmas had been transformed into an orgy, not of drinking and feasting, but of consumption. The second American War on Christmas succeeded in transforming it.
So it goes. Christmas is changed by each successive generation to serve the particular needs of that generation. And the previous generation rails against it.
In an America populated almost entirely by Christians, it was easy for all the terminology and symbolism to be Christian. But the Christmas we celebrate outside of churches is not a Christian holiday; it is an American one. As a quintessentially American holiday, it changes with the country. To include the many non-Christians in this country, we have changed the way we speak of it, leading to the perhaps more anodyne terms used by government agencies and retailers. Its so effective that this nonbeliever will be found wishing a Merry Christmas to all.
Retailers, who have been accused of caving to rampant secularism, know this. No one is holding a gun to Targets metaphorical head to strike the word Christmas from ads. They do it because inclusiveness is profitable.
Perhaps this flexibility is why the Puritans were so suspicious of the holiday in the first place. Nothing in the Bible supports Dec. 25 as the date of Jesus birth (unlike material supporting the date of Easter, which has been historically more important). That date happened to coincide with other celebrations of the winter solstice and the longer days it brought. Christmas itself was in a way an attempt to sell Christianity to the Roman people.
Today people worldwide, many not Christians, celebrate it American-style, some, though caught up in the consumer aspects, almost certainly imbibing the message of peace on Earth and good will toward men.
Not a bad message, at that. As a vehicle for it, Christmas may be the greatest ad campaign in history.
Michael G. Bazemore Jr. is a visiting assistant professor of history at William Peace University in Raleigh.