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 astreet lamp
downtown, the firsttree glimpsed
through a frostywindow, the first
familiar notesfiltering into
consciousness atthe grocery store or at
the mall. It is a longing imperviousto the assaults of the season: to the
car salesmen dressed up as reindeer, the 1,652nd reprise of "WhiteChristmas" on theradio, the 14th marital spat that ends with
"She's your relative!" And as the season ripens, itgrows, displacing a year's worth ofweariness,
cynicism and general, late-20th-century anxiety. You can see it in theeyes of a child
dragging a Christmas tree across the snow in Maine, in the facesof carolers at New York City's South Street
Seaport, in the Santa hat atop a "cattle crossing" sign near Blanco,
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 mostpeople, the holiday
triggers an intensesearch 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
The only problem is that, as historians are increasingly discovering,
more spiritual past is more a product of our cultural imagination than ofhistorical fact. A series ofnew studies suggests that the
observance of Christmaswas never an
entirely religious affair, thatmany of
the most popular seasonaltraditions are
relatively modern inventions and thatcomplaints of crass overindulgence and gross commercialism are nearly as
old as the holidayitself.
An affront unto God. Through most
of its history, the Christmas season has been a time ofraucous 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 itsreputation in colonial America that
celebratingChristmas was banned in
Puritan New England, where the noted minister Cotton Mather described
yuletidemerrymaking as "an affront
unto the grace of God." In a new book, The Battle for Christmas,
University of Massachusetts history professor StephenNissenbaum
describes the annual birthday celebration of the Prince of Peace asa 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
The earliest celebrations of the Nativity were surprisingly late. There
is no record of officialobservance of Christ's birth until the fourth century, when
Constantine, a Christianconvert, was
emperor ofRome. The absence of aNativity celebration beforethen, scholars say, reflects at least in part
the fact that no one knew for sure when Jesus was born. While some churchtraditions
place hisbirth between 6 B.C. and 4
B.C.--near the end of the reign of Herod theGreat--the gospels are silent on the year, let alone the exact month or
Lacking any scriptural pointers to Jesus's birthday,
early Christian teacherssuggested dates allover
the calendar. Clement, a bishop of Alexandria who diedcirca A.D. 215, pickedNovember 18 Hippolytus,
a Roman theologian in the early third century, figured Christ musthave been born on a Wednesday thesame day God created the sun. The De PaschaComputus,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 PenneRestad,
theearliest 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 "viewedbirthday celebrations as
heathen." The third-century church father Origen had declared it a sin toeven think of
keeping Christ's birthday "as though he were aking pharaoh."
Raised from the
dead. What interested the early Christians more, historianssay, wasproclaiming the central message of their
faith: that the crucified Christhad
been raised from the dead. So important was the Resurrection to church lifethat the Apostle
Paul, writing in about A.D. 56 to the church in Corinth, asserted:
If Christ has not beenraised, then our preaching is in vain and your faith is invain. . . . But infact, Christhas been raised from the dead.
The early focus on theResurrection explains why thePascha, 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 mostimportant event on the Christian
calendar, even though 70 percent ofAmericans--including 62 percent of those who attend church
regularly—toldU.S. News/Bozell pollsters that they consider Christmas the most
The fact that the earliest gospel--St. Mark's, written about A.D.
50--begins with the baptism ofan 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." Evenso, there is no mention in the New Testament of Christians
gathering to commemorate the birthof
It was conflict that eventually propelled the church toward celebrating
the Nativity, somescholars contend, as it attempted to counter heresies
growingwithin its ranks. Among the most
contentious of the heresies was Docetism, thebelief that
Christ was a spirit and did not possess a human body. "This hadmomentous
significance for the Christian view of salvation," says PaulaFredriksen,
professor of ancient Christianity at Boston University. "If Christ hadno body,
thenthere was no bodily Crucifixion or
Resurrection." But by the fourth century, the official stand ofthe church in Rome
was that Christ was raised in both body and spirit and, consequently, boththe believer's body and soul are redeemed in
salvation. Celebrating the birth of Jesus then, saysFredriksen,
"wasone 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 inthePhilocalian calendar, a Romandocument from A.D. 354, which listsDecember 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 Saturnaliaand other
pagan festivals. In the third and fourth centuries, thechurch in Rome found itself infierce competition with popular pagan
religionsand mystery cults, most of
them involving sunworship. From the
middle of December through the first of January, Romans would engage infeasts 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 solsticeon the
Julian calendar--as natalissolisinvicti ("birth of the invincible sun"), a
festival honoringthe sun god Mithras.
In designatingDecember 25 as the date for their Nativity feast, says Restadof the
University of Texas, Rome's Christians
"challenged paganism directly." They also wereable 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 datebased on the
belief,inherited from ancient Judaism,
that significant religiousfigures 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 widespreadobservance
of the Savior's birth.But in doing so,
says Nissenbaum, the churchalso "tacitly agreed to allow the
holiday to becelebrated more or less
the way it had always been." As one historian put it: "The pagan Romansbecame
Christians--but the Saturnalia remained."
Not surprisingly, the combination of the sacred and the profane made
some church leadersuncomfortable. St. Gregory of Nazianzus,
a fourth-centurytheologian and bishop ofConstantinople, cautioned against "feasting to excess, dancing and
crowning the doors" and urged celebration of the Nativity "after
anheavenly and not after an earthly
manner." But while there were always peoplefor whom Christmas was a time of
reverence rather than revelry, says Nissenbaum,
"such people were in the minority." Christmas, he says, "has alwaysbeen anextremely difficult holiday to
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
northernEurope. In Scandinavia, it
became entwined with a pagan midwinter feast knownasyule. And
by 1050, the words Christesmaesse
("festival of Christ") hadentered theEnglish language. "From the 13th century
on," notes Restad, "nearlyall Europe kept Jesus's
pleasures. Indeed, they kept it much as the Romans had--in gluttonousfeasts and
raucouspublic revelry. Leading clergy,
from time to time, tried to rein in abuses of Christmas merrimentbut usually to little avail. In
England, Restad notes, "celebrants devoted much
of the season topagan
pleasures . . .discouraged the
remainder of the year." Writing in 1725, Anglican ministerHenryBourne said the way most people behaved at Christmas was "a scandal
to religion and anencouraging of
wickedness." For many, he said, Christmas was"a pretense for drunkenness
andrioting and wantonness."
England's Puritans inveighed against keeping the holiday at all andsucceeded for a
while in having itbanned. The Puritans,
says Nissenbaum, "were correct whenthey
pointedout--and they pointed it out
often--that Christmas was nothing but a paganfestival covered with a Christian veneer."
When Christmas landed on American
shores, it fared little better. In colonial times, Christ's birthwas celebrated as a wildly social
event--if it was celebrated at all. Virginians hunted and dancedand feasted, while poor city dwellers
partiedand thronged the streets in
boisterous demonstrations, often begging food anddrink at the homes of the well-to-do.
Puritans in New England flatly refused toobserve the holiday.
In some cities, says Nissenbaum, the rather
benign English tradition of wassailing took on anincreasingly 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 oran expression of goodwill. Often, says Nissenbaum,
exchanges included "anexplicit threat" as contained in one surviving wassail song:
We've come here to claim our right . . .And if you don't open up your doorWe will lay you
flat upon the floor.
Variations on the practice were common. In some cities, Christmas
revelers would cross-dress orwear 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 pprenticeand wealthy to poor. It as
a time, the historian says, "when the social hierarchy itself was symbolicallyturned
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
quicklyand quite deliberately. By the
early 1820s, cities had mushroomed with industrialization and their Christmas
celebrations had turnedincreasingly boisterous and sometimes violent. In 1828, according
New York City organized its first professional police force inresponse to a violent Christmas
riot. A concerned group of New York patriciansthat included Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, author of A
VisitFrom St. Nicholas, began a
campaign to bring Christmas off the streets into thefamily circle.
tradition. Moore's classic poem, written in 1822, provided the new
mythology for thisChristmas makeover. Moore's St. Nick--far from being the creature
of ancient Dutch folklore— was an "invented tradition," saysNissenbaum,
"made up with the precise purpose of appearingold-fashioned." ToMoore's patrician audience, the
midnight visitor who "looked like a peddler"would have evoked plebeian wassailers. But rather than demanding food anddrink, this
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 "domesticenjoyments" of Christmas. Giving gifts to children and loved
ones eventually supplanted the wassail as the mainstay of holiday celebration.
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,
saysNissenbaum, had been taken from the streets and
Not surprisingly, the nation's merchants were favorably disposed to this
The new tradition of Christmas gift giving created an instant retail bonanza,
and merchants andadvertisers soon began to promote the season nearly as much as
they promoted their wares. Bythe 1870s, one historian observes, "department stores often
outdid the churches in religiousadornmentand 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
By the early 20th century, stores had largely abandoned overtly
religious motifs, says Restad. Butthey "continued to undergo
marvelous alteration at holiday time, becoming strikingly `other'places." As competition for the
attention of holidayshoppers escalated, so did the Christmasdisplays. During the 1940s, Chicago's
Marshall Field & Co. began to turn its huge departmentstore into "a glittering
fairyland" at Christmastime and each year came up with a secret newtheme for its decorations.
Santa on parade. To expand
holiday profits, many stores made Thanksgivingthe officialspringboard for Christmas sales; others
started as early as Halloween. In 1920, Gimbels
inPhiladelphia organized the first
Thanksgiving Day parade and featured Santa Claus as the mainattraction. 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 commercialinterests
"conspired in resetting its date." In 1939, after years of
Depression-deflated sales, thehead of Ohio's Federated Department
Stores argued that by advancing the date of Thanksgiving one week, six days
ofshopping would be added. Convinced by
his logic, says Restad, PresidentFranklin Roosevelt moved the
feast from November 30 to November 23. Andin 1941, Congressset the annual date of Thanksgiving as the fourth Thursday in
November--ensuring a four-weekshopping
season each year. The nation's recognition of Christmas as a powerful economic forcehad reached its
In the years since, the reinvented traditions of this modern American Christmashave
permeatedthe culture through a potent
combination of commerce and new communications media. Annualreruns of holiday television specials and
on 34th Street have become rituals inthemselves, homogenizing the Christmas experience for many Americans.
And retailers havecome to count onyuletide
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
Christmaslarger than the gross
national product of Ireland.
What many historians find most fascinating about the reinvention of
Christmas is that itscommercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned
thetransformation in the first place.
The "commercial forms" associated withChristmas and other holidays, says
Schmidt of Princeton, "have become integralto their survival." The consumer culture
"shapes our holidays," Schmidt says, "bytaking 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 culturalresonance and impact of a holiday deeply
rooted in the marketplace." IfChristmas came to that, adds Restad, "we probably wouldn't keep it as a
Piety or profit. Yet there
seems little danger of that happening. Christmas hasfar too powerful agrip on American culture: It is no more the
church's sole possession today than it was in ancientRome. But given its long history of
controversy and the unremitting tension between piety andprofit 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 noisycathedrals of suburban shopping malls--the arrival ofChristmas, says Restad,
prods celebrantsonce again to
"confront our ideals" and to "examine our relationships with our
families, ourcommunities and our
faith." Adds Nissenbaum: Christmas rituals,
whether old or new, sacred orsecular, 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 despiteourselves."
As thoughts return to a Bethlehem manger, the search begins again. And, at
season, it seems "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" might be
possible after all.
BY JEFFERY L. SHELER
Many Americans think Christmas is too commercial: Forty-eight percentsay the Santa
Claus tradition and gift giving detract from the religiouscelebration.
Forty-four percent of Americans think they spend too much money ongifts at
Christmas; 48percent 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 Researchand Ed Goeas of the Tarrance
Group. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.1 percent.