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.”
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SOURCE: Christianity Today, W. David O. Taylor