Wars and the Evolution of Christmas in America

Wars and the Evolution of Christmas in America {
AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta
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Christmas is too complex a topic to tackle in one short blog post, so instead here are some anecdotes from Christmases past here in America.

The Pilgrims and Christmas

The Pilgrims hated Christmas. Some of them even called it “Foolstide” rather than Christmas, and it was viewed as a Pagan holiday rather than as a celebration of the birth of Christ. The Pilgrims tried, and succeeded in some years, to ban the holiday outright. In 1620, the first year the Pilgrims landed in the New World, the faithful in Massachusetts worked on erecting their first building (unknown to us now) in the Americas on Christmas Day as a way to thumb their pious noses at their eternal theological foes, the Papists, and idolaters who celebrated such an obnoxious holiday.

Sociologist James Harwood Barnett called the work on Christmas Day a “studied neglect” of the holiday revelry, which was much more of a public affair in the 1620s than it is today. Indeed, the Christmas holiday of the 17th century consisted of drunken brawls, an elected Lord of Misrule who would preside over merrymaking, gluttonous feasts, the blurring of lines between the classes, dancing, and, of course, loud music of all sorts being played long into the dark of winter night.

Christmas in New England continued to morph very slowly into what it is today, and by the 1760s (more than a century after the Pilgrims first broke camp in the New World) the popular Christian holiday was perfectly legal and celebrated by most.

There is still a pervasive myth in American society that the Pilgrims were somehow fleeing religious persecution in Europe. They were not. They had to flee political persecution in England after they supported some of the more brutal monarchs and dictators of the English civil wars, but when they arrived in the Netherlands, where religious toleration was more of the norm, the Pilgrims could not stand it, and sailed to the New World in order to establish a theocracy devoid of different faiths. They hated Christmas, fer cryin’ out loud, so how on earth can they still be viewed in such a tolerable and mythical light?

The Civil War

Christmas during the Civil War got more and more depressing each year the war dragged on. This is not surprising, of course, since war is bad for nearly everybody but the generals and the bankers, and yet some things deserve to be highlighted. But first, the bad things. Christmas for the slaves was always bad, and it got worse for other Southerners, too. The parents of Southern children would have to tell their offspring that Santa might not be able to make it past the Union blockade to bring in presents.

Prisoners of war had it nearly as bad as the slaves, and Christmases were dour affairs. However, by 1864, with the South firmly in the grip of Northern armies, Christmas generosity reappeared on the battlefield:

“On Christmas Day, 90 Michigan men and their captain loaded up wagons with food and supplies and distributed them to destitute civilians in the Georgia countryside. The Union ‘Santa Clauses’ tied tree branches to the heads of the mule teams to resemble reindeer.” 

Federal holiday

In 1870, Christmas became an official federal holiday when President Ulysses S. Grant, who spent a good deal of time bringing the rebellious South to heel, signed the legislation in the hopes that it would help to heal the wounds of a deeply scarred republic.

By the time Grant and the federal government made things official, Christmas already had most of its present-day norms, but it wasn’t until the end of World War II that Christmas as we, as Americans, know it truly came into full force.

Postwar Christmas

The end of World War II was welcomed by all, but it turned the war machine of the United States into a commercial powerhouse, and the tension that had existed since the Pilgrims’ time between religious revellers and commercial interests turned sharply in favor of the latter. Christmas meant money.

Santa Claus and his merry little elves at the top of the North Pole replaced Jesus and his cute little animals in the hearts and minds of many Americans, and in the dominant, mainstream of American cultural life. All those “old” Christmas songs you hear on the radio? All those silly jingles? Postwar boom. Santa Claus as a big fat dude in a red suit and a white beard? Postwar boom.

There is still a small strain in American life that celebrates Christmas as a religious holiday, but it’s small and continues to dwindle. The view of the Pilgrims, on the other hand, has virtually disappeared.

It will be interesting to see how post-Christian America deals with Christmas this century. It will be interesting to see how religious minorities adapt to Christmas celebrations in the American republic. Most immigrants have Christians in their home countries, but those Christians don’t celebrate the birth of Jesus like we do. As I hang out with my loved ones over the next few weeks, I’ll be thinking about these sorts of things, but I’m weird.

Merry Christmas to you and yours.


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