Monday, December 12, 2011

Christmas in America: A Brief History


Christmas is almost upon us, bringing its customary observances. Millions of Americans will eagerly decorate trees, sing carols, shop for gifts, impatiently wait for the arrival of Santa Claus, and spend long hours in hot kitchens preparing festive meals. Some may even dash through snow-covered fields to the homes of relatives.
Few will pause to reflect on the holiday’s history in our unusual culture of ethnic pluralism. Even fewer will assess its meaning for Christians and non-Christians. Or its role as the most important national holiday in a society that values religious freedom and separation of church and state.
In America today, the Christmas season begins on the day after Thanksgiving and continues well past New Year’s Day. Christmas also brings with it the traditional complaints by editorial writers bemoaning the materialism of the Christmas season.
Unhappiness with the way the holiday is observed is nothing new. Today's peaceable celebration of Christmas is a far cry from the turbulent, dissent-driven attitudes of the first settlers of this continent. Instead of observing the holiday, Pilgrims under Governor William Bradford ignored Christmas and spent the first Christmas building houses.
The Pilgrims’ more numerous and historically more significant Puritan neighbors in Boston and the Massachusetts Bay Colony were even stricter and more strait-laced. They saw Christmas as nothing more than a pagan festival adapted to Christian purposes, and would have nothing to do with it.
Their attitudes were understandable. In ancient Rome, celebrations of the winter solstice were riotous festivals of gambling, the exchange of gifts, feasting and drinking. Social roles were reversed, and masters served slaves. Called Saturnalia, these pagan solar and agricultural observances honored the planet Saturn.
In England, Christmas celebrations retained the air of carnival. Churchgoers attended in masks and sang bawdy songs, even rolling dice at the altar. A "Lord of Misrule" was selected. This concept survives in Philadelphia, where participants in the annual mummer's parade select a Lord of Misrule.
Authority was mocked by such "dangerous practices" as mumming and caroling. Mumming usually involved cross-dressing. Caroling was a “disgrace” because it was "generally done in the midst of Rioting, Chambering and Wantonness."  (“Chambering was a euphemism for sexual intercourse.)
An unhappy 16th-century Bishop Hugh Latimer summarized the season, saying, "Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas than in all the twelve months besides."
According to Stephen Nissenbaum, emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, at Christmastime the rich were expected to offer charity to their poorer neighbors. For most of the year, the poor owed money, goods or labor, not to mention deference, to the rich. But when the tables were turned at Christmas, the poor--mostly gangs of young men and boys--claimed the right to enter the houses of the well-to-do and receive gifts of food, drink and money.
In a custom called "wassailing," roving bands of young men circulated through neighborhoods singing songs in exchange for gifts. In America, a nation of immigrants largely from the British Isles, these practices continued in the 18th and 19th centuries, causing much unhappiness among the middle and upper classes.

Dating the Holiday
Religious scholars point out that no biblical or historical basis exists for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. Although the Gospel according to St. Luke describes how shepherds were living with their flocks, the weather in Judea in late December was simply too cold for such outdoor living.
Not until the fourth century did the Church officially decree that Christmas should be observed on December 25. The date was not chosen for religious reasons, but because it was close to the winter solstice--an event celebrated in many cultures long before the coming of Christianity.
When the Church set the date of Christmas Day, it took a calculated gamble, knowing that holdover boisterous pagan festivities around the time of the winter solstice were deeply ingrained in popular culture.
Many cultures marked the dark days when daylight is the shortest with ceremonies involving light and greenery. One example is Chanukah, "the feast of lights." Other examples are the Yule log, candles, holly, mistletoe, even the Christmas tree--pagan traditions all that have no connection to the birth of Jesus.
 In Europe during the three centuries between 1500 and 1800, Christmas was a time to let off steam and gorge oneself. In northern agricultural societies, December marked a critical point in the yearly cycle of farming. By then the tasks of gathering in the harvest and preparing for the bitter cold of winter had been completed.
For rural dwellers, the period marked the beginning of a season of inactivity and leisure when plenty of newly made beer and wine was available. Abundant supplies of meat from freshly slaughtered animals had to be eaten or be salted and preserved. It was truly a time for celebration and excess.

The Christmas Tree
To create the modern domestically-centered holiday, 19th-century America adopted new ways of celebrating Christmas borrowed from other traditions. The tree that now graces American homes has a long history.
Ancient Romans trimmed their houses with evergreens to symbolize fertility and regeneration. Eventually, Christians appropriated evergreens for their Christmas celebrations and invented stories explaining the origins of the custom to excise any taint of paganism.
By the first decade of the 19th century, German Protestants took the tree as an emblem of their faith, and the practice spread quickly throughout Europe. German immigrants brought the custom of Christmas trees with them to the United States. The trees quickly became objects of fascination for Americans. During the 1830s, evergreens began to appear in homes. Christmas trees next showed up in churches and the marketplace.
To women fell the task of transforming this ancient pagan fertility symbol into an icon of domesticity. In the home, a place was found for it, usually in the front parlor. Early Christmas trees in homes were squat evergreens, no more than two or three feet tall, set on a table top.

Christmas Ornaments
Inevitably, the use of taller trees invited more ambitious trimming with strings of beads, gilt paper stars or shields and lace bags of candies.
Early Christians had shunned wax candles because of their use in pagan ceremonies, but by the mid-19th century concerns about paganism and the ever-present danger of fire did not prevent Americans from dressing their Christmas trees with candles.
In 1880, F.W. Woolworth bought from a Philadelphia importer his entire stock of German Christmas tree ornaments made of colored glass. Placed on a counter in his store in Lancaster, Pa., an area with a large Germanic population, they were gone in two days.
 "I woke up," he said later about his discovery of their sales potential.
Woolworth began making trips to Germany to buy directly from ornament makers. The manufacture of Christmas tree ornaments was a genuine cottage industry in the small towns of Thuringia. His initial order was for more than 200,000 ornaments.
The craze for fragile glass ornaments had begun, and Woolworth was on his way to making his fortune. But the introduction of the Christmas tree into the holiday was only one aspect of the conversion of Christmas into a home festival.

Much of the charm of the Christmas tree was in the small gifts that could be tied to its branches with colored string or spread beneath it. Early Christians had refrained from gift-giving because the practice was associated with the Roman Saturnalia.
The custom was revived during the 16th century. Women in England often received expensive pins or gloves--sometimes accompanied by gifts of money. This gave rise to the terms "pin money" and "glove money."  Soon gift-giving extended beyond the home. By the middle of the 17th century, even members of the clergy were accepting gifts at New Year’s.
      By the 19th century, gift-giving in America had become prevalent. Service workers began to remind employers or patrons that a tip was expected. For example, newspaper carriers presented subscribers with a short poem unsubtly signaling their desire for a gift. These expectations have continued to this day.

Commercializing Christmas
Public unhappiness with the growing accent on commercialism during the Christmas period reached a new peak in 2011 with the attempts made by retailers to steal a march on competitors by opening as early as 10 p.m. of Thanksgiving Day, encroaching on the holiday itself.
Popularly called “Black Friday,” the day after Thanksgiving is supposedly the point at which retailers will be "in the black” and begin to turn a profit for the year. Violent tussles and bodily mayhem over items of merchandise have become frequent occurrences, discouraging many would-be shoppers.
Humorist Russell Baker echoed the frustrations of many in his 1976 article in The New York Times with a caustic assessment based on unhappy encounters with the commercial side of Christmas: "Christmas nowadays persists like an onset of shingles. You spend a month getting ready for it and two weeks getting over it. If Scrooge had started dreaming on November 25 and spent the next four weeks being subjected to desperate sales clerks and electronically amplified ‘Jingle Bells,’ he would probably have stopped at the Cratchets’ on that fateful evening only long enough to smash tiny Tim's little crutch."

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