By Jonathan Zimmerman
Los Angeles Times
NEW YORK: There’s a nip in the air. Couples bundle against the cold. It must be time for the “war on Christmas.”
Like the changing of the weather, the war on Christmas arrives each year a few weeks before Dec. 25. Conservatives take to the airwaves to denounce schools, parks and businesses that have replaced Christmas rituals and decorations with generic “holiday” ones.
And this year’s battle features a familiar face: former vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin. In a new book, Good Tidings and Great Joy: Protecting the Heart of Christmas, Palin rages at “angry atheists” who are allegedly threatening it.
“Amidst the fragility of this politically correct era it is imperative that we stand up for our beliefs,” Palin writes, in a press release for the book. “The war on Christmas is the tip of the spear in a larger battle to secularize our culture.”
Meanwhile, the American Family Association issued its annual “naughty or nice” rankings of businesses based on their level of “Christmas-friendly” practices.
“We’ve become a society that is overly concerned that something we say, even when true or right, might offend someone,” explained AFA President Tim Wildmon. “The truth is that America was built on Christian principles.”
But for much of our early history, those same principles worked against the celebration of Christmas. Despite what Palin and Wildmon would have you believe, the first war on Christmas was waged by devout Christians. The holiday wasn’t a reflection of their religious heritage; instead, Christmas was a sin against it.
Start with our Puritan forebears in Massachusetts, who between 1659 and 1681 made it illegal to celebrate Christmas. (Lawbreakers were fined 5 shillings.) As the Puritans correctly argued, there was no historical or biblical reason to think that Christ was born on Dec. 25. The date was chosen because of its proximity to the winter solstice, making Christmas a pagan holiday in Christian garb.
But there was more. In Europe, Christmas was marked by drinking, dancing and card playing. In one ritual, peasants and workers would sing carols outside the homes of their lords and employers, demanding food and libation.
All of that was anathema to the Puritans, who sought to build a highly structured, hierarchical society. But they failed. By the early 1700s, Puritan minister Cotton Mather was railing against “young people of both sexes” who held a “Frolick, revelling feast and Ball” on Christmas. And with the coming of the Revolution, well-to-do Americans worried about gangs of young Christmas celebrants who “howled and shouted as if possessed by the demon of disorder,” as a Philadelphia newspaper warned.
Enter St. Nicholas, a.k.a. Santa Claus. Loosely adopted from a Dutch figure, Santa Claus was promoted by New York gentry in the early 1800s to domesticate Christmas. He brought the holiday from the streets into the home, where Americans were building smaller, more nurturing families.
And Santa also brought presents, of course, the mass-produced fruits of America’s burgeoning industrial economy. But if a kid asked where all of this loot came from, the answer was simple: from Santa’s workshop! He was a robber baron in reverse, giving away everything he built for the good of the whole. And he was the perfect stand-in for ambivalent American parents, who could shower the kids with gifts even as they recoiled at the commercialism of Christmas.
And my, what commerce! By 1867, Macy’s stayed open until midnight on Christmas Eve. Two decades later, it provided next-day delivery of presents, to save harried shoppers time and energy. “As soon as the Thanksgiving turkey is eaten, the great question of buying Christmas presents begins to take the terrifying shape it has come to assume in recent years,” a New York paper complained in 1894. “The season of Christmas needs to be dematerialized.”
Yet Christmas became infinitely more commercial in the 20th century, of course, enlisting Thanksgiving in the task. Macy’s and other stores devised Thanksgiving Day parades featuring Santa Claus, who morphed from a producer into an advertiser. And Congress moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday of November to the fourth one, to guarantee at least four weeks of pre-Christmas shopping.
Fast-forward to our shopping season now, when more and more stores opened on Thanksgiving. They included Sears, Toys R Us and The Gap, which all made the AFA’s list of Christmas-friendly stores.
And why not? They’re doing exactly what Christmas is supposed to do: Sell as many goods as possible. It doesn’t really matter what the stores call the holiday, or what our current crop of culture warriors say about it. The most important war over Christmas was fought between God and Mammon, and it ended long ago. I don’t have to tell you who won.
Zimmerman teaches history and education at New York University. He is the author of Small Wonder: The Little Red Schoolhouse in History and Memory. He wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.