Christmas in America has never been a straightforward event. Whether in the privacy of our homes or in the public square, it has always been a conflicted affair.
For some in our present cultural climate, it’s been a matter of religious liberty and a political right to be able to say “merry Christmas” at Target or Walmart. For others, it’s been a matter of religious pluralism and political hospitality to say “happy holidays” instead.
This pushes a portion of our society to want to abolish Christmas altogether. For others, the answer is to keep putting “Christ back in Christmas.” But maybe there is a deeper problem.
Perhaps the problem is not whether we remember “that Jesus is the reason for the season,” but that the story that “Christmas in America” tells looks nothing like the story that Matthew and Luke tell about the birth of Christ and always seems to distort or to leave out essential elements of the Nativity narrative.
There’s a reason for that, of course. Christmas in America is influenced less by the stories of a publican and a physician—the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke—than by the stories of a Puritan, a princess, a poet and a host of painters.
What’s needed, I might argue, is a far more radical re-conceptualization of the story of Christmas—what it sounds like, how it feels, where it takes us, and what it enables us to imagine—and for the story of Matthew and Luke to redefine how Christians in America celebrate the “mass of Christ.”
Perhaps what’s needed, more bluntly, is to leave the story of “Christmas in America” alone and for Christians to learn to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.
A puritan, a princess, a poet and plenty of painters
The history of how we got “Christmas in America” as we know it is a long and complicated one that depends, in short, on four fundamental influences: the legal actions of Puritans in the 17th-century, the domestic celebrations of Queen Victoria, the publication of a Charles Dickens novel, and the work of poets and painters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Publick Notice: Christmas is Forbidden”
Around the middle of the 17th century, Puritan leaders in New England made the celebration of Christmas illegal. They did so for two specific reasons.
For one, the feast of Christmas involved a great deal of intemperate behavior. During these long winter nights, people feasted in excess, got drunk, engaged in wanton sex, rioted in the streets, and barged into the homes of the well-to-do and demanded that they be given the best of the pantry. Christmas back then looked more like a frat party gone horribly wrong—marked by “mad Mirth and rude Reveling,” as Cotton Mather saw it. It was far from sweet and mild.
Another reason the Puritans banned Christmas is that it smelled too much of “Popish” ceremonies. For them, the Roman Catholic “mass of Christ” contravened the requirement to worship only as the Bible has explicitly commanded. As Gerry Bowler, in Christmas in the Crosshairs, observes, “The only day to be kept holy, the Puritans asserted, was the Sabbath.”
One public notice warned its citizens:
The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.
Because of the Puritan influence on this particular religious holiday, the United States Congress regularly met on Christmas Day from 1789 to 1855. Public schools met on Christmas Day in Boston until 1870. The first state eventually to declare legal the celebration of Christmas was Alabama, in 1836.
“The very smell of the Christmas Trees”
One year later, in 1837, Princess Victoria, the only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, became Queen of England. Three years later she married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Unlike the English Puritans, German Protestant Christians, like Victoria’s mother and Prince Albert’s family, retained the historic traditions of Christmas.
Because Victoria’s Hanoverian ancestors had already introduced the custom of Christmas tree decoration to the English court, it was not a difficult decision for the queen to introduce the Christmas tree to the English people at large. Together Victoria and Albert modeled for the people of the United Kingdom a family-centered celebration. This is the second key influence on Christmas in America.
An entry from Queen Victoria’s journal on December 24, 1841, says this:
Christmas, I always look upon as a most dear happy time, also for Albert, who enjoyed it naturally still more in his happy home, which mine, certainly, as a child, was not. It is a pleasure to have this blessed festival associated with one’s happiest days. The very smell of the Christmas Trees of pleasant memories.
As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum summarizes things in The Battle for Christmas, what was once marked by liturgical celebrations at church and festivities in the village, revolving around public rituals and civic activities, eventually turned into a domestic affair, revolving around a children-centric holiday, marked by extravagant gift-giving and, in time, commercial-oriented activities.
Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas adds this remarkable fact: “[It is] surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. The parsons were as surprised as anyone else when after a century-long hiatus, the pews started filling up again on Christmas morning.”
“I have always thought of Christmastime as a charitable time”
Seven years after Victoria acceded to the throne, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. With his story of ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Dickens essentially created a myth devoid of particulars from the Gospel narratives. This is the third influence on the American account of Christmas.
For Dickens, it was the “spirit of Christmas” rather than the Spirit of Christ that captured his attention. Humanitarianism rather than the humanity of Jesus became, for him, finally determinative. The effect of Dickens’s tale cannot be overestimated. As Bowler summarizes it, “He revived the lost medieval link between worship and feasting, the Nativity and Yule, and emphasized the holiday as a time of personal and social reconciliation.”
Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew speaks for the era when he remarks, “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time … as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”
During Dickens’s day, working on Christmas Day was a normal thing. What A Christmas Carol did was to effectively shame this practice out of use.
The secularization of Saint Nicholas
The final influence on American Christmas is the work of painters, storytellers, and illustrators, beginning with the philanthropist John Pintard in the early 19th century. Hoping to inspire the virtuous habits of his Dutch ancestors in the people of New York City, once a Dutch colonial town, Pintard campaigned to make Saint Nicholas the patron saint of the city. As Bruce David Forbes describes it in Christmas: A Candid History:
Under Pintard’s leadership, the New York Historical Society began an annual Saint Nicholas Day dinner on December 6, 1810, and for the occasion Pintard commissioned a woodcut illustration of Nicholas, clothed in a bishop’s robes.
This, for all practical reasons, would be the last time that artists would represent Nicholas the Bishop of Myra in his original liturgical garb.
In 1809, on Saint Nicholas Day, the writer Washington Irving portrayed Saint Nicholas in his satirical book Knickerbocker’s History of New York flying over trees in a horse-pulled wagon and sliding down chimneys to deliver gifts. In 1823, a poem titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published, describing Saint Nicholas on a sleigh with individually named reindeer. This poem cemented the basic features of the American Christmas story.
Another influential figure of this time period is Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator. In 1862, Nast drew a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly that represented Saint Nicholas as a small, elflike creature. Eventually, Nast added other details: locating his headquarters in the North Pole, depicting him as a toy maker with elves as assistants, receiving letters from children and snacks when he visited their homes.
A final influence worthy of mention is the illustrator Haddon Sundblom. In 1931, as the Coca-Cola Company chronicles the story, the company wanted its soft drink campaign to show a wholesome, realistic Saint Nicholas, or as the Dutch called him, Sinterklass. So they commissioned Sundblom to develop a series of images that used Santa Claus. They wanted readers to encounter Santa himself, not just a man dressed as Santa.
From 1931–1964, Sundblom produced at least one illustration per year of Santa Claus drinking a Coca-Cola. It is at this point that Santa Claus went global. According to Bowler, in his book Santa Claus: A Biography, “The overwhelming ubiquity of these advertisements … ensured that no rival version of Santa could emerge in the North American consciousness.”
Any ties that may have remained with the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor are hereafter severed in the American imagination. Nicholas the Wonderworker has become Jolly Old St. Nick; the saint has been secularized.
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Source: Christianity Today