The history of Christmas is an interesting study in cultural development. The idea seems to have originated in the 4th century, as a late addition to the Christian calendar. It was timed to match the winter solstice and Roman Saturnalia, and it retained the pagan attributes of those festivals, which included gorging, licentiousness and role reversal, which it still does in many areas today.
In the United States, the Puritans of the Plymouth colony considered Christmas to be wasteful, illicit and heathen for exactly those attributes – between 1659 and 1681 it was illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts. However, by the eighteenth century Christmas had returned in traditional form. Historians have identified a surge in premarital pregnancies in New England around this time, and a “bulge” in births in September and October – nine months after the revels! The Church and state authorities of the time, however, still stuck to the puritan ethic of condemning such celebrations.
Christmas was just a regular working day almost everywhere in the U.S. until Alabama made it a public holiday in 1836. Even today, New England’s Unitarian, Baptist and Methodist churches, inheritors of the puritan tradition, are often closed on December 25th.
In the early nineteenth century the wealthy bourgeoisie of New York feared Christmas for more selfish reasons. They disliked the drunken revelers who, each wild Christmastide, threatened their tranquility and their safety. They reacted by trying to domesticate and tame Christmas. The result was the establishment in U.S. folklore of Santa Claus; they borrowed the idea from the European legends and festivals of St. Nicholas. A festival, long associated with excess, was now reinvented as a celebration involving giving presents to relatives, which actually worked in calming down the drunken mobs. I’m sure not completely but, by and large, the strategy has worked.
Christmas rapidly became commercialized and Coca-Cola is often said to have established the fur-clad image of Santa Claus in a famous series of adverts in the 1930’s. However, similar images appeared in New York a century earlier as a result of the bourgeoisie’s reinvention of Christmas. Another successful attempt to tame the excesses of Christmas in New England was the adoption of the Germanic Christmas tree in the 1830’s. The overall result is that today’s classic American Christmas, which has changed little since the 1850’s, is an Anglo-German production, with Charles Dickens’ novel “A Christmas Carol” contributing to the mix.
Christmas trees quickly became new opportunities for sales and marketing. After Thomas Edison’s business partner strung electric lights around a tree in New York in 1882, tree-lights were soon being mass-produced. The popular ritual of hiding a “pickle” decoration on the Christmas tree began as a late nineteenth century Woolworth’s sales gimmick. The Hall brothers, now Hallmark, produced the first folding Christmas card in 1915. The History of Christmas is, maybe, not quite what you think!
More recently, Fox News, has spent the last two decades ballyhooing a non-existent “War on Christmas” in a self-serving attempt to create more revenue. It is nonsense, although it does seem to resonate with very conservative elements and the conspiracy-theory populations.
However, Christmas, itself, seems invulnerable. Despite the rapid fall in church attendance in the U.S. over the last fifteen years – it has almost halved – and the blatant consumerism associated with it, nine out of ten Americans celebrate Christmas, including a growing multitude of non-Christians.
Maybe it’s because Christmas is slowly returning to its roots of gorging, licentiousness and excess. One can only hope! The history of Christmas is enhanced every year.