Christmas in the United States – Grand Valley Lanhorn

Today, Christmas is arguably the most popular holiday in the United States: a 2017 Pew Research Center survey found it was celebrated by 90% of Americans (although only 46% did so for mainly religious reasons). But Christmas hasn’t always been the all-consuming national holiday it is now, and the recent controversy over the “irreligious” elements of the celebration isn’t as new as people might think.

In the 17th century, Puritan settlers actually wanted to do away with the celebration of Christmas on the grounds that it was already too secular. On the one hand, there was no biblical evidence that Jesus was born on December 25 of the Gregorian calendar: the Puritans knew as well as modern scholars that the date of December 25 was chosen by the 4th century Catholic Church. because it coincided with Saturnalia, the Roman celebration of the winter solstice of “maladministration”.

The Christmas traditions of the time weren’t really spiritual either. They were characterized by excessive consumption of food and alcohol; occasional and occasionally public fornication; cross-dressing (then called “mumming”); mock established authority; and begging door to door, often with Christmas carols. The latter of these was often associated with the threat of physical harm, which at times could escalate into outright home invasion. It is perhaps not surprising that the Puritans preferred to ignore the holiday, even making it illegal in the colony of Massachusetts; from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was punished with a fine of five shillings.

December calendar from Poor Richard’s almanac for 1733, written by Benjamin Franklin. (Bela Golden)

By the 18th century, however, the New England War at Christmas had begun to wane. Benjamin Franklin of Massachusetts wryly described the holiday season as “O blessed season! Iov’d by saints and sinners, for long devotions, or for longer dinners. The descendants of the Puritans were suspicious of the “joy” of Christmas. By the turn of the century, even the clergy were ready to accept Christmas as a religious holiday: although they still recognized the improbability of Jesus’ birth in December, they were ready to accept the allure of religious rituals ” entertaining ”. as long as they were “retained by decorum”.

In addition, the former individualist colonies were now a pluralist republic. Holidays like Christmas, if widely accepted, could provide common ground between rival sects of Christianity. Although religious pluralism has been part of the United States since before its independence, increasing immigration has diversified the range of traditions wider than ever before. And like the American melting pot, everyone’s Christmases have finally been assimilated to a singular holiday.

At the beginning of the 19th century, more and more churches opened their doors for Christmas Day services, and at the same time traders began to exchange Christmas gifts. The spiritual and consumerist aspects of the Flower Festival were not seen as contradictory at the time. Calvinism, the branch of Protestantism to which the Puritan ancestors of the new Americans had subscribed, had long-standing philosophical ties to business and the accumulation of wealth. German sociologist Max Weber even attributed “the spirit of modern capitalism” to “the Protestant work ethic”. The Calvinist idea that trade relations should be regulated by charity went well with the new idea of ​​Christmas as a season of giving.

Many customs related to marketing emerged in the United States during the 19th century. The “Christmas trees” brought by Americans of German origin swept the country, prompting new businesses in tree cutting and ornamentation. Less than seven years after the first commercial Christmas cards were made in England, American printers began making theirs. Shop owners began to create Christmas windows for their stores, encouraging crowds of onlookers to congregate on the sidewalks (which in turn prompted shopkeepers to keep the streets free of those with a more saturnal approach. holidays, for the protection of their customers).

St. Nicholas “Lipensky”, Russian icon from St. Nicholas Church in Lipnya in Novgorod. (Courtesy / Aleska Petrov)

Perhaps the most iconic Christmas evolution in America was the creation of Santa Claus. The famous base of the legend, St. Nicholas, was a Turkish bishop who died on December 6, 343. As Christianity spread from the Mediterranean to Eastern and Western Europe, the veneration of St. Nicolas spread with him.

The legends that surrounded it have been added, changed and amalgamated over the centuries. Two of the most popular stories include Nicholas offering three sisters golden dowries so they can avoid prostitution, and resurrecting three brothers who had been slaughtered and brined by a cannibal innkeeper. Inspired by the story of the three sisters, 12th-century French nuns began giving gifts to poor children on December 5, the eve of St. Nicholas’ Day. The practice became extremely popular across Europe, causing a problem with the rise of Protestantism in the 16th century.

Protestants did not worship saints, so what were they supposed to do with such a popular celebration of one of them? None of Nicholas’ replacements were satisfied, especially when many of them drew on pre-Christian pagan folklore.

Although the United States was a deeply Protestant country, it was here that St. Nicholas returned to its previous popularity, albeit in a modified form. In Washington, Irving, best known for his short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” wrote a satirical New York story that was published on St. Nicholas Day in 1809. His entirely fictional description of “Sinter Klaas” being at the heart of spiritual life in the Dutch colony (including descriptions of its flying chariot and its tendency to slide through chimneys to give gifts) intrigued and amused New Yorkers; and in 1823, just as Christmas was beginning to sell across the country, “The Night Before Christmas” was published anonymously in the New York Sentinel..

“St. Nicholas, on his New Years Eve excursion, (as Ingham Saw Him,) in the act of going down a chimney,” a woodcut illustration published in the New York Daily Mirror in 1841.

Borrowing from Irving’s satire, the “St. Nick” describes in the codified poem Santa Claus as he is known today: white beard, round belly, bag full of toys. Her bishop’s robe has been replaced with a much more seasonal fur coat. The poem also separated him from his Catholic holiday – now it happened on Christmas Eve, not St. Nicholas Eve. Among the Dutch in New York, “Sinter Klaas” turned to “Sancte Claus” turned to “Santa Claus”. Much like the German trees and the British maps, the Dutch St. Nick swept the nation. For American families, the duality of his saintly and materialistic qualities makes him a perfect mascot for the developing vacation.

Not so much for many religious leaders, however, who were starting to be skeptical of the lavish spending surrounding the holidays. Santa was drawn into their criticism because they feared he would obscure the importance of Jesus. The denunciations of Santa Claus and the commercialization continued into the 20th century. The first eye-catching request of “Put Christ Back on Christmas!” Happened in 1949, right in the middle of the Coca-Cola Company’s decades-long “Coca-Cola Santa Claus” campaign. Christmas, already a major source of profit for retailers, has become the centerpiece of American commerce.

“The Pause that Refreshes” by Haddon Sundblom, advertising illustration for Coca-Cola, 1956. (Courtesy / Norman Rockwell Museum)

Today, Christmas is announced by the Black Friday sales, the day after Thanksgiving. A major shift in this seasonal consumerism was the elimination of usury laws at the turn of the 20th century, allowing banks and credit card companies to charge predatory interest rates on loans. Issuing a credit card to poor or popular populations with high credit risk was profitable, thanks to the fees and penalties that result for non-repayment of their debt. Businesses are urging consumers to buy the perfect Christmas present for loved ones, even if they don’t have the money to do so. In 2020, the average American racked up $ 1,325 in holiday credit card debt; a figure up 8% compared to 2019 and 34% compared to 2015. In November, 13% of consumers (and 20% of parents with young children) still repay their vacation debt compared to the year last.

Religious movements still criticize the commercial world’s approach to Christmas, although now these complaints have mostly centered on whether companies are appropriating Christian religious themes in their products and advertising, with appropriation being seen as positive. The American Family Association maintains a list of “naughty or nice” businesses, operating on the metric that “if a business has items associated with Christmas, but has not used the word ‘Christmas’, then the business is considered censoring “Christmas”. . ‘”

One can only imagine how the Christmas relationship between religion and consumerism will evolve next.

Those interested in the history of Christmas, as well as the parallels between ancient and modern controversies over the holidays, can learn more by reading “Christmas: A Candid History” by Bruce David Forbe, “The Battle for Christmas By Stephen Nissenbaum and Penne Restad “Christmas in America.”

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