How America Shaped Christmas And How Christmas Shapes America
With its gaudy displays, rampant excess, celebratory spirit and high price tag, Christmas is a thoroughly American holiday. But it could also be called an un-American holiday that thoroughly infiltrated our culture - and transformed it.
This year, because of the pandemic, most Americans have had to change how they observe the season. Holiday parties are scarce. Far more shopping was done online. Many churches have suspended in-person services. Relatives will be less inclined to gather together. Christmas Day will be more subdued than usual. It's a major change, and a melancholy one.
But Christmas in America has forever been in flux. The Pilgrims who arrived in 1620 classified it as just another day, rejecting the impious merrymaking of old England. The Puritans who came after took the same stringent view. In 1659, Massachusetts outlawed the observance of Christmas.
Even elsewhere in the colonies, it enjoyed only minor importance. Not until the 19th century, notes University of Texas at Austin historian Penne Restad in her book Christmas in America, did it begin to auire the character and central place it enjoys today. It became a federal holiday only in 1870.
This year's holiday season is like none in memory. For those whose focus is on the miracle of the Christ child, though, the occasion offers the same hope and solace as it does every Christmas. In most of America, churches are free to hold services, and others will offer virtual worship. Millions of people will revisit the story from the book of Luke that begins, "In those days a decree went out from Caesar Augustus that all the world should be enrolled."
But Christmas has long since grown to include people of other faiths or no faith. It's a grand, unifying event that only some people treat with reverence — kind of like the Super Bowl.
Louis Brandeis, the first Jewish Supreme Court justice, put up a Christmas tree in his home every year. Last year, Brandeis University historian Jonathan Sarna told BrandeisNOW that well into the 20th century, many American Jews saw the tree purely as "a pretty way to commemorate the winter solstice or winter holidays." In recent decades, American Jews have claimed their place in the season by turning Hanukkah, once a minor holiday, into the equivalent of Christmas.
There is nothing particularly Christian about our most familiar holiday customs. Christmas trees became common only with the arrival of large numbers of German immigrants in the 19th century. Among other Americans, they were perceived as a pagan artifact.
The perception was accurate. The date, the bright lights, the wreaths, the mistletoe, Santa Claus — all derive from pagan traditions. The Catholic Church didn't even make it a holiday until more than 300 years after Jesus was born.
Today, the dominant system of belief driving our Christmas practices is not Christianity but consumerism. Years ago, the Christian writer C.S. Lewis told the story of a woman who saw a nativity scene outside a church and complained: "They bring religion into everything. Look, they're dragging it even into Christmas now."
As Restad wrote, the story of Christmas in this country has been "a chronicle of evolving customs, cultural discord and striking invention." Sometimes, we've had to adapt to dangers and hardships even greater than those caused by the pandemic.
Christmas in 1941 arrived just 18 days after the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor plunged the nation into World War II. In the years that followed, real trees were hard to come by, because the men needed to cut them were off fighting. Many people couldn't travel to be with loved ones because gasoline and tires were rationed. Hanging over every family each Christmas morning was the bleak knowledge that many loved ones serving overseas would never return.
But many of our best-known holiday songs were written during the war — including I'll Be Home for Christmas, Let It Snow, and White Christmas. It's a testament to the all-encompassing nature of this holiday is that all three were the work of Jewish composers.
Amid a global conflagration, the appeal of the message of peace and goodwill was enough to transcend our differences, and it still is. Americans have many differences and divisions. But this time of year, we are one people, sharing one spirit.
Steve Chapman blogs at http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/opinion/chapman. Follow him on Twitter @SteveChapman13 or at https://www.facebook.com/stevechapman13. To find out more about Steve Chapman and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate website at www.creators.com.
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