Before Christmas became about peace, love and department stores, it was at the crux of a culture war—a different cultural war.
By Julie Brock
Christmas became a “thing” in the 4th century.
Early European Christians were drawn to the winter celebrations of rural folk (“pagans”) who would have huge festivals, drink heavily and commit lascivious acts at a time of the year when they had bountiful food and little work to do. The Roman Catholic church realized the usefulness of pegging the date of Jesus’ birth (there is no date in the Bible) to the pagan celebration of the Winter Solstice and declaring all winter celebrations were in His name.
Before its 19th century makeover, Christmas was very bacchanalian. The party followed Christendom throughout its European expansion and over to Puritan New England, where folks were not at all keen on acts of gluttony and lust being committed in Jesus’ name. In 1659 Massachusetts declared it illegal to celebrate Christmas, and a culture war ensued. Preachers would urge congregants against the evils of Christmas, while bawdy tunes were sung outside the church doors.
It was clear by the mid-1800s that the 200 year-long war against Christmas was being lost. Many who were not Puritans had moved into New England, and they quite enjoyed the celebrations. A new religious ruling elite, the Unitarians, had taken the place of the Puritans as the arbiters of what was good culture; their cultural status was supported by the many great authors, poets, politicians, and speakers among their ranks.
The Unitarians had few objections to Christmas in terms of it being historically inaccurate or too much of a good time. As members of the wealthy elite, however, they did have some problem with the looting of the rich and destruction of property that had become common to the holiday.
Deciding that they would use their power of cultural persuasion to make Christmas about peace, goodwill and quiet, Unitarians-influenced Christmas songs quite quickly became songs about silent nights and angels sleeping. “Peace on the earth and good will toward men… the world in solemn stillness lay, to hear the angels sing,” wrote Edmund Sears, a Massachusetts Unitarian minister, author and carol writer.
“T’was the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse,” wrote Clement Moore, another Unitarian minister. This poem contains the first description of St. Nicolas, whom we know now as Santa Claus. St. Nick was a Turkish clergyman who, wearing his cardinal red robes, had given all of his wealth to the needy during the cold winter months in Turkey. Moore turned him into a jolly toy-maker.
The Unitarian’s strategy didn’t stop there. Knowing that children were the key to keeping families indoors, Unitarian-led culture began to focus on goodness and giving as the key elements of the season. Charles Dickens, another Unitarian, wrote what might be considered the new Christmas gospel when he composed “A Christmas Carol,” denouncing Scrooges everywhere. Children were encouraged to be “nice” in exchange for presents. Families who couldn’t afford lush presents were made gifts by wealthy, often Unitarian families, and the children were told simply that Santa brought them.
The crowning cultural achievement was when Charles Follen, another Unitarian Minister, unlocked the secret to keeping the children indoors. In the tradition of his Germanic heritage, Follen was accustomed to keeping evergreen things inside and adorned with candles. In 1832, he brought an entire tree indoors and decorated it. Seeing a tree indoors and all lit up fascinated children. Follen’s sister wrote for a popular magazine at the time, the Godey’s Lady’s Book; she instructed women on how to get their children to behave well, and stay inside using the trick of a “Christmas tree.”
In a few short years, the Unitarian cultural elite transformed Christmas from a celebratory ruckus into a calm occasion that focused on decoration and gift giving. If you are one of the many who laments that Christmas is not about family values or the birth of Jesus… well… it never really was. And if you feel that now it is a bit too culturally pervasive and focused on consumerism, we have only ourselves to blame.
Rev. Julie Brock is a lifelong Unitarian Universalist.
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