Dec 24, 2012

Culturally contested Christmas

A curious historical fact: the first people to work to "take the Christ out of Christmas," as it were, were not atheists, or crass materialists, or secularists/pluralists trying to diminish the role of Christianity in American culture. They were Protestants.

Protestants were very conflicted about Christmas in the 1800s.

For one thing, many were opposed to the "mass" part of Christmas, i.e., the Catholicism implicit in the holiday. If December 25 was a religious holiday, that seemed to mean accepting the Catholic tradition of the church calendar and the Catholic idea of tradition, the same tradition that led to the veneration of the Virgin Mary, the authority of the Pope and the church councils, and all the sundry things Protestants argued should be rejected because they're not in the Bible. The Bible which says nothing about a gift-giving solstice holiday.

At the same time, Protestants felt a strong impulse to take the cultural practice of the day -- the Christmas of the tavern, the Christmas of the department store -- and repurpose them as devotional practices.

This meant that they were at the same time critical of the non-religious celebrations of Christmas and leery of the religious celebrations too.

As Leigh Eric Schmidt writes in Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays:
Through much of the nineteenth century, the Christianization of Christmas was a quite fragile proposition, tentative and fragmentary. Every time a pastor tried to remind his congregation that Christmas was a solemn religious event that 'should be observed in the heart as well as at the hearth, in the temple as well as at the table,' he seemed to have to admit that the most visible observances of the season were 'rioting and vain amusement' -- shooting guns, callithumpian music, practical jokes, heavy drinking and the like. The churches were invariably hard pressed to communicate the devotional dimension of Christmas; the raucous plebeian version of the celebration always threatened to drown them out.

Confessedly, these Protestants in the Puritan mold were partially to blame for the sorry state of Christmas devotion in the colonial and antebellum worlds. The tradition of holiday purgation, long shared in by Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Baptists, Quakers, and many Methodists, bequeathed a model of thorough desacralization that actually helped Christmas go its secular way in American culture. Time and again these Protestants insisted that Christmas was just like any other day, that it was without 'any peculiar sanctity.' At best, Christmas was an object of 'mistaken piety'; at worst it was the occasion of superstition and corrupt tradition. Given these presuppositions about the idolatry of the ancient church calendar, when low-church Protestant began their home-centered recovery of Christmas in the middle decades of the nineteenth century, they often welcomed it back explicitly as a 'social holiday,'not as a 'religious observance.' As one Sunday School publication, the Baptist Teacher, editorialized in 1875, 'We believe in Christmas -- not as a holy day, but as a holiday.'
As has been regularly pointed out, the so-called "war on Christmas" is pretty specious. It is the case, though, that the meaning of Christmas is and has always been culturally contested. In its practice, this holiday is often conflicted, with multiple meanings, divergent rituals, discordant customs, and perpetually competing interpretations.

It's common today, for example, to find evangelicals at once upset that Christmas has been "commercialized" and that Wal-Mart clerks don't recognize the religious nature of the celebration in their standard customer greetings. This isn't a new thing, though; the conflict over what Christmas is has a long history. And it's not only the case of a conflict between the American Protestant majority and others, be they Catholic or non-religious. The conflict runs even through American Protestantism itself.