The evolution of Christmas from an outlawed and unfashionable affair into the American commercial extravaganza we have today—and every day from mid-November through early January.
“From Callithumpians to Pajama-Clad Tykes”
The Christmas Season is upon us: Decorations, advertising campaigns, Santas collecting for the Salvation Army. And a host of familial obligations that require forethought and the extension of considerable effort. Many people love Christmas. Many love it, but also find it overwhelming. Clergymen know that it’s a time when a lot of people become depressed and lonely. Every year December is a time of an above average number of pastoral crises…and 2018 is no exception.
Many people who complain about the modern-day commercialization of Christmas may be surprised to discover that dissatisfaction with the way the holiday has been observed is by no means new. Indeed, few realize how the celebration of Christmas has changed over the decades. This morning I want to share some of the more significant of those changes.
At the dawn of the early modern period—roughly five hundred years ago—Christmas was still closely tied in with the seasonal cycle of an agricultural society. December was a time of leisure and a season of plenty—plenty of food and drink. It was a time when consumption—over consumption—was expected. Late fall and early winter were a time to gorge on the best food and drink—not just bread and beer, but “cakes and ale.” It was a time to splurge, until the hard freeze of winter, and with it the constraints of ordinary existence, set in once again.
In New England for the first two centuries of European settlement most people did not celebrate Christmas. The celebration was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.
Why? Why this strange hostility? The Puritans themselves had a simple reason: there was no Biblical sanction for Christmas. True, the Gospel of Luke tells the familiar nativity narrative, but nowhere in this account is there any indication of the exact date or even the season on which “this day in the city of David” fell. It was only in the 4th century that the church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25th. And the date was chosen because it coincided with the winter solstice, an event celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. The Reverend Increase Mather of Boston, for example, accurately observed in 1687 that the date was chosen, not for religious reasons, “but because the Heathen’s Saturnalia was at the time kept in Rome, and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian [ones].”
But the Puritans had another reason for suppressing Christmas. The holiday, as it had been celebrated for centuries, involved behavior that they found offensive—and many of us would as well—rowdy displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive betting, and the invasion of wealthy homes.
Nowadays, we think of the Christmas season as going from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. In early modern Europe (roughly the years between 1500 and 1800), the season was even longer, running from early December through “Twelfth Night.” It was a time to let off steam—and to gorge. It’s kind of hard for us, with the ready availability of healthy food, to understand what seasonal feasting is all about. But in those years few people ate good food at all. Late summer and early fall were the season of fresh vegetables, but December was the season—the only season—of fresh meat. Animals couldn’t be slaughtered until the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat wouldn’t go bad, and any meat saved for the rest of the year would have to be preserved (and rendered less palatable) by salting. December was also the month when the year’s supply of beer and wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, this was a period of leisure. Little wonder, then, that this was a time of celebratory excess.
Excess took many forms. Reveling could easily become rowdiness; lubricated by alcohol, making merry could edge into making trouble. Christmas was a time of “misrule,” a time when ordinary behavior could be violated with impunity—kind of a carnival atmosphere. Much of this behavior was ritualized. The poor—most often bands of boys and young men—claimed the right to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls, and receive gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money. And the rich had to let them in—essentially, to hold an “open house.” Christmas was a time when peasants, servants, and apprentices exercised the right to demand that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them as if they were wealthy and powerful. The Lord of the Manor let the peasants in and feasted them. In return the peasants offered something of true value in a paternalistic society—their goodwill.
The exchange of gifts for goodwill—that’s what Christmas was in the old days. And it was often pretty rowdy. The Puritans felt the whole season was corrupt, pagan and evil. And they systematically attempted to abolish it. They were somewhat successful, among their own people. Among the fishermen and mariners (notorious for their irreligion, heavy drinking, and loose sexual activity) such celebrations continued, if somewhat under wraps.
By the early 1700s, and especially after 1720, Christmas began to enter the New England cultural mainstream. Benjamin Franklin and even some Congregational clergymen began to call for a Christmas that combined mirth, moderation and devotion—the first effort to “put Christ into Christmas.” By the American Revolution Christmas was widely observed, but less as a celebration of misrule and more as a religious holiday.
With the turn of the nineteenth century, the reappropriation of Christmas took on a concerted form—a move to hold church services on December 25. This move was led by both evangelicals and liberals. In the forefront of the evangelicals were the Universalists. Largely a rural sect, Universalists openly celebrated Christmas from the earliest stages of their existence in New England. The Universalist community in Boston held a special Christmas Day service in 1789, even before their congregation was officially organized, and in the early nineteenth century it was [our Universalist] denomination that proselytized for Christmas more actively than any other.
The Unitarians were close behind. Compared with Universalists, Unitarians were more gentile, and [for all their theological liberalism] more socially conservative….
Unitarians were calling for the public observance of Christmas by about 1800. They did so in full knowledge that it was not a biblically sanctioned holiday, and that December 25 was probably not the day on which Jesus was born. They wished to celebrate the holiday not because God had ordered them to do so but because they themselves wished to. And they celebrated it in the hope that their own observance might help to purge the holiday of its associations with seasonal excess and disorder.
But it wasn’t liberal Christianity that transformed Christmas from a season of misrule to one of domesticity. It was Santa Claus. With the turn of the 19th century came the beginnings of industrial capitalism and the rise of urban centers. Customary Christmas license combined with seasonal unemployment made the Christmas holiday too noisy, drunken and threatening in the eyes of respectable citizens. Parades of working-class young men and boys would march through cities like New York and Philadelphia making a racket and, occasionally, mayhem. They would sometimes intimidate the wealthy, who came to consensus on the wisdom of creating counter-rituals to these callithumpian [i.e., rowdy, hooligan] activities. One such wealthy New Yorker was Clement Clarke Moore. Moore published “A Visit from St. Nicolas” in 1822. Within five years it was being reprinted annually in newspapers across America. In Moore’s vision, Christmas became a family celebration, with children taking the place of the poor as the recipients of largess. The ritual of social inversion was still there, but now it was based on age and family status alone. In other words, beginning in the 1820s age replaced social class as the axis along which gifts were given at Christmas. The children of a single household replaced a much larger group—the poor and the powerless—as the appropriate recipients of one’s charity and benevolence. Clement Clarke Moore, by transforming the patron-client exchange from one between the classes to one between the generations, helped to transform Christmas into a practical, simple ritual that almost every household could perform; and eventually, one that almost every home in America would.
Moore’s Santa Claus was an appropriation of a Dutch quasi-mythological figure, one whom New York author Washington Irving had written about in his Knickerbocker’s History of New York, first published in 1809. Basically, Washington Irving invented Santa Claus and gave him a folksy pseudo-Dutch identity. Then Moore transformed him into a figure who visited not on December 6th—St. Nicolas’ Day—but on Christmas Eve. Throughout the mid-19th century cartoonist Thomas Nast transformed Santa Claus still further—from a “jolly old elf” into a hefty avuncular fellow: the same Santa we know today.
Meanwhile, the rowdier ways of celebrating Christmas didn’t disappear, or even diminish. What did happen, however, was that a new kind of holiday celebration—domestic and child-centered—had been fashioned and was now being claimed as the “real” Christmas. Henceforth, stories in the newspapers about Santa Claus would appear under the heading “Christmas,” while stories about callithumpian activities would be relegated to the police blotter.
This transformation had two aspects: first, keeping the poor away from the houses of the rich; and second, keeping one’s own children inside. Before the 19th century, class and age were thoroughly intermingled; one’s children, like servants and apprentices, were all customarily thought of as dependents. The domestication of Christmas was interwoven with the creation of domesticity and of “childhood” itself, informed by the novel idea that the central purpose of the family was to provide not simply for the instruction of its children but for their happiness as well. Consider: before 1820 children customarily played an annual game with their schoolmasters: taking over the schoolhouse one morning and threatening their teacher until he agreed to give them Christmas Day off. The custom was more or less sanctioned by adults. But what they didn’t sanction was the holdover rowdiness of Christmas Day in years past—which youngsters would exhibit by throwing snowballs and other hijinx. Getting their wards out of the street and into the parlor became—as it never had been before—the mark of caring and respectable parents.
It was in this context that the practice of giving “presents” was born. Commercial Christmas presents were first publicly advertised in the opening two decades of the 19th century. By the 1820s, advertising had grown considerably. In the 1840’s ads became pervasive, ornate and sophisticated. Finally, Santa Claus himself began to be used in ads, and in shops themselves, as a way of attracting the attention of children. It was probably no accident that these aggressive advertising tactics were devised in hard economic times. The depression that set in at the end of 1839 was the deepest the United States had yet experienced. Businessmen went to great lengths to persuade people to visit their shops. They knew that Christmas was the one time of the year when people were more or less conditioned to purchase things they couldn’t afford and didn’t really need, as it had long been a special ceremonial time when ordinary rules of behavior were upended. Christmas was, and still is, a time to let go of ordinary psychological restraints, to shift psychologically into a “holiday” state of mind, permitting expenditures what would normally be considered spendthrift. Urbanization and capitalism were liberating people from the constraints of the agricultural cycle and making large quantities of goods available for extended periods of time, but that change was very recent; the memories of the behavioral rhythms of the old seasonal cycle were still fresh. Late December was still associated with letting go, with splurging, and with overindulgence in luxuries that were hardly available at all during the rest of the year. A commercial Christmas was emerging in tandem with the commercial economy itself, and the two were mutually reinforcing.
By the mid 19th century, publishers began to cultivate the Christmas trade in a systematic way. Gift books—a mixed anthology of poetry, stories, essays and pictures—were the most popular presents parents gave their children. Bibles were also popular—as evidenced by the four different-colored ones received by each of the March sisters in Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women.
The incorporation of the Christmas tree into American homes is generally attributed to the Unitarian minister and radical abolitionist, Charles Follen. It represented an effort to cope with the problems associated with a child-centered Christmas, the biggest of which—as we all know—is spoiled kids. Before the late 1700’s Christmas trees had been a localized custom, largely limited to a single place—the Alsatian capital of Strasbourg. It was largely through the poet Johann Goethe and his literary colleagues that the Christmas tree spread to other parts of Germany. The Reverend Charles Follen was a German who had been exiled from that country and also from Switzerland for his revolutionary activities. He came to this country and settled in the Boston area, where he was welcomed—for a time—into the Harvard and Boston establishment. These people—our Unitarian forebears of the mid-19th century—were instrumental in spreading the Christmas tree ritual. Their reason: as a means of inspiring selfless attitudes among children.
Child-rearing practices reflect theology and the Unitarians of that era (including Ralph Waldo Emerson, Margaret Fuller, and Theodore Parker) were all deeply committed to what we would call today “progressive” education. They did not practice corporal punishment. They believed that training should be based, instead, on firm, patient, and imaginative use of moral instruction, accompanied by assurances of parental love. Before the incorporation of Christmas trees, the custom had been for children, arising on Christmas morning, to holler out “Christmas Gift!”—kind of a throwback to the intimidating mummers of old. The Christmas tree ritual changed all that; now kids assumed the role of passive, grateful recipients. In a December 25, 1844 editorial in Horace Greeley’s New York Tribune, the Transcendentalist Unitarian Margaret Fuller wrote:
Christmas would seem to be the day peculiarly sacred to children, and something of this feeling shows itself among us, though rather of German influence, than of native growth. The evergreen tree is often reared for children on Christmas evening, and its branches cluster with little tokens that may, at least, give them a sense that the world is rich, and that there are some in it who care to bless them. It is a charming site to see, and well worth much trouble in preparing the Christmas tree….
We borrow the Christmas tree from Germany. Might we but borrow with it that feeling which pervades all their stories about the influence of the Christ child, and has, I doubt not—for the spirit of literature is always, though refined, the essence of popular life—pervaded the conduct of children there.
Enough. There have been many other insertions into Christmas over the century and a half since that time. Major contributors include Charles Dickens and the great philanthropic institutions that originated in the last half of the 19th century. But it will take another sermon, I’m afraid, to carry us up to today. Still, the elements of the modern American Christmas were all pretty much in place by the Civil War. They’ve just mushroomed out of control!
Let me conclude, however, with a step out of the historical and into the present day. Parents often ask me what to do about Christmas? How hyped up should we make it? How expensive? My answer: try to keep it simple. Christmas—however you understand it—is not really about spending more than you can afford. It is about excess, in a sense, but it need not be about material excess. What kids most enjoy is seeing their parents and extended families together and celebrating. Laughing and carrying on with one another. Singing. Embracing. That’s the heart of Christmas, and has been for generations. Plus seasonal music, dancing, the singing the carols, attending concerts, and remembering to reach out to those who may need some help. And taking the time to connect with family members one hasn’t talked to in a while. It’s also a good time to acknowledge the service people in our lives—the folks who pick up our garbage and who work on our cars, our lawns, and so on. Christmas is an especially good time to look around and see what little acts of kindness might be available for us to give to those who we meet and greet on a daily basis. And to have some fun. My late mother, for instance, in the years following her retirement, invented a family game, Hilaria, which she organized and monitored for all of us. It involved competitive bidding for useless knick-knacks and was, in fact, the silliest waste of two or three hours I have ever participated in. Her grandchildren clearly thought so too, as we reminisced following her memorial service. But each of them remembered Hilaria for the fun they had with her, and remembered it fondly.
Unplugging the Christmas Machine, it seems to me, mostly involves plugging in our time and attention to those we love. It’s an old tradition; let’s celebrate it…this year, and every year.
Merry Christmas, my friends. And amen.
 Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas (Alfred A. Knopf, NY, 1998) pp. 45-46.
 Fuller, Margaret. Quoted in Nissenbaum, p.216.