The Battle for Christmas


By Wayne Allensworth

The ghosts of Christmases past are still very much with us. I’m quite thankful they are, for those “ghosts” remind us of a time that was less sterile and less fragmented. So, it’s no surprise that the proponents of “progress” have made war on those ghosts and on that particular holiday.

 Tom Piatak has done great service in his efforts to note and counter what he–correctly—labeled “The War on Christmas.” Personally, I think some pushback on that front has had a positive effect through the years. I’m hearing “Merry Christmas” a bit more often than during the worst years of the propaganda drive to push “Happy Holidays” as a proper greeting during what for many of us is our favorite season of the year. But the battle in the West never stops: The Canadian Human Rights Commission, for instance, in October published a paper declaring that holiday celebrations, including Christmas, represented “discrimination” grounded in “colonialism.” Efforts to erase our past will continue. The memory of Christmases past has to be kept alive if we have any chance to preserve our celebration for Christmases of the future.

“Now in history, there is no Revolution that is not a Restoration,” Chesterton wrote. “Among the many things that leave me doubtful about the modern habit of fixing eyes on the future, none is stronger than this: that all the men in history who have really done anything with the future have had their eyes fixed upon the past.” A collective memory, a vague but compelling collection of shadows that bind us to the past, seems to whisper a perennial, bittersweet hymn to the numbed ear of man, particularly modern man. And especially among those of us who remember the past not as an unbroken chain of horrors, but as a time when sanity largely prevailed in our lives. Every nation, tribe, or clan has passed on tales of a golden past to its children, transmitted by priests, village elders, and prophets of restoration. Our remembered past may not have been all golden, but it certainly passes muster as sane for those of us who do remember. But in the modern age, as Chesterton warned us, we are forced “to ask for new things because we are not allowed to ask for old things.” 

Nevertheless, whatever new things we have come up with have been manifestations of the perennial longing for a restoration of a harmony sensed, but never quite clearly perceived. It is the desire for such a restoration that drives the “battle for Christmas.”

As Stephen Nissenbaum related in his study of the evolution of the Christmas holiday, The Battle for Christmas, published more than 25 years ago, “It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25.” The Church, it appears, chose the date “not for religious reasons” but because it marked the “approximate arrival of the winter solstice”; an event, as Nissenbaum notes, “that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity.” The first “battle for Christmas” was on.

The Church’s goal was to harmonize the Church calendar with a natural rhythm of existence that made the period of late fall through the new year a time of feasting and rest in an agricultural society. The harvest was in, the libations that would quench the thirst of the feasters ready, and the yeoman farmer, peasant, serf, or slave indulged in the consumption of a rare festive meal of fresh meat. While rejecting the pagan Saturnalia, the Church wisely adapted itself to a seasonal, rhythmic existence of work and rest, feast and worship that was, after all, ordained by the Creator of the seasons (and of the Sabbath) Himself.

 The adaptation of the Christian calendar to the winter festival was an effort to absorb and transform the pagan carnival, itself a reflection of man’s natural role within a created world that God had deemed worth saving. The Puritans outlawed the “keeping of Christmas” because of its “un-Scriptural” nature, its association with paganism, and the lingering insistence by many common folk on an extended festive bout of heavy drinking and what were once known as “sins of the flesh.” But even the austere tribe of Increase Mather adapted the seasonal feast (Thanksgiving) to their rather grim version of Christianity.

Elements of the carnival lingered on as they do to this day (the New Year’s Eve party, for instance), despite the efforts of Christians to co-opt the Saturnalia; but certain of its aspects, as Nissenbaum observed, served social purposes that the Church Fathers probably saw as necessary, and unrelated to paganism. Wassailing, the European and early American tradition of a face-to-face exchange of gifts (a song for the best that could be offered in beer, whiskey, or food) between the rich and the poor, artisan and apprentice, or master and slave, appears to have satisfied some urgent need within the participants to demonstrate mutual good will and reciprocity, to affirm status (often by reversing it, with the servant taking on the role of the landlord, the apprentice that of the artisan, or the slave that of the master), while confirming function and purpose.

Nissenbaum was inclined to highlight the role that the winter carnival gift exchange played in cementing an exploitive feudal social order which prevented social upheaval. The lower orders, it appears, were constantly attempting to extend the “Holyday” into or beyond the “twelve days of Christmas” and push the limits of acceptable rowdiness and misrule, even as landlords and priests attempted to rein in their sometimes aggressive and destructive behavior. Still, he does recognize that something valuable was lost in the transition made by the Western world from feudalism to industrial capitalism and centralized, bureaucratic government.

 The modern, “domestic” Christmas centers on Dutch and German practices borrowed and promoted by the aristocratic Knickerbocker set of early 19th century New York: an example of what historians call “invented traditions.” Nissenbaum convincingly demonstrated that the Christmas festival of Santa Claus, Christmas trees, and a transformed gift exchange (from parents to dependent children, later among friends and extended family) developed as a countermeasure to modernity’s erosion of community. The industrialization of the Northeast had transformed social relations by eliminating seasonal rhythm, the uncertainty of status, and the loss of opportunities for “face-to-face” expressions of good will in a rapidly urbanizing environment. Members of the “lonely crowd” simply did not know who or what they were, or what purpose they served in a society that was beginning to regard its citizens as expendable cogs in a perpetual motion machine called “the economy.” The wassailing of the seasonal festival had degenerated into mob behavior by a displaced proletariat, the gift exchange being marked by aggressive begging that bordered on mugging.

The industrialist or mass-scale merchant was not the head of a community bound by reciprocity and a sense of place. He did not claim — as the head of the household, the landlord, the master, or the artisan did — that his dependents enjoyed the entitlements of an extended family that promised mutual aid and assured function and status for all its members. During the 19th century, demands that the state mandate and enforce vacation days, working hours, and holidays were strongest in New England, at that time the most heavily industrialized region of the United States. “In other words,” wrote Nissenbaum, “Washington’s birthday was not afforded legal recognition simply for ‘patriotic’ reasons, nor was Christmas afforded that recognition simply out of ‘religious’ considerations.” The “battle for Christmas” was being fought in union halls and in state legislatures.

 Ironically, efforts by reformers to “domesticate” Christmas, to make “keeping Christmas” something one did at home in the company of a few close friends and family members, or to accentuate the Nativity of Christ as the center of the festival, were themselves co-opted by the new socioeconomic order. The emerging consumerism of the era undermined the exchange of good will and the affirmation of status through role reversal in the exchange between Santa Claus and child (gift and affection for good behavior, gratitude, and reciprocal love). As production was separated from the household, and goods, services, and a variety of foodstuffs became readily available to the expanding urban middle class in 19th-century America, the “specialness” of the Christmas gift was transformed into the frustrating search for the “right gift.” The problem of what to give the man, woman, or child who “has everything” — and often appreciates nothing — was built into capitalism. “Affection’s gift” had become a commercial present, aggressively marketed by commercial interests. “Christmas,” wrote Nissenbaum, “was consciously used by entrepreneurs as an agent of commercialization, an instrument with which to enmesh Americans in a web of consumer capitalism.”

 Nevertheless, the yearning for domesticity, for the genuine affection and warmth so often subtly tied to mutual aid and reciprocity survived. In my childhood home, as in many others, “keeping Christmas” was in some respects an unconscious means of resisting the corrosive tide of modernity that was eating away at us. Without realizing it, we were acknowledging that the fragmenting and, yes, anti-Christian elements that eventually frowned on the “Merry Christmas” greeting were baked into liberal capitalism’s genetic code. Each Christmas celebration in our homes became a small revolution, an act of resistance to the dismal tide, a small restoration that is truly worth hanging on to.

Chronicles contributor Wayne Allensworth is the author of  The Russian Question: Nationalism, Modernization, and Post-Communist Russia, and a novel, Field of Blood

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