From both the political right and the left, this is the time of year that people moan that we’ve lost our way. We need to get back to our roots, they say, back to the “true” meaning of Christmas. According to one academic, a renowned expert on the holiday, if you insist on finding an essential purpose to the celebration – the one going back centuries – it can be identified. But it’s not what you think.
Whether it’s Bill O’Reilly and John GibsononFox News discussing the “war” on Christmas as an assault on traditional values or the new documentary What Would Jesus Buy? which profiles Reverend Billy and The Church of Stop Shopping as they protest the commercialization of Christmas, materialism and the overextension of personal credit, conservatives and progressives, religious and secular forces, all insist we’ve lost our way. They say that we’ve gotten away from how Christmas used to be celebrated.
Nissenbaum notes that our current notion of Yuletide is of fairly recent vintage. Western culture seems to have had some sort of Christmastime festivities going back centuries. The Winter Solstice has long been a time for celebration. If you’re a farmer, by December, the agricultural cycle has ended. The working aspects of the farm have closed down. The beer and wine is ready for consumption. The weather becomes cool enough to slaughter animals, but it’s before the deep freeze of winter. It’s time to kick back and have a party.
As the feudal system developed, new traditions emerged, such as wassailing, where less fortunate peasants would go to the lord’s house, begging for food and drink. This was a big thing at Christmas, eating and drinking to excess. Christmas, like Halloween and Mardi Gras, was a time of what sociologists refer to as “ritualized social inversion.” This roughly translates into a socially-sanctioned time to go nuts and break the rules.
As the 19th Century began, cities grew in size and industrial capitalism increased in influence. The wealthy began to physically withdraw from the lower classes, setting up communities like Boston’s famous Beacon Hill. The Christmas celebration became a time to stay in the house with your family and celebrate. Christmas also played an important role in commercializing the American economy, as people made luxury purchases and gave gifts to family members.
Nissenbaum marks our modern version of Christmas as beginning around 1823 with the publication of Clement Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (more popularly known as “The Night Before Christmas”). By the late 1820s, he notes that images of Santa Claus – a clearly prosperous, fat, generous old man meant to embody the spirit of the season – appear in advertising.
Today, spending (and overspending) during Christmas has become a part of our popular culture, as news outlets cover Black Friday, the day after Thanksgiving and the beginning of the holiday shopping season, with breathless anticipation. How will the economy do? Will consumers do their part and go out and spend?
But even the notion of consumers’ responsibility to go out and buy is not new. The Panic of 1837 lead to a five-year depression in America. Nissenbaum found two newspaper editorials that argued in 1840 that people ought to go out and spend during the holidays in order to cure the economy – shades of President George Bush’s exhortations to do the same after 9/11.
But perhaps you remain unconvinced by economic history and sociological references. In your mind, Christmas represents one thing: the birth of Jesus Christ. But it wasn’t until the 4th Century that December 25th was designated as the date of the Nativity. In fact, it’s fairly clear just from Biblical text that this is incorrect, since shepherds would be watching their flocks at night during the spring. Some current scholarship also suggests that it didn’t happen in Bethlehem.
In a conversation with me, Professor Nissenbaum said that if one wants to find an essential meaning, then that meaning is “consumption.” Before 1800, that meant eating and drinking, often to excess. After 1800, it became shopping, often to excess.
I am not in favor of gluttony, whether physical or financial. I’m as stressed and stretched during the holidays as most people. I love the notion of a time to think of our friends and family and wish goodwill towards others. But history tells me that there’s never been a time when it was picture perfect and pristine. The consumerism, materialism and mix of sin and sanctimony are, for better and for worse, for richer and poorer, our tradition. And we seem to be keeping it up rather nicely.