The 2010 skirmishes in the "Christmas wars" hammer down a historical fact: Where there have been battles over the long millennia, the aggressors have most often been Christians trying to impose religious order on a festival that has never been as tame or faith-flavored as they would like.
Consider the high dudgeon expressed by Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) at the possibility of the legislature continuing to work past mid-December: "It is impossible to do all of the things that the majority leader laid out without doing -- frankly, without disrespecting the institution and without disrespecting one of the two holiest of holidays for Christians and the families of all of the Senate, not just the senators themselves but all of the staff."
Leave aside the fact that many of us 'murkens get no more than a day or two off for the holiday. The attitude that Christmas should be an extended, pious, work-free celebration would likely have been as alien as "Seinfeld's" Festivus to George Washington, Thomas Jefferson and the rest of the nation's founders.
Back in the 1700s, popular Christmas traditions had been carried over from Europe: A mash-up of Mardi Gras and Halloween, featuring feasting, drinking, cross-dressing and sex. The Puritans even tried to outlaw the holiday for a while. The "reason for the season" was the same as it had been for the centuries before the birth of Christianity: astronomy -- the long, dark nights near the winter solstice (combined with the rhythm of agriculture, with farmers mostly at idle between harvest and sowing). It was a perfect recipe for serious partying.
About 1,700 years ago, church leaders tried to co-opt the carnival (known in some parts of Europe as Saturnalia) by tying it to a celebration of the birth of Jesus. But the partying mostly continued.
It wasn't until the 1800s, midwifed by the poem "A Visit From St. Nicholas" and Charles Dickens' book "A Christmas Carol," that the modern American version of Christmas took form. And even that owed more to secular ideas about Santa Claus and charity than it did to conservative Christian theology.
I'm getting my details about Christmas past, by the way, from the wonderful book "The Battle for Christmas,
" by Stephen Nissenbaum, emeritus history professor at the University of Massachusetts. It's a scholarly work, published in 1995, with abundant detail and lots of footnotes. It's also written in a way that's not off-putting to lay readers. Here's his grand summation:
From the beginning, the Church's hold on Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.
Which has never stopped Christians of a certain mind-set from trying. And that leads to my second skirmish from this year: You may have read David Gibson's account about the church in Dallas
that created a website devoted to identifying businesses that were Christmas-y enough (recognized as nice) and not sufficiently deferential to the holiday (tagged as naughty). The measure of religious sufficiency appears to be whether the clerks or signage say "Merry Christmas" rather than "Happy Holidays."
The high irony is the mascot that First Baptist Church of Dallas chose for its Christmas test: The Grinch, the starring character in the Dr. Seuss book "How the Grinch Stole Christmas." The church website is called Grinch Alert.
When I heard about the site, I wondered if anybody at the church had actually read the book or even seen the iconic cartoon that Theodore ("Dr. Seuss") Geisel created in collaboration with the great animator Chuck Jones. (Of the more recent live-action movie I will not willingly speak.) A less suitable symbol of mercantile Christian religiosity than the Grinch cannot be imagined.
The story mentions Christmas, it's true. But there are no prayers, no services, no mention of Jesus. You surely know the outline of the tale (and you can read it online in many places; here's one link
): The Grinch hates Christmas, particularly the noise and songs of Whoville's holiday celebration. He decides to prevent Christmas by stealing the Whos' Christmas stuff.
But when the Whos nonetheless start to sing, the Grinch has his, um, epiphany:
And the Grinch, with his grinch-feet ice-cold in the snow,
Stood puzzling and puzzling: "How could it be so?
"It came without ribbons! It came without tags!
"It came without packages, boxes or bags!"
And he puzzled three hours, `till his puzzler was sore.
Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn't before!
"Maybe Christmas," he thought, "doesn't come from a store.
"Maybe Christmas . . . perhaps . . . means a little bit more!"
And nobody in the poem, in the home or in a store, ever says, "Merry Christmas."
The Grinch's lack of explicit religion is common to almost all of the most broadly accepted cultural icons of the American Christmas season:
"A Christmas Carol," from the original book to all of the various films and plays (including one in Klingon
), is long on works, short on faith. The focus is on ghosts and magical spirits, not angels or the infant Jesus. And Dickens had little use for the specifics of Christian ritual. At one point in the book, he even takes a whack at Christians who wanted pubs to close on Sundays. The Spirit of Christmas Present scoffs at the notion that the idea would find favor in Heaven:
"There are some upon this earth of yours," returned the Spirit, "who lay claim to know us, and who do their deeds of passion, pride, ill-will, hatred, envy, bigotry, and selfishness in our name, who are as strange to us and all our kith and kin, as if they had never lived. Remember that, and charge their doings on themselves, not us."
Run through some of the more modern cultural touchstones, those shows that generations of Americans watch year after year:
"It's a Wonderful Life" has a Christmas-time setting but the story is about faith in community. George Bailey is redeemed by being shown the value of his life to his neighbors.
"Miracle on 34th Street" is a world where redemption and transformation are achieved through faith in, well, Santa Claus. "Christmas is not a day," Kris Kringle explains. "It's a state of mind."
The stop-action "Here Comes Santa Claus" (by the same folks who did the equally non-religious "Rudolph") pushes Christianity totally out of the frame: Santa was a foundling adopted by a toymaking family of elves named Kringle who all wore bushy beards and red suits with white trim. He learned to ho-ho-ho from seals. And he started sneaking down chimneys because a local mayor outlawed the delivery of toys through the front door. And so on.
Among popular holiday fare, only Tim Burton's "Nightmare Before Christmas" is as weirdly decoupled from religion. Christmas in that film, like all the other holidays, exists in a sort of parallel dimension.
The one shining exception to the parade of popular semi-secular Xmas specials is "A Charlie Brown Christmas." The show is true to the conservative Christian faith of 'Peanuts" creator Charles Schultz.
Within the tale of the eternal outcast, Charlie Brown, and his search for the true meaning of Christmas, is an actual passage from a Gospel. In the middle of a school pageant all but captured by materialism, Linus takes the stage and recites much of the second chapter of Luke, announcing the birth of Jesus.
And guess what? Like the best of the non-religious Christmas specials, "Charlie Brown" was a hit from the get-go. Proving, perhaps, that the majority of Americans are perfectly able to live with the idea that Christmas in this country can be understood in many ways.
When Geisel and Jones created the 1966 cartoon version of "Grinch," they came up with some new visuals (they turned the Grinch green, for one thing) and Geisel tweaked some of the text. But they never increased the religion quotient of the tale. Geisel wrote the lyrics to the songs, including what could have been turned into a Christian hymn sung by the Whos. But here's what he came up with:
Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays
Welcome Christmas! Come this way
Fahoo forays, dahoo dorays
Welcome Christmas, Christmas Day
Welcome, welcome, fahoo ramus
Welcome, welcome, dahoo damus
Christmas Day is in our grasp
So long as we have hands to clasp.
To which I can only add: Merry Christmas.