Tag Archives: Christmas

Mr. D and the “War on Christmas”: A Response to Ed O’Donnell’s 11/25 NY Daily News Column

Around mid-December, a memo circulates around my school that could be seen as a broadside in the ever-resurgent “War on Christmas.”

Once you get past the logistical minutia about cleaning up rooms, timetables for parties and whatnot, a curious sentence pops up, to the effect of

“Under no circumstances are children to be removed from parties due to behavior.  Even if you do not celebrate it, these children are entitled to Christmas celebrations.”

Not holidays, but CHRISTMAS celebrations.  One can’t be too sure if this is intentional or not.  However, the message was loud and clear: keep your skepticism, doubt and alternative beliefs at the door.  In this community, it is Christmas—and
ONL Y Christmas, not Chanukah or even Kwanzaa—that matters.

I thought about this as I read a recent Daily News column by Ed O’Donnell, associate professor of history at Holy Cross.  In his piece, O’Donnell finds a new appreciation for the much-maligned phrase “Happy Holidays.”  Speaking as a church-going Christian himself, O’Donnell claims that Happy Holidays “embodies both a fundamental American value and, strange as it may sound, one of Christmas’ core religious ideals.”

It demonstrates the spirit of American inclusiveness, as it is free to interpretation by any faith, and also focuses on inclusivity’s Christian message—a message clouded by “a grotesque exhibition of materialist excess,” in O’Donnell’s words.

Some disclosure is in order. I’ve met Professor O’Donnell a number of times through lectures, workshops and grant programs.  Heck, I even piloted one of my curriculum units for him.  O’Donnell is a first-rate historian, a magnificent writer (I recommend his book Ship Ablaze, about the 1904 sinking of the General Slocum) and one of the finest lecturers I’ve ever met.

Even better—and take my word for it—Ed is a stand-up fellow, a really nice guy.

That said, I do take issue with O’Donnell in this particular survey of the “War on Christmas.” Two points to consider:

(1) His exalting of “Happy Holidays” as a triumph of American inclusivity over religious bigotry fails to take into account Christmas’ own status as a persecuted holiday in the early history of our republic; and

(2) Though it is perhaps unintentional, O’Donnell’s appreciation for “Happy Holidays” might be construed as creating a new orthodoxy, pulling down one golden calf in place of another.

The first point is, in my humble opinion, an egregious omission on O’Donnell’s part.   Of course, he is correct in mentioning our country’s history of violence over religion, via the anti-Catholic and anti-Mormon movements of the mid-19th century.  Yet Christmas did not have an easy road to acceptance: often just as treacherous as the Mormon trek towards the salt flats of Utah.

Since the Reformation, Protestant groups saw Christmas as one of the prime targets for assault in their war against the Roman Catholic Church.  The pomp and pageantry of Christmas was reviled as a papist extravagance bearing the “marks of the beast.”

This anti-Christmas attitude was superimposed on the New World.  England’s Puritan government had severely curtailed the holiday in 1647 and banned it outright in 1652.  Plymouth abolished Christmas, as did Massachusetts Bay in 1659—with a huge 50 shilling fine for non-compliance.  In Of Plimoth Plantation, William Bradford recalls the Christmas of 1621, which was a regular work day at the Separatist colony:

“On the day called Christmas Day, the Governor called [the settlers] out to work as was usual. However, the most of this new company excused themselves and said it went against their consciences to work on that day. So the Governor told them that if they made it [a] matter of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed; so he led away the rest and left them.” ~ William Bradford, Of Plimoth Plantation (1647)

Even after the bans were lifted in the late 1600s, Christmas was rarely celebrated outside of immigrant—mostly German—communities in New York, Pennsylvania and North Carolina, as well as the Anglican gentry of Virginia.   Massachusetts and the rest of New England kept to the old superstitions and prejudices of the holiday.  Christmas, in the Puritan view, was vain, extravagant, Papist, elitist, and royalist.

In fact, a major victory in the American Revolution would not have been possible if Christmas were celebrated more widely in the colonies. The 1776 Christmas victory over the Hessians at Trenton would have turned out differently if both sides—and not just the German mercenaries—were hung over after holiday celebrations.

It wasn’t until 1870—after the Revolution, western expansion, immigration waves, industrialization, and a bloody Civil War—that Christmas finally became a federal holiday, thereby shaking off the vestiges of Puritan intolerance.

To then bury the name “Christmas” under the verbal veneer of “Happy Holidays” can be seen as intolerant as well—intolerant of the arduous road Christmas took to gain acceptance in the United States over fear and superstition.

This leads me to my second point.  I’m in full agreement that the conservative blowhards who push “Keep Christ in Christmas” while turning their heads at its crass commercialism deserve a sound comeuppance.  Though my views tend towards the conservative side, I’m no holy roller—I’m less of a churchgoer than Professor O’Donnell, who goes weekly.  The right has more important things to worry about than labels and names on the best time of year.

That said, the secular left is not getting off easy.  O’Donnell notes that “Happy Holidays” embodies a uniquely American virtue: “respect for each and every citizen’s right to their own religious beliefs (or nonbeliefs). “  Does this also include the right to not say “Happy Holidays”?  Or are those who adhere to their particular beliefs in exclusion to others subject to their own shunning by a secular establishment?

I’m not picking on O’Donnell per se, since I understand his intentions with the piece: to express an appreciation for an unpopular phrase of the season.  Yet this sentiment of inclusiveness can lead many to construe it as the focus for a new standard of exclusiveness.  The “Happy Holidays” crowd, in their zeal to include everyone and respect all, may in fact be disrespecting and persecuting those who see in their individual holidays a source of identity and cohesion—EVEN IF their celebrations may seem exclusive to others.

Does this mean that the “War on Christmas” is legitimate?  Not really; Christmas is not going away anytime soon.  Yet whenever a phrase like “Happy Holidays” is touted as supreme or better than something else, it tends to create an aura of authority—an aura that inherently excludes those who disagree.

George Orwell famously said that “freedom is the right to tell people what they do not want to hear.” This, in many ways more so than inclusivity and respect, is the true republican virtue of American society. Sometime this season, I will hear someone tell me “Happy Holidays.”  I may not like it.  I may feel like cracking a two-by-four over the bastard’s head.  Yet I have to respect his right to say it—and conversely, that SOB has to respect my right to tell them “Merry Christmas” if I feel like it.

So this holiday season, say “Happy Holidays,” “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Chanukah,” “Joyous Kwanzaa,” or whatever you feel like.

Just don’t try to shame someone for mistaking you for a believer and slipping a “Merry Christmas” or “Happy Chanukah.” If you don’t know what that can lead to, re-read George Orwell’s magnum opus to refresh your memory.

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Videos for the Classroom: National Geographic Presents Thanksgiving Unstuffed

It’s that time again, when the classrooms fill with Pilgrim hats, feathers in the hair and massive pageants celebrating the “first” Thanksgiving at Plymouth in 1621.

Last year, the Neighborhood spent a series debunking the holidays, starting with Thanksgiving.  This year, we’re taking a lighter approach to the holidays.  National Geographic produced a fun half-hour program, Thanksgiving Unstuffed, which combines history, culture, and science to explore the holiday in most depth.  I found the beginning bit about cooking a turkey most interesting–the science of why the breast always dries out, no matter how much gravy you drown it in.

Have fun with this in your classrooms.  Next up will be a piece on Franklin Roosevelt’s controversial tinkering with Thanksgiving, the infamous “Franksgiving.” Stay tuned.

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Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays # 3: Christmas

For my money, the purest celebration of the Christmas holiday was portrayed in a Vietnam movie.

In Full Metal Jacket, Sgt. Hartman, played by R. Lee Ermey, leads an entire platoon of Marine recruits in a singing of “Happy Birthday Dear Jesus.”  He then blusters about how God loves Marines because they “kill anything they see” and “keep Heaven packed with fresh souls.”

In a rousing finish, he reminds his recruits that “you can give your hearts to Jesus, but your ass belongs to the Corps!”  A more direct, yet realistic expression of the holiday cannot be found.

 I’m not kidding.

Christmas was once, I’m sure, a very simple affair.  A simple celebration of the birth of Jesus, the single most important historical figure in Western civilization.  I’m aces with Big J—more of us should listen to his teachings.  Thus, celebrating his birthday is not a bad thing.

Then Western civilization’s less civilized elements, i.e. Europeans, decided to graft numerous pagan rituals and décor onto the holiday.  Spread on lavish doses of English fiction, American consumer capitalism and global media networks, and you have Christmas as Moloch, a Biblical all-consuming monster that starts well before December 25 (sometimes on December 26 of the previous year) and continues its onslaught until someone mentions the day’s true meaning.

The response is inevitably, “Jesus who?”

I’m no Holy Roller, nor am I some anti-consumer, anti-technology Luddite that scorns all modern society.  In fact, I’m just as guilty as the average slob in hyping up 12/25 as the capitalist Armageddon (pardon the Biblical pun).  My critical eye and cynical brain, however, cannot overlook what Christmas has morphed into—the Darwinian evolution of celebration due to economic necessity. 

In this edition of Mr. D’s Guide to the Holidays, let’s look at how Christmas became “CHRISTMAS,” with all the bells and whistles.  How did the birth of a Jewish carpenter’s son become Christmas specials with the Jonas Brothers and 24-hour carol marathons on soft-rock radio?

Let’s face it, we can’t even get the date right.

December 25 is, by tradition, the date of Jesus’ birth.  None of the Gospels, or any of the letters of Paul, gives an exact date.  Some scholars suggested May 20 (such as Clement of Alexandria), March 28 (A feast calendar from 243 CE), and others didn’t bother, suggesting that birthday celebrations are a pagan influence.  In a time when worshipping Jesus meant a date with a hungry lion, celebrating his birth would’ve drawn undue attention to oneself.

Somewhere in the Third Century, theologians got into their head that he must have been conceived on the Vernal Equinox, or around March 20 or so, making December 25 a logical choice for a birthday.  Funny how that same date had a “perfect storm” of pagan celebrations from which to draw influences.  December 25 was also the feast day of the Persian cult of Mithras, a soldiers’ god—a popular cult of 3rd Century Roman society, which helped Christians get an “in” with Roman elites.  Also thrown in was the winter solstice festivals of Rome (Saturnalia, where gift-giving comes from) as well as the Germanic tribes that ultimately destroyed the empire.  Evergreens, feasts, gifts, lights, Yule logs—they all come from pagan feasts of the early Dark Ages.  Even the word “Yule” is pre-Christian, from pagan Scandinavian winter festivals.

Until the Protestant Reformation, Christmas was a solemn religious holiday with a lot of other holidays around it.  There was Advent, the four weeks before the 25th (which coincided with the pre-Internet shopping season), as well as the twelve days between the 25th and the Epiphany (Jan 6th), or the day Christians celebrate the arrival of the Magi to Jesus in Bethlehem.  Through the late Middle Ages, it was good political sense for a king to Celebrate Christmas: Charlemagne, William the Conqueror and Richard II would all agree.

Then the Protestants came. 

Along with their usual beefs about papal authority and church corruption came this unseemly pet peeve about Christmas.  Puritans, Calvinists, and other killjoys denounced Christmas as a Popish extravagance, a Catholic gala that had the “rags of the Beast.”  Oliver Cromwell, the famous Puritan English general who had a negative view of fun, banned the holiday in 1647, causing riots in the streets.  Wreaths, holly and carols became an act of political rebellion.  Even with the restoration of the holiday in 1660, British clergy discouraged its celebration. 

This translated into the American colonies as well.   Massachusetts outlawed Christmas until 1681, and even then was never really celebrated in force until the mid-1800s.  Christmas was rarely celebrated outside the German communities of Pennsylvania and North Carolina, where it was popular.  It was even less popular after the Revolution, since it was scene as an English holiday.  It’s no coincidence that Washington won at Trenton on Christmas in 1776: The only folks around celebrating were the Hessian mercenaries passed out drunk in their camp.

Christmas really got its modern start from a novel.  In 1843, Charles Dickens released A Christmas Carol, his ode to the old traditions of the holiday.  In his story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s misery, fall, and redemption, Dickens reconfigured the holiday as less of a Christian religious feast and more of a family-oriented event that celebrated compassion and goodwill.  In England, the book was a monumental success, and completely revived the holiday.  Trees (a tradition imported from Germany), carols, feasts and gift-giving suddenly sprang up again in Victorian England.  This fever spread to America as well, as Christmas became an official holiday in 1870.

It was not long after that Christmas, the consumerist monster began to emerge.  It began with Christmas cards.

In 1875, Louis Prang introduced an English tradition to America: Christmas cards.  Thus began over 130 years of sending cards to a book full of people you hardly talk to anymore.  Santa Claus came over from the Dutch SinterKlaas, a variation of St. Nicholas, a saint of the 4th century known for gift-giving.  This led to the discovery, by the real pain-in-the-ass children, that Santa didn’t exist; producing long lists of toys that now had to be handled by overworked parents.  Hence, the shopping season was born.  The day after Thanksgiving (Black Friday), as well as the first Monday after that (Cyber Monday) start the mad dash to buy crap before the prices get rolled up..oh wait, this stuff’s already too expensive.

By the time of Thomas Edison’s invention of motion pictures, Christmas now had a mass audience.  Christmas movies abound during the season, from the great (It’s a Wonderful Life) to the okay (Miracle on 34th Street) to the God awful (Fred Claus).  Soon after, television came into the scene, providing all sorts of new ways to keep children occupied while Daddy breaks their college fund to pay for their presents.  The Grinch, Charlie Brown, Rudolph and Frosty share a place in the Christmas pantheon thanks to the boob tube.

The Christmas carol, many of which date to the Middle Ages, gets new life in the 20th and 21st centuries.  It is no wonder that the single most successful song in history was Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby in 1942.  Bing has a lot of company now, and most of it is a pale imitation—although the new kids probably didn’t suffer the red asses that Bing’s kids got so frequently.

So now we have the current incarnation: lights, media, dazzle, the blown fuse on the icicle lights on the roof again, etc.  Somewhere along the way, Big J got lost in the shuffle.  Again, I’m no snake handler nor faith healer, just someone who likes to get back to the heart of things. 

Therefore, I’ll give the last word to the Gospel of Luke:

“Now in those days a decree went out from (A)Caesar Augustus, that a census be taken of (B)all [a]the inhabited earth…and everyone was on his way to register for the census, each to his own city. Joseph also went up from Galilee, from the city of Nazareth, to Judea, to the city of David which is called Bethlehem, because (D)he was of the house and family of David, in order to register along with Mary, who was engaged to him, and was with child…and she (E)gave birth to her firstborn son; and she wrapped Him in cloths, and laid Him in a manger, because there was no room for them in the inn.”

“In the same region there were some shepherds staying out in the fields and keeping watch over their flock by night. And (F)an angel of the Lord suddenly (G)stood before them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them; and they were terribly frightened.”

“But the angel said to them, ‘(H)Do not be afraid; for behold, I bring you good news of great joy which will be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a (I)Savior, who is [c](J)Christ (K)the Lord. (L)This will be a sign for you: you will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.’”

 “And suddenly there appeared with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying,
    14(M)Glory to God in the highest,
         And on earth peace among men [d](N)with whom He is pleased.’”   — Luke 2:1-14

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