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Sarah Palin, Clement Clarke Moore, and the Villainous Hordes of Thuggish Carolers: The Story of the Real War on Christmas

sarahpalinwaronchristmaChristmas is still a week away, and yet 2013 has already proved to be a banner year in the annual War On Christmas (WOC) brouhaha.  The conservative media has once again resurrected the silliness on television, radio and blogs alike, and their liberal critics have gleefully treated each inane WOC utterance like a beautifully wrapped parcel placed under a… well, you know.

As noted here just last week, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly recently sent eyeballs rolling with her confident assertion of the “historical fact” that both Jesus and St. Nicolas were white, despite all evidence to the contrary.  A week prior to that, Tea Party zeitgeist Sarah Palin pulled out the “Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together” card, linking the brave stance against Santa-cide with the Founding Fathers.  Thomas Jefferson would have been a fierce WOC warrior, Palin claimed, because the Virginian would “recognize [that] those who would want to try to ignore that Jesus is the reason for the season are angry atheists armed with an attorney. They are not the majority of Americans.”  Palin was promoting her latest ghostwritten cash cow, Good Tidings & Great Joy, itself an attempt to cash in on the WOC’s seemingly never-ending appeal.

And though 2013 has provided an especially an especially turgid December, the WOC’s most modern incarnation has been providing anti-secular soundbites for a decade.   Bill O’Reilly has made Christianists’ fear of the phrase “Happy Holidays” a regular annual trough feeding.  Conservative talk radio host and hairspray sponge John Gibson used the concept to springboard from third-tier Fox celebrity status to international best-selling author.  Pat Buchanan declared the nation’s Jews’, Muslims’, and secular humanists’ inability to get fully jiggy with the Christmas spirit a “hate crime against Christianity.”  All in all, it’s one of those manufactured Christian-conservative causes that just begs to be mocked.

But here’s the thing: there really was a War On Christmas, and those who waged it triumphed long, long ago.  So crushing was their victory that it changed the way we all perceive not only the tinseled ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, but the ghosts of Christmas Past as well.

LinusvanPeltChristmas, we all know, is a long-celebrated religious holiday that was once sacred and serene before it was tainted by crass commercialism.   The Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims alike are no doubt spinning in their graves, aggrieved at the notion that their holiest of holy days has become separated from church and family.  The holiday’s American secularization, be it through activist judges or a fat man in a red suit, have taken a universally celebrated, Christian communal sacrament and placed it on the brink of extinction — if not as a national recognized holiday, then as one dedicated solely to the birth of the baby Jesus.  These are things we all know; they are, as Megyn Kelly might say, historical facts.

Except, of course, that they aren’t.

Everything you think you know about Christmas is wrong.

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kirk-cameron-e1331061323318When I attended 2012’s Value Voters Summit, most of the rhetoric circled like a vulture around the nation’s Stalinist Kenyan usurper.  There were other anti-secular sidebar points to be made, though, and one touched upon often by the cavalcade of opportunists and true believers addressing the crowd was liberals’ WOC.  One of these so-con celebs was Christianist activist and direct-to-video star Kirk Cameron.  Cameron argued that many of America’s problems — including our self-annihilating WOC — stemmed from our turning away from the principles of America’s true Founding Fathers, the ultra-religious pilgrims.  The applause from the social conservative audience to this thought was thunderous.

4186-17544It might therefore come as a surprise to Cameron and the WOC crowd to learn that in the Puritan colonies of the 17th century, the celebration of Christmas was illegal.  The fine for doing so was five shillings. (As a point of comparison, five shillings was a typical amount to pay for the rent of an apartment in London at the time.)  Not that such a law needed to be enforced much. Christmas was largely ignored at the time, and with good reason.  The Puritans reasoned – rightly, it should be pointed out — that Christmas was a non-Biblical holiday.  Though Jesus’ birth is described in the Gospel, there is no mention of the time of year in which it took place.  Early European missionaries fashioned the concept of a Christmas as a way to conscript and arrogate the popular European Pagan solstice celebrations of the time.  And while that might have been all fine and well for the medieval Eurotrash, the Pilgrims wanted nothing to do with it.  The very idea of attaching the Son of God to the sensual observances of false deities was anathema to those early fundamentalist colonists.

Over time, as the colonies became more secular, the laws prohibiting Christmas celebrations were discarded; still, religious celebrations did not follow.  In a late 19th century edition of The New-England Magazine, the historian writer, and Reverend Edward Everett Hale remembered this about the Christmases of his Boston childhood:

“The courts were in session [on Christmas], the markets were open, and I doubt that there had ever been a religious service on Christmas Day, unless it were on a Sunday, in that town.”

Although not entirely accurate, Hale’s observations were not too far from the truth.  Historians such as Stephen Nissenbaum have found records of various churches’ Christmas observances; such observances, however, were few and far between.[1]  Contra the modern testimonies of Ms. Palin, neither Thomas Jefferson nor his fellow Founders considered Christmas a holiday, religious or otherwise.  Which is not to say that Christmas celebrations didn’t occur; they did.  They simply happened to be the very antithesis of what we now think of as a Christmas observance.  To understand why, it’s necessary to take a look at what Decembers were like in the United States in the late 18th/early 19th century.

1-chicago-meatpacking-1878-grangerThe time around winter’s solstice was marked by harsh weather, but paradoxically also by great bounty.  For one thing, the last of the fall harvests were in and ready to be consumed. More importantly for the hungry, however, was the fact that December was the season for meat.  Animals were primarily slaughtered in the deep winter, because the season’s natural refrigeration allowed the meat to be safely stored without risk of spoilage.  And not only was meat far more plentiful in December than at other times of year, it was far more edible.  Meat eaten at other times of the year would have been seasoned with an staggeringly large amount of salt in the hopes of keeping it from rotting.  Often times the degree of salting made the eating of meat a chore rather than a pleasure.  Unlike their ancestors throughout most of history, post-revolutionary Americans who could afford to actually ate better in December than in the summer.

In addition, while the industrial revolution ensured that many lower-class citizens could now work throughout the year, many still could not.  Agriculture largely shut down for the season, for example, and for those in coastal towns the weather was just as likely to keep sailors ashore than at sea.  This meant that a lot of young men were both idle and restless, which is a bad enough combination in the best of situations.  But in early America, December also brought the culmination of an entire year’s worth of apple farming.  This made young men’s’ idleness all that more dangerous, because in early America apples were not grown for eating — they were grown to make alcohol.[2]

Wren_boys_in_Cork_hallThe celebration of Christmas in early America was therefore something of a terror.  It was a day when bands of inebriated young men from the lower classes showed up at the doors of the wealthy to demand drink, food, and gift of money.  These days we think of wassailing as a happy, neighborly form of caroling.  But in the days when people actually went a’ wassailin’, it was done as a thuggish extortion with threat of violence.  Modern conservatives often mention that in the United States’ earliest years the government did not hand out food stamps, and that the charity of the successful largely took care of the issue in times when people could not work.  They are right in this claim, but they usually neglect to mention that this charity was most often given against the givers wishes out of fear for the safety of their property and their selves.  Local police forces were either unable or (being lower-class themselves) unwilling to curb the problem.

The nations’ gentry largely hated Christmas for this reason, and in the early 1810s a group of concerned upstanding citizens (read: rich white men) decided to embark upon a most unusual strategy to make Christmas safe for themselves and their families. They set out to create a public relations campaign that would transform the way the common man thought of Christmas.  They decided to create a character that embodied a kinder, gentler Christmas, and they keyed in on the works of one of their own members, Washington Irving, as raw material.

22199_1In 1809, Irving wrote The Knickebockers History of New York.  In it, he noted repeatedly that St. Nicolas of Myra was a “great and good” patron Saint of New Amsterdam, and suggested that Nicolas still looked out over New York. Though Irving had not once connected the Greek icon to anything remotely yuletide, the saint’s reputation as a kind and gentle man was seen as good whole cloth from which to remake December 25.  And so Irving and his cohorts began to remake Nicolas as a symbol of American Christmas, and in various published stories and pictures unleashed their creation to the masses.

Archive_SN3It was a colossal flop.  The earliest versions of Santa Claus suggested an almost comical lack of empathy from the class that created him.  He was depicted as a wealthy, authoritarian bishop, someone whom the masses should obey because he was of “the right stock.”  It went over with the country’s common man about as well as you might expect.  The idea appears to have been largely discarded by 1823, when a wealthy religious scholar by the name of Clement Clarke Moore anonymously published a poem in the Troy, New York Sentinel.  It was entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas, and its success was both immediate and stunning.

There may not be another poem in the history of the English language that had the seismic cultural impact that Moore’s had.  As Edwin Burrows would later note in his book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1989, New Yorkers (and the rest of the country) “embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.”  True, the movement to make Christmas a genteel family holiday had been creeping along prior to Moore, but A Visit from St. Nicholas would cement the deal within a generation.

There are several reasons why Moore succeeded where Irving and others failed.  Moore avoided potential religious controversy by having the story occur not on Christmas, but the night prior.  Also, the poem wisely chose to promise wondrous delights to eight year-olds rather than dully sermonize to eighteen year-olds. Then there is the description of St. Nick himself:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot

A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

 

Santa 1848Irving and the others had tried to make the human embodiment of a plebian Christmas someone that looked like them.  Moore’s St. Nick, on the other hand, looked like a Yankee trader.

Throughout the burgeoning nation, children began growing up with A Visit from St. Nicholas.  And as they grew up, they held onto Moore’s vision.  Within ten years, newspapers up and down the Atlantic began reporting that the growing Christmas Day trend in families of all income brackets was children opening gifts while surrounded by family.

In short order, those children began to grow up, and as they did they chose to recognize Christmas as a sacred, religious holiday. Eventually, churches began to observe the holiday as well.  (Ironically to modern eyes at least, the churches pushing the hardest for the observance of Christmas were the various Massachusetts Unitarian ministries.  Unitarians and the population of Massachusetts: two of the groups of Americans that WOC-friendly conservatives most like to dismiss as being Godless and lacking in faith.  Go figure.)  Within a twenty years, Christmas services in Christian churches were occurring throughout the United States.  In a single generation, those churches formally observing Christmas went from being the exception to the norm.[3]

And there you have the most amazing and subversive truth about the real war on Christmas, waged a century and a half ago:

Christmas in America isn’t a religious holiday that got hijacked by secularists and merchants; it was a manufactured secular holiday, made by merchants, whose followers adapted it for religious purposes.

Christmas has always been the most transferable of religious holidays, because its historical connections to religion are tenuous at best.  Yes, the seeds of the Christian Nativity are buried deep with Christmas’s soil.  But so too are the seeds of paganism, secularism and every other “ism” that existed where Christians dared to venture.  Indeed, solstice holidays tap into something profoundly human that lies within all of us: that recognition of the power of hope in times of hopelessness, symbolized by the return of light after the longest of nights.  The darkest of all the year’s days, amid its frigid grief and scarcity, can bring out the worst of us — but somehow, against all reason, it can also bring out the best.  That this profound and paradoxical truth finds a way to be celebrated throughout all cultures is perhaps unsurprising, and may in fact be the real story of Christmas.

20121203-oreillyxmasThe Sarah Palins, Bill O’Reillys, John Gibsons and Megyn Kellys of the world might not care that much for seculars.  And they certainly recognize it’s in their financial best interests to blame secularists for everything their viewers don’t like about the Christmas season.  But if they so love America and Christmas to the degree to which they claim, they would be wise to study up on the history of both. Were they to do so, they’d see that a little less hostility and a little more acceptance are in order.

It’s been almost two centuries since Clement Clarke Moore transformed Christmas from something ugly into something both secular and sacred; something both material and spiritual; something both wholly American and utterly borderless.  It’s time to recognize and acknowledge both sides of his amazing gift.

It’s time to finally call a truce on the War on Christmas.

 

 

[1] Though I will be quoting from several different sources, the definitive book on the birth of modern Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. I cannot recommend this book enough.  Nissenbaum, who was a professor of US Cultural History at UMass prior to his retirement in 2004, writes in an engaging and accessible way, and has both a scholar’s attention to detail and a Bill-Bryson-like talent for rooting out the fascinating human stories behind historical events.

[2] This is true.

Apple trees are similar to humans in that every one grown from a seed is entirely unique, having its own distinct qualities.  And when it comes to apples, sweetness is a largely recessive trait.  Most seeds will grow trees that bear bitter, inedible fruit.  In order to grow an orchard of, say, Gala apples, you have to graft branches of an existing Gala apple tree to other trees.  If you simply planted the seed from a Gala, you’d get a completely different kind of apple, one that was most likely unpleasant tasting.  This grafting is a relatively difficult and expensive procedure, and as a result for most of our country’s history almost no one bothered to do it commercially.  American apple producers only began making the extra effort and subsequent attempts to market their product as food with the advent of Prohibition.  Before that, apples were what you farmed in order to get drunk.

John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, was a real guy; he really did go from town to town growing orchards in the earliest years of our nation.  But the expertise he shared with settlers wasn’t how to cultivate seeds; they already knew how to do that.  Chapman’s mark was made because in addition to bringing fresh seed to town, he taught people how to transform the tree’s fruit into an intoxicant.

If you want to know more about our nation’s early, inebriated history with the apple, I encourage you to read Michael Pollan’s amazing Botany of Desire.

[3] By the 1850s, there was a growing movement to make Christmas a holiday that was officially recognized by the government, and by the time of the Civil War most states had done so.  In 1870, Congress and Ulysses S. Grant would designate December 25 a federal holiday, though that did not mean then what it does now.

At the time, it simply gave the day off with pay to any federal employees who worked in Washington, DC — which included, probably not coincidently, Congress and Ulysses S. Grant.  All other federal employers were required to come in and work on Christmas until 1968.

 

 

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103 thoughts on “Sarah Palin, Clement Clarke Moore, and the Villainous Hordes of Thuggish Carolers: The Story of the Real War on Christmas

  1. Great article. Christmas underwent a similar domestication in Europe during the same time, even though Christmas was only banned in the UK from 1645 to 1660. Before the 19th century, as you noted, Christmas was more of winter carnival type holiday with the religious service rather than the family-centered holiday it is today. It was probably like a really wild holiday office party but done in public settings.

    Whats interesting is how some of the wilder aspects of Christmas celebrations are coming back. Santacon, the annual inebriated march of people in Santa costumes, is about as close as you could get to the pre-domesticated Christmas celebrations.

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  2. An interesting thing to think about is whether or not the domestication of Christmas was a good idea. When Christmas was a holiday of mild public rioting, the authorities thought allowed it because it acted as pressure valve of sort or at least they thought it did. There isn’t really a pressure valve for the sort of emotions that wild Christmas was supposed to act as a temporary release for. Sporting events and rock concerts are kind form a similar function but people aren’t really allowed to get loose. Maybe modern society could use some occasions where some sort of mass public wildness is allowed.

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  3. This post is brilliant, simply amazing. I had no idea about most of this stuff other than that apples were grown as intoxicants. Are you sure about that last bit in footnote 3 — Federal employees outside of Washington had to work on Christmas until 1968?

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    • This.

      As a resident of New York state, living in the prime growing areas of the Hudson Valley, I can attest to the majesty that is hard cider. A local spot near me makes a dry hopped cider, which maintains all of the amazingness of cider but cuts the sweetness with just enough hoppiness.

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    • Actually its more complicated than that, Without refrigeration and modern sanitation drinking water was unsafe, as was milk. Hard Cider and Wine have enough alcohol to protect against bacteria. Thus hard apple cider was the safe thing to drink around the year. Recall that one president died in office from drinking milk, Zach Taylor. Water of course was unsafe in many cases because the well might be polluted, or the stream you get the water from might be polluted upstream.
      It is sort of similar to why food served in warmer climes is more spice, because the spices hide the potential bad taste of slightly spoiled food. (Plus pepper and the like are warm climate plants)

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    • And nowadays, it’s pretty difficult to find proper cider apples. You basically need to find a neglected orchard where trees from seed haven’t been fought back.

      My friend’s mom has a cider pear tree in her yard – we were over there processing fruit from her other trees, and she went to stop me biting into one – “Oh don’t eat those – that’s just an ornamental pear tree”. I bit into one and my eyes lit up, realizing what the (quite astringent and tannin-y) fruit would be good for. It made some very nice cider indeed.

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  4. Additional note about apples: they weren’t made so much just to “get trashed” (although that’s a popular side benefit) as they were “produce drinkable liquid”. As opposed to water which was usually filled with all sorts of crap that would give you dysentery or cholera or something.

    The history of beer is similar.

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    • I remember going to the Guinness factory in Dublin with my sister once. It’s like the Irish Disneyland. And I was amazed to see that in the early part of the 20th century, when the Liffey’s waters were so fetid, that the stuff was marketed to young parents as a kind of baby formula.

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      • Re: Irish Disneyland

        Two towns over from me, the town of Warwick has an annual apple fest. By day, it is parades and families apple picking. By nightfall, it becomes some sort of Mardi Gras cider shitshow. People travel from hours away to attend. The whole area bogs down with traffic. It’s insane. Apples man… fishin’ apples.

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  5. Typically great piece, Tod.

    The whole WOC brouhaha makes me seriously wonder if the people within that bubble know how ridiculous it makes them look to anyone on the outside of it. I simply don’t get it.

    Oh, and true fact: I once lived on the very block where Clement Clarke Moore wrote his famous poem.

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  6. Christmas, despite the name, strikes me as a fairly accessible holiday for pretty much anybody. It has pretty much exactly as much religious content as you choose to give it while, at the same time, retaining its whole “let’s eat a lot, drink a lot, and give each other presents” attitude. Heck, the less religious it is, the more of a bacchanalian potential it has.

    It’s got all kinds of lovely pagan symbolism, it’s got the season of rebirth thing going on, and it’s probably the most accessible holiday ever. (Seriously: is there one with a better track record of being adopted?)

    If I were to try to create a holiday where everybody had the day off, everybody was expected to engage in as little commerce as possible, everybody was expected to interact with friends and family in their free time and invite people who were alone into their homes… I wouldn’t start with Thanksgiving. I’d start with Christmas.

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    • As a Jewish person, I firmly reject the idea of celebrating Christmas. This is largely an issue of cultural and ethic pride.

      There are plenty of Jews who intermarry or don’t intermarry and like to celebrate Christmas. I have friends who put up trees even if they are not intermarried.

      But to me the “Christmas loving Jew” is a bit of someone with an inferiority complex.

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      • Not necessarily but potentially.

        I grew up in a very Jewish suburb of a very Jewish city. I feel secure in my Judaism because public schools and many private ones close down for the high holidays. I think Jews who grow up yearning for Christmas feel more of an othering.

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      • I think Jews who grow up yearning for Christmas feel more of an othering.

        Is this necessarily true, though? It seems like you’re assigning a motivation that there’s a good chance isn’t there. Why is there necessarily something bad about someone whose parents identify as Jewish doing what feels right to him/her, even if that disagrees with the views of the parents?

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      • Well, let me reassure you that there’s nothing wrong with celebrating Christmas with all your heart. For one thing, Santa is actually Odin, a Viking warrior god.

        That’s why the best and most authentic Christmas movies are still “Die Hard” and the sequels.

        And yes, Santa is as white as Frosty the Snowman. His name is Bavarian and he lives at the North Pole. An ethnic Santa would start his run at midnight, and be gunned down by a panic stricken homeowner or in jail by 12:08 AM.

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      • Is it really that they have an inferiority complex as a person on the whole, ND, or might it just be that their Judaism doesn’t define as much of their identity as it does yours, or that they don’t view (their) Judaism as being as culturally limiting as you view yours as being? For you to conclude that these practices speak about their weakness as people seems to rest on an assumption/conviction that they do or should understand Judaism in approximately the same way as you, and the issue is just a lack of security-in-self to act in a way as to be fully committed to it. But if they’re just acting out a different Judaism from the one you are (maybe a completely insufficient one in your view, to be sure!), then the issue might not be so much one of personal hardware as it is just what cultural software is being run on it.

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      • New Dealer,

        What about yoga?

        I’m asking because of the controversy that Dreher raised when he said he wouldn’t let his kids do yoga because the calisthenics cannot be separated from the religious Hindu aspects, and a Christian shouldn’t do Hindu stuff. (And this is now a legal issue in India, IIRC Sullivan saying.)

        That at least superficially seems analogous to your idea that the secular aspects of Christmas cannot be separated from the religious position.

        Would you be okay with doing yoga? On Christmas? While meditating? And suing for libel (Scientology)? And looking at tarot cards? While whirling like a dervish? (Which I do when I run out of booze.)

        I’ll tell you that as an atheist, I worry a bit about this too. (Not trying to compare our positions, just trying to be helpful.) I avoid talk of Christmas at home and don’t like Santa. But I like holidays and pine trees with lights and presents and a big feast. I think of it as the holiday season or something like that and call it such.

        Whether that is me celebrating Christmas is a matter of semantics. The question is what is the reference of “Christmas” and what are the necessary and sufficient conditions for the proper use of “Christmas.” But semantic disputes are useless and stupid and should never get in the way of having fun and connecting with friends, family, and neighbors.

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    • Basically my stance comes down to 2-4-6-8 I will not assimilate.

      I’m a Jew. There is nothing wrong or inferior about being Jewish or any other non-Christian group. We have our own history and traditions and customs. I see no reason to take on Christmas even in its most secular and close to pagan forms because doing so implies that something is lacking in my own people’s customs and holidays.

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      • There is nothing wrong or inferior about being Jewish or any other non-Christian group.

        But likewise there should be nothing laudatory about being a Jew either, right?

        We have our own history and traditions and customs.

        Are you implying that that history and those traditions carry extra special weight when evaluating the religious identifications of other people? Or just that you guys have them? If it’s the latter, then you’re just part of the Religious-Identification Club, but not necessarily a privileged member.

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      • Do you exchange gifts on Hanukkah? My understanding is that that custom largely came about to make up for the sense of wanting arrived at when Hanukkah fell too close to Christmas and Christian kids were ripping open boxes full of toys and Jewish kids were solemnly lighting candles.

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      • I respect your desire to not celebrate Christmas for any reason (or lack of reason, even). It’s absolutely up to you. I do find it hard to understand the idea that because other cultures have different traditions and celebrations, adopting one of them into your own life or your own culture necessarily means yours is deficient.

        Maybe it’s the part of me that buys into part of the mythology of American identity, but we live in a cosmopolitan/globalized world where one of the positives of our travel and communications technology is that people can find things that resonate with them in many cultures. Nobody’s obligated to take on any other culture’s attitudes, customs, or celebrations, but many of us have found value in doing so. To an outsider, NewDealer’s response to a fairly harmless holiday like Christmas seems more than a bit on the defensive side.

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      • Mike Schilling, I think Christmas has long ceased to be about Jesus. I’m an agnostic, as is one of my parents, and we’ve always loved Christmas even though neither one of us finds much “truth” in Christianity. As another poster pointed out, there are parts of the world where Christianity was never a very strong influence that have taken up Christmas practices of one kind or another.

        The reality is that the history of all religions is rife with change and syncretism. ND’s version of Judaism is not fixed in stone, and in fact, the history of the religion shows evidence of ample borrowing from other cultures, especially the language, alphabet, and calendar of Babylon, to name a few.

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      • It’s so little about Jesus that it combines his name and that of the religious rite of symbolically ingesting him. It’s also so little about Jesus that acknowledging the existence of other winter-time holidays is called an attack on Christianity. And so little about Jesus that the majority of Christmas songs are all about him.

        If you want to celebrate it anyway, knock yourself out. But don’t tell me to ignore the facts.

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      • Thanks for your response. Growing up in Teaneck, most of my friends were Jewish. We used to joke about the “fun” difference between Christian and Jewish holidays. The former were largely about food and gifts while the latter were often solemn affairs. For Catholics, our holiest day is technically Good Friday — the day that Jesus died. Yet we call it “Good” because it proved his love to his people yada yada yada so it is still celebratory.
        To a man, the Jewish kids were jealous of how fun our holidays were (though we Gentiles were jealous of their bar/bat mitzvahs).

        As a grown up, I now see how divorced our modern tradition of Santa and gifts, the Easter Bunny and baskets are from the actual faith. If anything, they appear to be explicitly about “selling” holidays to otherwise uninterested parties. So it’s no wonder that they can present such difficulty to Jewish folks like yourself.

        Today I identify as athiest (though fully recognize my Catholic roots). My wife similarly is a non-believer, though she was raised Protestant and Jewish (complete with a Bat Mitzvah). We have opted to do “secular Christmas” for two main reasons: 1) it was and remains an important tradition in our families and 2) we hope to focus not on Baby Jesus but instead on ideas of family, the spirit of giving, etc.

        Oddly enough, I have done a complete 180 vis-a-vis Catholic and Jewish holidays. The former feel like Hallmark days largely divorced from faith while the latter seem more “real”… Steeped in far stronger senses of community, thankfulness, and togetherness. It’s easy to get people together when presents are promised; but when people gather with as much vigor (albeit manifested differently) to honor the dead or atone for sins or remember those who fought for their continued existence… THAT feels like a real holiday. Even though I reject the “magic and mysticism” of faith, part of me would rather Mayo light a menorah as he expresses thanks for his existence than rip open presents as he expresses thanks it’s not a sweater.

        Maturation is a weird thing…

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      • Christmas celebrates the birth of Jesus.

        Not in my household, it doesn’t. It’s more of a “did you get the items for the nephews” holiday… and, of course, the joys of what happens when you did. (Last Christmas, we got the Fisher Price castle with the dragon thing at the entry for the nephew and, when he opened it, he yelled (at the top of his lungs) “I HAVE ALWAYS WANTED THIS”.)

        Presents are fun. Feasts are fun. Decorations are fun. The Christians who are complaining about “the reason for the season” are complaining about the emphasis on presents, feasts, and decorations… but they’re no more “right” about what Christmas “really” means than the person who sees it as an excuse to buy a bottle of wine for each of his (good) co-workers. If you see it as a solemn day to reflect upon Jesus Christ, then that’s what it is. If you see it as a blandly festive day to delineate the days when winter is still novel and nice and when winter has overstayed its welcome, then that’s what it is.

        And you have as much power to define it as anybody.

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      • Do it this year! That’s what I do more or less. I don’t think anyone’s doing it for the wrongr reasons exactly and I certainly don’t make a point of telling them so, but I definitely think a lot of people miss what I think is a very accessible point about what can be seen as a secular seasonal celebration for everyone (if they want) in addition to a religious one for many, which is that we can either choose to make this a time of general celebration, cheer, and good will – or we can just not have any of that in a shared, general way. (We can say that all times should be like that, but in practice we know that if we do, they won’t be.) There are a lot of things about Christmastime that are obviously religious, or indeed Christian, such as Nativity scenes, but there are a lot of things that are not Christian or pre-Christian, such as lighting things up, in particular houses and trees and shrubbery, which people can enjoy totally irrespective of religion. There is obviously a lot of Christmas music, yo address your other example, that is about Jesus, but there is also a lot that is really just about the time of year and the spirit of cheer and togetherness that many have come to associate with it in a wistful, idealistic version of the lives they’d like to have. A person can get with that kind of thing or not as they choose, but IMO it would be a shame if they made the choice based on the association that it has with religion.

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      • As a Jew, I feel similar to ND. I’d never have a tree or any other major indicator of Christmas in my home. Not my religion; not my customs. I wouldn’t feel comfortable doing it.

        That said, now that we live in Greensboro, we do participate in our neighborhood tradition of hanging lighted chicken-wire balls from the big trees in our front yard. They came with the house and it’s as much a show of neighborhood solidarity as anything else.

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    • Apparently, that’s exactly what the Japanese have done. Completely adopted all the symbolism and tradition of modern (american) Christmas, but of course with little of the population actually being of the Christian faith.

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      • Another example is Singapore, which if you go in Dec is full of Christmas decorations (at least in the shopping areas). This then makes a 2 month holiday season, starting with Christmas and ending with Chinese New Year, both being occasions for the merchants to seperate folks from their money.

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  7. But in the days when people actually went a’ wassailin’, it was done as a thuggish extortion with threat of violence.

    Modern Christmases are made immeasurably better by the relative absence of wassailants.

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  8. If Santa would just muscle up and deck out his elves to be like Legolas there would never be a WOC. It’s all an image problem and Santa is to nice. He needs a good arming himself montage. Ever notice there is no war on Krampus……ah huh….no one going to mess with the K-Dawg.

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  9. This is a fantastic post, Tod, thanks for it. I believe that even if humans hadn’t evolved to anthropomorphize everything in the world and hence believe in gods, I still think there would have been celebrations of this kind in the northern (& southern?) parts of the temperate zones in the dead of winter to help get through the gloom and cold, and to make use of the perishable parts of the harvest. That’s the spirit in which I celebrate the fall and winter holidays as an atheist, though I respect the religious significance different faiths have attached to these ubiquitous celebrations, including that of my own family.

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  10. Tremendously well-written, Tod. Not to diss any of the other authors here, but you have a wonderful clarity in your writing. Reading it is easy and pleasurable, and the ideas communicate well.

    Re: Apples. A couple of years ago I was on an apple farm, and noticed that the trees were nearly two-dimensional–as you faced a tree from the row between the lines of trees, branches grew from the left and right of each tree, but not from the front and back. This allows them to plant rows closer together, and move their picking equipment between the rows more easily. It’s logical and efficient, but two dimensional trees look really weird.

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  11. That’s fine but didn’t you also grow up in a religiously Christian household? Christianity is part of your history and family. Secular Christmas is close to you. I did not grow up in a Christian household. It is not part of my history. Why am I obligated to celebrate secular Christmas?

    I should add that Hannukah is usually a very low key celebration compared to Christmas (secular or otherwise). Yes we give presents but I always knew they came from my parents. We had a nice dinner and exchanged gifts and lit candles. That is about it.

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    • As I understand it (and please, please, PLEASE correct me if I’m wrong), Christians and Jews tend to celebrate holidays very differently — especially so if we look at how the former celebrates what are now the two biggest holidays on the calendar: Christmas and Easter. Some of this has to do with the commercialization of those two, which is why they stand out and differ so much from other major Christian and Catholic holidays such as Ash Wednesday, Palm Sunday, Good Friday, Lent, and Advent. But I also think some of it has to do with the history of the different faiths, cultures, and people. Judaism has, for much of its history, been marginalized and often seems under attack, with its destruction imminent. When I’ve attended Passover seders and Hanukkah menorah lightings and spoken with Jewish friends about their holidays, I always got the sense that major parts of observing (which itself is more often used than the word “celebrating” with regards to them and it seems to me appropriately so) them are a remembrance of the struggles of the Jewish people, an appreciation of their struggles and perseverance, and a call for perspective in accordance with this. You compare this to present bonanza and gift-giving fat men and anthropomorphic bunnies that poop chocolate eggs and it doesn’t seem a contest for which sort of holiday children might prefer. And so much of our connection with holidays is related to our experience with them as children.

      Yet, as I’ve grown older and I look at the ways we tend to celebrate Christmas and Easter and I look at the way Jewish people tend to observe/celebrate their holidays, I’m actually more drawn to the latter. Not the faith aspect (I don’t believe any more than God made that oil last 8 days than I do that his son was birthed in a manger) but what the days themselves represent and what followers are called upon to do in reverence of them.

      tl;dr: Comparing Jewish and Christian holidays almost feels like apples and oranges. The trappings of each are going to appeal to different people. As I’ve grown older, I find myself more drawn to those of the former than the latter.

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      • I don’t see that big a difference in how my christian/father’s side vs. mothers and current in laws/jewish families celebrate. The stories are different of course but i think they have all been happy family gatherings based on stuffing our pie holes. My guess is a lot of it is based on the individual family.

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  12. I think part of the problem here is assuming one’s own background or experience is the normative version of whatever religious identity one has. At best, each one of us is living a snapshot of a tradition (if we’re religious at all) whose history is filled with changing doctrines, practices, and celebrations. What’s usual for us would probably appall historical and future practitioners of most religious traditions.

    We’re increasingly living in an age where religious institutions lack the power to enforce orthodox versions of their faiths, and that’s a good thing. Religion is an individual practice best tailored to the preferences and needs of each person, not dictated by a self-proclaimed authority or a talking head on television.

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  13. It’s funny to read about the drunken history of Christmas today of all days. You see *this* is what we call black Friday, which is a very different beast to the November gift sale Americans call by that name. No the British black Friday is the last Friday before Christmas and is noted for mass drunken revelry of a type that you wouldn’t want to share with your gran and little kiddies (unless you have a rather atypical family). Rumour has it the name originated from it being a ‘black day’ for the police who have to control the crowds.

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  14. On occasion my four year enjoys the show VeggieTales. They have a Christmas special that tells a story quite different from yours, but I like yours better because it doesn’t make me want to tear my own hair out. I’m anxious to read the books you mentioned above, and, as always, thank you for a well written piece.

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  15. What an awesome post.

    Here’s a prediction. 100 years from now, the holiday will still be called “Christmas,” but many people will only have the vague sense that the holiday partially originated in Christian religious tradition, and it will be celebrated by atheists religious believers of all stripes as a sort of winter version of Thanksgiving.

    This will be the end of the war on Christmas. A total rout.

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    • That’s true.

      The idea that nobody should have to work on Christmas will also be seen as “quaint” and a throwback to a time when Christmas had more cultural significance than Valentine’s Day or any other Hallmark Holiday.

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  16. Todd,

    What did Christmas look like in Europe (or parts of Europe) in the 18th and 19th century?

    Clearly the puritans banished it. But did European immigrants bring it here?

    I get that the current Santa thing started with the poem you mentioned, but didn’t Saint Nick get used as a Dutch Christmas icon, Sinterklaas, or something? And didn’t the Brits have Father Christmas (a pre-Santa) for a long time before the 19th century?

    Does this complicate your story?

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    • Sinterklaas was and remains celebrated his own feast day, December 6, not on Christmas. During the Protestant reformation, celebrations of his feast day (and celebrations of just about anything, really) were variously discouraged or outright banned.

      He returned as a more secular-consumerist figure mainly beginning in the 19th Century, much the same way Christmas did elsewhere.

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  17. While Palin is an arguably relevant feature of US politics, I’m fairly sure that no one has ever accused her of being an actual historian. O’Reilly, otoh, fancies himself an historian and, to my perpetual perplexity, a remarkable number of pundits and FNC viewers think he really is one. Must have something to do with his book titles.

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