12/1996 USN Cover Story

http://www.usnews.com/usnews/issue/23xmas.htm 

 

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IN SEARCH OF CHRISTMAS

 

Imagine a purer, less commercial, more spiritual Christmas .But don't call it history.

 

Get links and more on the Christmas story

 

The yearning begins with the first shimmer of tinsel on a  street lamp downtown, the first  tree glimpsed through a frosty  window, the first familiar notes  filtering into consciousness at  the grocery store or at the mall. It is a longing impervious  to the assaults of the season: to the car salesmen dressed up as reindeer, the 1,652nd reprise of "White  Christmas" on the  radio, the 14th marital spat that ends with "She's your relative!" And as the season ripens, it        grows, displacing a year's worth of  weariness, cynicism and general, late-20th-century anxiety. You can see it in the  eyes of a child dragging a Christmas tree across the snow in Maine, in the faces  of carolers at New York City's South Street Seaport, in the Santa hat atop a "cattle crossing" sign near Blanco, Texas.

 

Christmas is an American passion--96 percent of Americans say they celebrate it in some form, according to a recent U.S. News/Bozell poll. Yet for most  people, the holiday triggers an intense  search for some dimly remembered Christmas past, a nostalgia for a time when yuletide was more pious and more peaceful, when it was free of gaudy commercialism and focused more on the birth of the Savior than on the 20 percent-off sale at the local department store.

 

The only problem is that, as historians are increasingly discovering, this purer,  simpler, more spiritual past is more a product of our cultural imagination than of  historical fact. A series of  new studies suggests that the observance of Christmas  was never an entirely religious affair, that  many of the most popular seasonal  traditions are relatively modern inventions and that  complaints of crass overindulgence and gross commercialism are nearly as old as the holiday  itself.

 

An affront unto God. Through most of its history, the Christmas season has been a time of  raucous revelry and bacchanalian indulgence more akin to Mardi Gras or New Year's Eve than to a silent, holy night. So tarnished, in fact, was its  reputation in colonial America that celebrating  Christmas was banned in Puritan New England, where the noted minister Cotton Mather described yuletide  merrymaking as "an affront unto the grace of God." In a new book, The Battle for Christmas, University of Massachusetts history professor Stephen  Nissenbaum describes the annual birthday celebration of the Prince of Peace as  a perennial battleground for competing cultural, religious and economic forces.  "There never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism," Nissenbaum writes.

 

The earliest celebrations of the Nativity were surprisingly late. There is no record of official  observance of Christ's birth until the fourth century, when Constantine, a Christian  convert, was emperor of  Rome. The absence of a  Nativity celebration before  then, scholars say, reflects at least in part the fact that no one knew for sure when Jesus was born. While some church  traditions place his  birth between 6 B.C. and 4 B.C.--near the end of the reign of Herod the  Great--the gospels are silent on the year, let alone the exact month or day.

 

Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus's birthday, early Christian teachers  suggested dates all  over the calendar. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria who died  circa A.D. 215, picked  November 18 Hippolytus, a Roman theologian in the early third century, figured Christ must  have been born on a Wednesday the   same day God created the sun. The De Pascha Computus,  an anonymous document believed to have been written in North Africa around A.D. 243, placed Jesus's birth on March 28, four days after the first day of spring.

 

But even if they had known the date, says University of Texas historian Penne  Restad, the  earliest Christians simply weren't interested in celebrating the Nativity. "They expected the second Coming any day," writes Restad in her 1995 book, Christmas in America: A History. To celebrate Christ's birth would have seemed to them pointless. Moreover, she says, they "viewed               birthday celebrations as heathen." The third-century church father Origen had declared it a sin to  even think of keeping Christ's birthday "as though he were a  king pharaoh."

 

Raised from the dead. What interested the early Christians more, historians  say, was  proclaiming the central message of their faith: that the crucified Christ  had been raised from the dead. So important was the Resurrection to church life  that the Apostle Paul, writing in about A.D. 56 to the church in Corinth, asserted:

 

If Christ has not been  raised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is in  vain. . . . But in  fact, Christ  has been raised from the dead.

 

The early focus on the  Resurrection explains why the  Pascha, the Easter festival commemorating the Crucifixion and Resurrection of Jesus during the Jewish Passover, was the only annual celebration known to the early church, says Brian Daley, a theology professor at the University of Notre Dame. Today, Easter remains the most  important event on the Christian calendar, even though 70 percent of  Americans--including 62 percent of those who attend church regularly—told  U.S. News/Bozell pollsters that they consider Christmas the most significant  Christian holiday.

 

The fact that the earliest gospel--St. Mark's, written about A.D. 50--begins with the baptism of  an adult Jesus at the start of his public ministry is yet another indication that the earliest Christians lacked interest in the Nativity, scholars say.  Only St. Matthew's and St. Luke's gospels, written two to four decades later, include stories about Christ's birth. By that time, says Paul Maier, professor of ancient history at Western Michigan University, "Christians, believing in both the divinity and humanity of Jesus, were curious to know how he came to be." Even  so, there is no mention in the New Testament of Christians gathering to commemorate the birth  of Jesus.

 

It was conflict that eventually propelled the church toward celebrating the Nativity, some  scholars contend, as it attempted to counter heresies growing  within its ranks. Among the most contentious of the heresies was Docetism, the  belief that Christ was a spirit and did not possess a human body. "This had  momentous significance for the Christian view of salvation," says Paula               Fredriksen, professor of ancient Christianity at Boston University. "If Christ had  no body, then  there was no bodily Crucifixion or Resurrection." But by the fourth century, the official stand of  the church in Rome was that Christ was raised in both body and spirit and, consequently, both  the believer's body and soul are redeemed in salvation. Celebrating the birth of Jesus then, says  Fredriksen, "was  one way of emphasizing that Christ had a real human body."

 

Matter of conjecture. Exactly when the church began celebrating Christmas, however, is unclear.  The first mention of a Nativity feast, scholars say, appears in  the Philocalian calendar, a Roman  document from A.D. 354, which lists  December 25 as the day of Jesus's birth in Bethlehem of Judea. How the church arrived at December 25, when the actual date of Christ's birth was unknown, is a matter of conjecture.

 

Most widely held is the view that the holiday was an intentional "Christianization"  of Saturnalia  and other pagan festivals. In the third and fourth centuries, the  church in Rome found itself in  fierce competition with popular pagan religions  and mystery cults, most of them involving sun  worship. From the middle of December through the first of January, Romans would engage in  feasts and drunken revelry, paying homage to their gods and marking the winter solstice, when days began to lengthen. In A.D. 274, Emperor Aurelian decreed December 25--the solstice  on the Julian calendar--as natalis solis invicti ("birth of the invincible sun"), a festival honoring  the sun god Mithras. In designating  December 25 as the date for their Nativity feast, says Restad  of the University of  Texas, Rome's Christians "challenged paganism directly." They also were  able to invoke rich biblical symbolism that described Jesus as the "Sun of Righteousness"  and God's "true light," sent to dispel darkness in the world.

 

A second view suggests that church leaders arrived at the December 25 date  based on the belief,  inherited from ancient Judaism, that significant religious  figures are born and die on the same day of the month. One prominent church tradition of the time held that Jesus died on March 25--the same date as his conception, according to the tradition. Were that the case, he would have been born nine months later, on December 25.

 

Whatever their reasons, by assigning Christmas to late December, when people already were accustomed to celebrating, church leaders ensured widespread  observance of the Savior's birth.  But in doing so, says Nissenbaum, the church  also "tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be  celebrated more or less the way it had always been." As one historian put it: "The pagan Romans  became Christians--but the Saturnalia remained."

 

Not surprisingly, the combination of the sacred and the profane made some church leaders  uncomfortable. St. Gregory of Nazianzus, a fourth-century  theologian and bishop of  Constantinople, cautioned against "feasting to excess, dancing and crowning the doors" and urged celebration of the Nativity "after an  heavenly and not after an earthly manner." But while there were always people  for whom Christmas was a time of reverence rather than revelry, says Nissenbaum, "such people were in the minority." Christmas, he says, "has always  been an  extremely difficult holiday to Christianize."

 

The custom of honoring Jesus's birth on December 25 quickly spread to the Eastern Church,  which at one time observed Epiphany, January 6, as a joint feast of the Nativity and the baptism of Jesus. Over the next 1,000 years,  Christmas observance followed the expanding church from Egypt to northern  Europe. In Scandinavia, it became entwined with a pagan midwinter feast known  as yule. And by 1050, the words Christes maesse ("festival of Christ") had  entered the  English language. "From the 13th century on," notes Restad, "nearly  all Europe kept Jesus's birth."

 

 Pagan pleasures. Indeed, they kept it much as the Romans had--in gluttonous  feasts and raucous  public revelry. Leading clergy, from time to time, tried to rein in abuses of Christmas merriment  but usually to little avail. In England, Restad notes, "celebrants devoted much of the season to  pagan pleasures . . .  discouraged the remainder of the year." Writing in 1725, Anglican minister  Henry   Bourne said the way most people behaved at Christmas was "a scandal to religion and an  encouraging of wickedness." For many, he said, Christmas was  "a pretense for drunkenness and  rioting and wantonness." England's Puritans inveighed against keeping the holiday at all and  succeeded for a while in having it  banned. The Puritans, says Nissenbaum, "were correct when  they pointed  out--and they pointed it out often--that Christmas was nothing but a pagan  festival covered with a Christian veneer."

 

 When Christmas landed on American shores, it fared little better. In colonial times, Christ's birth  was celebrated as a wildly social event--if it was celebrated at all. Virginians hunted and danced  and feasted, while poor city dwellers partied  and thronged the streets in boisterous demonstrations, often begging food and  drink at the homes of the well-to-do. Puritans in New England flatly refused to  observe the holiday.

 

In some cities, says Nissenbaum, the rather benign English tradition of wassailing took on an  increasingly menacing edge. In New York City and Philadelphia, bands of young men would march into houses of the wealthy, who were expected to proffer gifts of food and drink, sometimes in exchange for a song or  an expression of goodwill. Often, says Nissenbaum, exchanges included "an  explicit threat" as contained in one surviving wassail song:

 

We've come here to claim our right . . .   And if you don't open up your door   We will lay you flat upon the floor.

 

Variations on the practice were common. In some cities, Christmas revelers would cross-dress or  wear blackface as they went noisily from door to door. But in each case, says Nissenbaum,  Christmas exchanges amounted to a passing of goods from master to servant, patron to pprentice  and wealthy to poor. It as a time, the historian says, "when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically  turned upside down." Into the early 19th century, quiet family celebrations and gift exchanges among family members were largely unknown.

 

But Christmas in America was about to change. And when the changes came,  they came quickly  and quite deliberately. By the early 1820s, cities had mushroomed with industrialization and their Christmas celebrations had turned  increasingly boisterous and sometimes violent. In 1828, according to  Nissenbaum, New York City organized its first professional police force in               response to a violent Christmas riot. A concerned group of New York patricians  that included Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, author of A Visit  From St. Nicholas, began a campaign to bring Christmas off the streets into the   family circle.

 

 Invented tradition. Moore's classic poem, written in 1822, provided the new mythology for this  Christmas makeover. Moore's St. Nick--far from being the creature of ancient Dutch folklore— was an "invented tradition," says  Nissenbaum, "made up with the precise purpose of appearing  old-fashioned." To  Moore's patrician audience, the midnight visitor who "looked like a peddler"               would have evoked plebeian wassailers. But rather than demanding food and  drink, this "jolly"  and unthreatening visitor bore gifts for the children who, until then, had played a rather insignificant role in Christmas celebrations.

 

The poem quickly caught on, and newspapers soon began to editorialize about the "domestic  enjoyments" of Christmas. Giving gifts to children and loved ones eventually supplanted the wassail as the mainstay of holiday celebration. And by  the mid-19th century, what began in New York had spread throughout the country. Even some New England Presbyterians and congregationalists, heirs to the Puritan legacy, became open celebrants of the Nativity. Christmas, says  Nissenbaum, had been taken from the streets and domesticated.

 

Not surprisingly, the nation's merchants were favorably disposed to this turn of  events. The new tradition of Christmas gift giving created an instant retail bonanza, and merchants and  advertisers soon began to promote the season nearly as much as they promoted their wares. By  the 1870s, one historian observes, "department stores often outdid the churches in religious  adornment  and symbolism, with pipe organs, choirs, . . . statues of saints and angels" in a manner that bathed "consumption in the reflected glory of Christianity." Indeed,  the holiday was on its way to becoming what Princeton University professor of religion Leigh Eric Schmidt called in his 1995 book, Consumer Rites, a "grand festival of consumption."

 

By the early 20th century, stores had largely abandoned overtly religious motifs, says Restad. But  they "continued to undergo marvelous alteration at holiday time, becoming strikingly `other'  places." As competition for the attention of holiday  shoppers escalated, so did the Christmas  displays. During the 1940s, Chicago's Marshall Field & Co. began to turn its huge department  store into "a glittering fairyland" at Christmastime and each year came up with a secret new  theme for its decorations.

 

Santa on parade. To expand holiday profits, many stores made Thanksgiving  the official  springboard for Christmas sales; others started as early as Halloween. In 1920, Gimbels in   Philadelphia organized the first Thanksgiving Day parade and featured Santa Claus as the main  attraction. And in 1924, both Hudson's in Detroit and Macy's in New York followed suit.

 

 So vital was Thanksgiving in launching the Christmas season, says Restad, that commercial  interests "conspired in resetting its date." In 1939, after years of Depression-deflated sales, the  head of Ohio's Federated Department Stores argued that by advancing the date of Thanksgiving one week, six days of  shopping would be added. Convinced by his logic, says Restad, President                Franklin Roosevelt moved the feast from November 30 to November 23. And   in 1941, Congress  set the annual date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in November--ensuring a four-week  shopping season each year. The nation's recognition of Christmas as a powerful economic force  had reached its highest  levels.

 

In the years since, the reinvented traditions of this modern American Christmas  have permeated  the culture through a potent combination of commerce and new communications media. Annual   reruns of holiday television specials and films like  Miracle on 34th Street have become rituals in  themselves, homogenizing the Christmas experience for many Americans. And retailers have  come to count on  yuletide sales for up to 50 percent of their annual profits. The shopping season now pumps an estimated $37 billion into the nation's economy--making the American Christmas   larger than the gross national product of Ireland.

 

What many historians find most fascinating about the reinvention of Christmas is that its  commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned the  transformation in the first place. The "commercial forms" associated with  Christmas and other holidays, says Schmidt of Princeton, "have become integral  to their survival." The consumer culture "shapes our holidays," Schmidt says, "by  taking in diverse, local traditions and creating relatively common ones." To turn Christmas into a purely religious celebration now might cheer those who want to  "take back Christmas," he says. But such an observance "would lack the cultural    resonance and impact of a holiday deeply rooted in the marketplace." If  Christmas came to that, adds Restad, "we probably wouldn't keep it as a society."

 

Piety or profit. Yet there seems little danger of that happening. Christmas has  far too powerful a  grip on American culture: It is no more the church's sole possession today than it was in ancient  Rome. But given its long history of controversy and the unremitting tension between piety and  profit in its observance, the "battle for Christmas" is all but certain to persist.

 

No matter how people choose to keep it--in the quiet of their homes or churches, or in the noisy  cathedrals of suburban shopping malls--the arrival of  Christmas, says Restad, prods celebrants  once again to "confront our ideals" and to "examine our relationships with our families, our  communities and our faith." Adds Nissenbaum: Christmas rituals, whether old or new, sacred or  secular, will serve as they always have to "transfigure our ordinary behavior" in ways that reveal  "something of what we would like to be, what we once were or what we are becoming despite  ourselves." As thoughts return to a Bethlehem manger, the search begins again. And, at least for  a season, it seems "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" might be possible after all.

 

BY JEFFERY L. SHELER

 

POLL

 

Many Americans think Christmas is too commercial: Forty-eight percent  say the Santa Claus tradition and gift giving detract from the religious  celebration.

 

Forty-four percent of Americans think they spend too much money on  gifts at Christmas; 48  percent say they spend just the right amount.

 

The spiritual aspect of the holiday is important to many Americans:  Eighty-two percent agree that "Christmas is a time of reflection for me."

 

U.S. News/Bozell poll of 1,003 adults conducted by KRC Research Nov. 6-10,

1996, with consulting by U.S. News pollsters Celinda Lake of Lake Research  and Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.1 percent.

 

                                    

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