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.
This Day in History 3/14: Whitney Patents the Cotton Gin
March 14, 1794 patent for Eli Whitney's cotton gin, courtesy of the National Archives
Eli Whitney made slavery profitable. I’m pretty sure he didn’t mean it.
In one of the great “my bads” in American history, Connecticut inventor Eli Whitney received Patent X72 for his cotton “engine”, or “gin.” This device mechanized the separation of cotton seeds from their fibers, which had been an arduous, labor-intensive process. Once considered a luxury item, short-staple cotton became a valuable commodity almost overnight, and it revived a dying institution in the South–slavery.
Yet if his patents were respected–which was impossible at the time–Whitney probably didn’t intend for it to be that way.
The cotton gins were not originally meant to be sold to plantations to use onsite. Whitney’s original business model (albeit flawed) provided that cotton growers send their bales to his gins in Connecticut, where his machines would process the cotton for 40% of the ginned product as a fee. Most Southern growers resented this arrangement, which smelled of shady proprietorships of grist and saw mills. Furthermore, since patent law was difficult to enforce at the time, it was easily copied by tinkerers and craftsmen throughout the South. In fact, Whitney ate up all his profits fighting patent infringements in court, and his business went bankrupt in 1797.
If the system were left as Whitney designed, who knows what would have happened to slave populations in southern plantations. By the end of the 18th century slavery was dying in the North, and was increasingly unprofitable in the South–almost to the point of planters selling all their enslaved Africans and using hired hands instead.
Yet the gin, especially the patent-infringed gins that spread on every plantation, made machine-processed short-staple cotton available onsite for massive profits. Cotton became such a commercial boon it tangentially boosted the fortunes of textile mills in New England, Great Britain and continental Europe: Now these “free” places were also tied to the slave economy. Easier processed cotton meant more production, and more production required more hands picking up to 300 or even 400 pounds a day as a quota.
The whole vicious cycle spiraled through the early 19th century until the matter was settled with four years of bloodshed.
Eli Whitney is not exactly a beloved figure in most Black households. Most likely, he’s burned in effigy with Roger Taney, “Bull” Connor and George Wallace. One cannot know a man’s true intentions, but I don’t think he wanted to expand slavery by building a machine. Instead, he wanted to get rich from a labor-saving device that would revolutionize an industry.
Too bad he was such a crappy businessman.
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