Fighting the War on Christmas


Confronting the ludicrous allegations that liberals seek to destroy Christmas. From the Alamosa Valley Courier.

The White House has not renamed its annual Christmas tree a "Holiday tree."

A New York public school principal has not banned depictions of Santa Claus in her school.

A San Francisco fourth-grader was not suspended for saying "Merry Christmas" to his teacher.

President Obama has not banned military servicemembers from saying "Merry Christmas," nor did he fine ABC for airing the overtly Christian TV special "A Charlie Brown Christmas."

These false rumors seem to crop up every year, mass-forwarded in emails and widely shared on social media, as anecdotal evidence that a political-correctness cabal is conspiring to secularize and delegitimize Christmas in America.

The rumors reflect a perhaps understandable fear of the ongoing slow death of tradition and cultural cohesion in America; an anxiety that the touchstones of the past will be subsumed under a barrage of misguided newness that seems to go hand-in-hand with an apparent vulgarization of society.

These fears, however, are fueled by a lack of historical perspective: namely, that American Christmas celebrations were ever divorced of consumerism and secularism, or that associated traditions are immutable and timeless, harkening to pre-Colonial times.

In fact, Christmas celebrations themselves were once a source of tumult and controversy. The Puritan pilgrims of New England, for example, banned Christmas celebrations for many decades, citing the lack of any Biblical call to celebrate the holiday.

Even after the American Revolution, Christmas celebrations were subdued, as many new Americans thought of the holiday as a remnant of British royal rule. Congress continued to assemble on Christmas Day into the 1800s. Schools and businesses in New England stayed open on Christmas into the 1850s.

The Civil War accelerated adoption of Christmas as a sentimental celebration centered on family togetherness, as many families found themselves fragmented by the war. Merchants were quick to exploit the feeling, and within a few years of the war, Christmas ornaments and baubles filled Eastern stores. Commercializing Christmas was underway as soon as the holiday was embraced by the public, with one 1870s advertisement declaring, "So many charming little ornaments can now be bought ready to decorate Christmas trees that it seems almost a waste of time to make them at home."

President Ulysses S. Grant declared Christmas a federal holiday in 1870, and widespread celebration - and commodification - of the day exploded afterward.

Gift-giving quickly became inextricably intertwined with the holiday's religious aspects in a uniquely American sense.

"In a world dominated by commerce, one important ritual of grace was spending money on others," wrote historian Penne Restad. "Gifts... emphasized the relationship between affluence, which many saw as a reward from God, and Christian duty."

Even the mid-19th century emergence of Santa Claus - a cultural echo of St. Nicholas - as a mascot of the holiday reflected the emerging capitalist nature of celebration: Santa is a successful supervior over a vast cadre of laborers, who toil unnamed and identical but proud to play their part in the process of mass manufacturing. The analogy contains a paradox, though, in that Santa freely gives away his products.

The increasing prevalence of Santa Claus in the late 19th century worried the era's clergy, concerned that the Jolly Old Elf would supplant Christ.

An evangelical magazine from 1906 explained the danger with the anecdote of a little girl refusing to attend Sabbath School after discovering Santa wasn't real, saying, "Likely as not this Jesus Christ business will turn out just like Santa Claus."

By no means should this malleable history negate or diminish the joy of Christmas as a celebration of family, of hearth and home, of expressions of love and camaraderie - all of which are real, and harken to the truly ancient tradition of reveling during the darkest and coldest time of year, when such togetherness becomes a soul-warming necessity.

Rather, understanding Christmas as a holiday that has been subject to changes should serve to defuse the modern obsession with the trappings of its observance that, ironically, poses the greatest threat to its joyous celebration.

Angry denunciations, impotent boycotts, and social media outcries against retailers who instruct cashiers to say "Happy Holidays" rather than "Merry Christmas" introduce a pointless and mean-spirited animosity into an otherwise pleasant season.

"Happy Holidays," if anything, is among the older trappings of American Christmas. The phrase appears in newspapers and advertisements 50 years before Christmas became a national holiday. Indeed, even the name "holiday" derives from "holy day."

Furthermore, the fixation with the lighthearted greeting of cashiers seems only to inflate and concretize the centrality of commercialism to the celebration.

Another perceived great offense, the use of the term "Xmas" - often believed to be a blasphemous attempt to remove the word "Christ" from the name of the day - is born of ignorance to the origin of the term. In fact, the letter X has been used to denote Christ for at least a thousand years, coming from the Greek letter Chi, the first letter of the Greek word for the Christian savior. The term "Xmas" has been in use since at least the 16th century.

Do not fall prey to the salvos of the culture war. Do not allow ideologues to rewrite history and invent great offenses where none need exist. Resist the attempts of the titanic forces of consumerism and punditry to inject hate and division into the season.

The War on Christmas will end when we all declare ourselves conscientious objectors.

#editorial

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