What are your fondest Christmas memories? I think of Christmas pageants when I was a kid; walking with my family one Christmas Eve, while my Grandpa whistled Christmas carols; the year my Dad convinced a friend of his to dress as Santa Claus and surprise us at my Grandparents’ house; watching the delight and excitement in my children’s eyes each year when they saw the bounty under the tree on Christmas morning; walking out of Christmas Eve service in 2004 to find it snowing, followed by our one and only Houston White Christmas the next day. For me, Christmas is music, lights, family, watching old movies, eating good food, and candlelight worship.
It’s easy to believe these are universal traditions, as ancient and widespread as the Christian faith itself. But that is hardly the case. I’m reading Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday, by Gerry Bowler, and it’s teaching me some new things about my favorite Christmas traditions.
There’s no indication the earliest Christians celebrated Christmas at all. Christ’s birth is only mentioned in two of the four Gospels, and not at all in the writings of Paul. They were much more focused on His atoning death, resurrection, and His Second Coming. But by the year 200, Christians began to speculate on the exact date their Lord had been born. Contrary to what most people today believe, December 25 doesn’t seem to have been chosen to take the place of a pagan celebration on that date (Saturnalia). At least, that’s not what any Christian writers of that time thought. Instead, they used criteria that might seem strange to us: For instance, some assumed that Jesus would have been conceived in the Spring, the time of new life, and therefore was born between December 25 and January 6. At any rate, by the mid-fourth century, December 25 was the accepted date for the feast of Christ’s nativity.
In those early days of Christmas, the emphasis was on charity for the poor and self-examination. As time wore on, Christmas became more of a party. By the Middle Ages, yuletide was a time for wild social inversion: During the Twelve Days of Christmas (between Christmas Day and Epiphany on January 6) slaves would rule over their masters, priests would elect boy bishops to run things in their churches, and poor people could ask their lords for anything they wanted. In an agricultural world, there’s not much to do at that time of year, so singing, drinking and feasting made sense. Church leaders of those days used to preach against the drunkenness of the poor, and against rich folks who fled their estates and spent Christmastime in the cities so they wouldn’t have to give alms to their poorer neighbors.
These days, we often talk about a War on Christmas, but the first real War on Christmas came from within the church, not from secular culture. The Puritans especially hated the holiday, for two main reasons: First, because it wasn’t commanded in Scripture. Second, because it smacked of Roman Catholicism. The drunken revelries and anarchy just proved their point: Christmas was a “Popish invention” that disgraced the name of Christ, and His true followers would not observe it. For fifteen years in England, Christmas was outlawed. Here in America, Christmas Day was an ordinary workday in many cities until the mid-1800s.
How did our ideas about Christmas change? Bowler credits Santa Claus, especially after “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”) was published in 1823. The real St Nicholas was a Turkish bishop, born in 270, and had been celebrated by Christians for centuries on December 6 with gift-giving. Over the years, many legendary gift-givers had joined St Nick in the minds of children at Christmas. But Moore’s poem brought us a jolly, fat, bearded man in a white-fur-trimmed coat and hat, who rode in a reindeer-driven sleigh and entered our homes through chimneys. The image of Santa Claus did two things in popular culture: First, it made Christmas a family holiday, not a time for rowdiness. Santa gave parents an opportunity to indulge their children, while at the same time blackmailing them into good behavior. For the kids themselves, Santa was a great improvement over more terrifying Christmas visitors such as Perchta the Disembowler, who children in the Austrian Alps believed would cut a hole in the stomachs of disobedient children, removing their guts and replacing them with straw.
Second, Santa made Christmas a much more commercially-driven holiday. There had been Christmas markets in European villages dating back to the Middle Ages, but now parents felt compelled to make sure their children had a good Christmas. Merchants jumped on the bandwagon quickly, and Santa Claus became the spokesman for department stores, toy shops and candy emporiums. In the mid-1800s, Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol reaffirmed Christmas as a time to spend with family and to think about those less fortunate.
Bowler’s book has lots of great little nuggets:
–During World War II, American Christmas cards sometimes featured Santa Claus waving the red, white, and blue, or kicking a cartoon Hitler in the keister; while Nazi publications encouraged parents to buy military toys for their kids (One toy catalog said, “What joy! What fun! A lovely Gatling gun!”) and described Christmas as a time when dead German soldiers came home.
–Many Europeans resent Santa Claus as an American intruder, and there are movements in these countries to teach children about their native gift-bringers. The book shows a print by a Polish artist of a policeman with Santa in handcuffs, waving a cheery hello to Saint Nicholas.
–While plenty of people have opposed Christmas, no one stands out for me quite like Katsuhiro Furasawa, a Japanese man who was dumped by his girlfriend and founded The Revolutionary Alliance of Men Who Women Find Unattractive. One of the organization’s goals is to “crush Christmas,” since in Japan, it is considered a time to get away with one’s sweetheart.
None of this takes away from my enjoyment of Christmas. But it helps remind me that the traditions I love so much aren’t the point. If you took it all away, we’d still have the Incarnation of the Son of God, an event worth celebrating. Merry Christmas to you.