Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas - Is it necessary?

In 2003, I wrote the following article for the Valley of the Sun RW's newsletter. del corAZon. Last night I was watching TV and Melissa Harris-Perry was the host on The Last Word. Melissa spoke about Christmas. The title of her topic? "The Santa Claus Test". I really enjoyed it and remembered how I had done a Christmas piece years ago. I decided to add my article to my Voyager blog this morning. Both Melissa and my article touches on Santa and the meaning of Christmas. Only Melissa's thoughts are so much better. Big Grin *(A link to her article is provided at the end of this article.)

Bah Humbug To You!
All I Want For Christmas Is The World.

“Christmas today is way too commercialized.”

“We’ve lost the meaning of Christmas.”

How often have you heard these statements? Or, have you said them yourself?

If you have, then you might be interested to know that if the Puritans and our founding fathers had been allowed to continue their preference, the subject wouldn’t be an issue today.

In fact, Christmas wouldn’t have existed at all.

Why? Because of religion and national pride.

Let’s look at religion first.

Yes, Jesus is the reason. Has been ever since the 4th century. However, since the Bible does not mention the exact date of Jesus’ birthday, Christmas has also been a bone of contention for the purist types. One of whom was England’s Oliver Cromwell. He and his early 17th—century Puritans decided to deny the legitimacy of any type of Christmas celebration. They especially disapproved of the December 25th date. They argued that the holiday had been established by the Catholic Church in the 4th century only so that Pope Julius I could incorporate a pagan Saturnalia festival into the Catholic theology. He did this so that that the masses who were bordering between Christianity and paganism would come into the church.

Now, here’s where it gets a bit interesting. As long as England was under Cromwell’s thumb, Christmas was not celebrated outright. Then King Charles II got himself restored to the crown in 1661. He reversed Cromwell’s dictate on Christmas and allowed the holiday to be celebrated in England again.

But not so for the English Separatists residing in America. You might know of them as our famous Pilgrims. By the 1660s, these hardy souls had settled in with a vengeance. They not only adhered to their strict religious beliefs, they continued to ban anything they considered as frivolous and wasteful festivities. Christmas customs were considered a mockery against the sacredness of Jesus.

In fact, the good and pious leaders living in Massachusetts were so dead set against Christmas that they made sure the holiday would remain forever forgotten. They enacted a law in 1659 that said: “Whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forebearing of labor, feasting, or in any other way...shall be subject to a fine of five shillings.” (Here’s a side note: Captain John Smith and his Jamestown populace, which was located in what we now know as the state of Virginia, happily enjoyed the Christmas holidays without a protest.)

Then came along the American Revolutionary War and national pride took a hand. The colonists, flush with victory over England, had a disdain for anything English. That meant even all her customs and holidays fell out of favor. Since Christmas was a popular English holiday by then, our founding fathers emphatically scorned it. In fact, they went so far as to hold a session of Congress on December 25, 1789. They also encouraged all Americans to ignore the holiday as well.

The New England colonies, descendants of our Puritans, heeded the call. As far as they were concerned, Christmas was already a dead issue.

Guess who didn’t listen?

Yep! The southern states. Virginia in particular.

Christmas continued to be celebrated in the South with gifts being exchanged between family members and friends. Wealthy landowners even allowed their slaves to celebrate with... “the discharge of Chinese crackers,” and the slaves were “...given an holiday for as long as the great Yule log burned.”

The middle states of our emerging nation sort of straddled the fence, with the majority celebrating the holiday, but doing it quietly, depending on which religion one adhered to.

(Are you beginning to see a trend here between the North, the South and the states caught in between?)

By the opening of the 19th century, however, many Europeans hailed America as the land of opportunity. Thousands flocked to its shores looking for a new life. But with them, they also brought many of the old world prejudices and problems and introduced new ones. Conflicts between the various classes of people became an issue, high unemployment sent poverty to unacceptable levels, and gang violence ran rampant in the larger cities. Then the Civil War erupted with all of its grievances. The horror of the conflict shook the fledgling country to its roots and in the end shattered its southern states into impoverishment and resentful reconstruction.

But, as horrible as the war was, the country also learned something precious. It changed its views about human rights, dignity, and its obligation to its fellow men.

With these lessons in mind, the country tried to move from a wartime mentality to the stress of the fast-paced Industrial Age. How did a country approach human rights while its industry exploded and a handful of men were intent on controlling most of the country’s wealth? And, how could human rights be dealt with effectively when the specter of poverty was even greater with the large numbers of immigrants coming from all over the world?

Some of America’s more social-minded upper-class members decided that something had to be done to unify America into being a stable and peaceful country again. One small way they might do it was to reintroduce the idea of celebrating holidays.

Thanksgiving was one holiday suggested. (Spearheaded by Sarah Hale, editor to Godey’s Lady’s Magazine, it and declared by President Lincoln in 1863 as a holiday.) And, the second was to reinvent an English Christmas, or something like it. After all, wasn’t Christmas based on Jesus and unconditional love?

Eventually, the American people and government agreed. Congress declared Christmas as an American holiday on June 26, 1870. (Thanksgiving didn’t get officially approved until 1941.)

By the middle of the 1800s, there were plenty of Christmas traditions waiting to be reinvented. Charles Dickens’1843 famous tale of A Christmas Carol, a wonderful book about redemption, charity and goodwill toward others, was already being touted as a classic. Washington Irving’s sketches celebrating English Christmases were published everywhere. Ladies’ magazines, such as Godey’s, Munsey’s and Peterson’s Magazine, were avidly doing their part. They regularly published at least one Christmas story in their December issues. Peterson’s Magazine had already gotten into the act of promoting Christmas ten to fifteen years earlier. In 1858, they had written on how to go about celebrating Christmas. The article was titled, CHRISTMAS AND ITS CUSTOMS. In 1879, they published another article titled CHRISTMAS IN THE OLDEN TIME. In both articles, great drawings and detailed text touted just how an English Christmas used to be celebrated, right down to the Yule log, wassail and mistletoe.

Both newly arrived and already-established Americans started paying attention. By the 1880s, sending mass-produced Christmas cards (helped by a newly designed one-cent stamp) flourished so much that the U.S. Postmaster General had to warn everyone to post early in order for the cards to arrive on time. Americans also began to notice how others celebrated the holiday with their own old-world customs. For example, the Germans arriving in the early 1800s had brought their Christmas tree tradition. At first erecting pines trees was considered an oddity, but by the late 1800s the custom of decorating a tree rapidly spread throughout American homes, along with adding German Christmas ornaments.

The Dutch brought their Sinter Klaas, their name for Saint Nicholas (which eventually evolved into the name Santa Claus). The jolly, fat man we know of today was introduced to us by a New York Episcopalian minister. Reverend Clement Clarke Moore wrote a poem for his children in 1822 and titled it An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas (also known today as The Night Before Christmas.) It became a huge hit, not only with his children but with the populace at large. Reverend Moore’s image of Santa Claus was later enhanced by a political cartoonist by the name of Thomas Nast. Mr. Nast drew the jovial man with a bright red suit and hat and full white beard for the January 1, 1881 issue of Harper’s Weekly.

Another thing that moved Americans closer to accepting Christmas was that the family structure on discipline was relaxing. Upper- and middle-class parents were more sensitive to the emotional needs of their children and looked for additional ways to lavish attention without appearing to “spoil” them. Gift giving at Christmas time was the ideal answer and businesses recognized the opportunity. Advertising exploded, hawking the perfect gifts to give to family members and friends.

Which brings me back to my opening question. Has commercialism today ruined Christmas?

Not necessarily. It might just need tweaking again.

Consider back to the time when Christmas was reinvented in America. The country was emerging from the ashes of a war. Businesses were growing and new products appeared daily. Large department stores and mail-order catalogues were introduced across the country. With the railroads and rapid transportation opening the nation from coast to coast, anything and everything could be purchased by anyone who had the need. The emergence of Christmas and gift giving was like a dream come true. That dream not only helped the country become whole again. It also taught that love is all important and by it America could become one of the generous countries in the world.

Today we look upon the past as time of nostalgia, especially when it comes to Christmas. We say that we wish we could go back to a time when life was simpler, less hectic, less violent and less commercialized. Was it really that way or just going through a transition?

Maybe it isn’t that we need to go back. Maybe it’s just come to a point where we need to reinvent Christmas again.

Washington Irving did it with his sketches. Thomas Nast did it with his vision of a Santa Claus. Clement Clarke Moore did it with his poem, and Charles Dickens did it with his story. And, what about all those other wonderful Christmas stories published during the 1800s? They were a big part of bringing back the spirit of Christmas as well.

So, as authors, I challenge you to consider reinventing Christmas. At least, think about it, even if you don’t agree what Christmas stands for today. Who knows, maybe you’ll come up with a story of unconditional love that will make you the next Clement Clarke Moore or another Charles Dickens. With today’s world working through their own issues of human rights and human dignity, we certainly could use whatever you decide to write.

Here's the link to Melissa Harris-Perry's article in The Nation.
The Santa Claus Test

Until next time. Happy Writing!