Catch-22: Christmas in America

According to the New England Puritans of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, Christmas was a pagan (read, "Roman Catholic") excuse to carouse, dance, drink, feast, play games and generally get off work. New England Puritans, accordingly, treated December 25th like any other (i.e. work) day, not even observing the (for them, fictitious) holiday by going to church. Because, as everyone knew, nobody actually knew when Jesus was born and, besides, Christmas was just a thinly-veiled appropriation of ancient pagan solstice celebrations.*

And yet, despite the fact that no good Protestant was even supposed to be observing the holiday, over the course of the 1820s and 1830s, merchants started advertising their wares as appropriate New Year's and, a little later, Christmas gifts, thus transforming what had been a festival of communal, often rowdy, drinking and feasting into the domesticated flurry of gift-giving that we now celebrate today. Almost immediately, there began to be complaints about how Christmas had lost its sacred character to this "commercialization," paradoxically giving the Protestants exactly what they had always wanted: a secularized Christmas.

As Leigh Eric Schmidt has observed in Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995), pp. 179-80: "The tradition of holiday purgation, long shared in by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and many Methodists, bequeathed a model of thorough desacralization that actually helped Christmas go its secular way in American culture. Time and again, these Protestants insisted that Christmas was just like any other day, that it was without 'any peculiar sanctity.' At best, Christmas was an object of 'mistaken piety'; at worst, it was the occasion of superstition and corrupt tradition. Given these presuppositions about the idolatry of the ancient church calendar, when low-church Protestants began their home-centered recovery of Christmas in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, they often welcomed it back explicitly as a 'social holiday,' not as a 'religious observance.' As one Sunday school publication, the Baptist Teacher, editorialized in 1875, 'We believe in Christmas--not as a holy day but as a holiday and so we join with our juveniles with utmost heartiness of festal celebration.... Stripped as it ought to be, of all pretensions of religious sanctity and simply regarded as a social and domestic institution--an occasion of housewarming, and heart-warming and innocent festivity--we welcome its coming with a hearty "All Hail."' A Holiness Methodist publication in the 1880s took a similar tack: It accepted Christmas as a day of family reunions and good works, but the feast, all the same, was without 'the authority of God's word' and smacked of Roman Catholicism. Hence the journal's blunt conclusion: 'We attach no holy significance to the day.' It is not hard to see in this radical Protestant perspective a religious source for the very secularization of the holiday that would eventually be so widely decried. With the often jostling secularism of the Christmas bazaar, Protestant rigorists simply got what they had long wished for--Christmas as one more market day, a profane time of work and trade."

So there.

*Actually, not true. The date of Christmas depends on second-century reasoning about the date of Christ's conception, believed to have been the same day as that on which he died, March 25th. December 25th is simply nine months later.


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