The history of American holiday cheer obscures the difficult details of the nativity narrative.
Christmas in America has never been a straightforward event. Whether in the privacy of our homes or in the public square, it has always been a conflicted affair.
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For some in our present cultural climate, it’s been a matter of religious liberty and a political right to be able to say “merry Christmas” at Target or Walmart. For others, it’s been a matter of religious pluralism and political hospitality to say “happy holidays” instead.
This pushes a portion of our society to want to abolish Christmas altogether. For others, the answer is to keep putting “Christ back in Christmas.” But maybe there is a deeper problem.
Perhaps the problem is not whether we remember “that Jesus is the reason for the season,” but that the story that “Christmas in America” tells looks nothing like the story that Matthew and Luke tell about the birth of Christ and always seems to distort or to leave out essential elements of the Nativity narrative.
There’s a reason for that, of course. Christmas in America is influenced less by the stories of a publican and a physician—the Gospel writers Matthew and Luke—than by the stories of a Puritan, a princess, a poet and a host of painters.
What’s needed, I might argue, is a far more radical re-conceptualization of the story of Christmas—what it sounds like, how it feels, where it takes us, and what it enables us to imagine—and for the story of Matthew and Luke to redefine how Christians in America celebrate the “mass of Christ.”
Perhaps what’s needed, more bluntly, is to leave the story of “Christmas in America” alone and for Christians to learn to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity.
A puritan, a princess, a poet and painters
The history of how we got “Christmas in America” as we know it is a long and complicated one that depends, in short, on four fundamental influences: the legal actions of Puritans in the 17th-century, the domestic celebrations of Queen Victoria, the publication of a Charles Dickens novel, and the work of poets and painters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
“Publick Notice: Christmas is Forbidden”
Around the middle of the 17th century, Puritan leaders in New England made the celebration of Christmas illegal. They did so for two specific reasons.
For one, the feast of Christmas involved a great deal of intemperate behavior. During these long winter nights, people feasted in excess, got drunk, engaged in wanton sex, rioted in the streets, and barged into the homes of the well-to-do and demanded that they be given the best of the pantry. Christmas back then looked more like a frat party gone horribly wrong—marked by “mad Mirth and rude Reveling,” as Cotton Mather saw it. It was far from sweet and mild.
Another reason the Puritans banned Christmas is that it smelled too much of “Popish” ceremonies. For them, the Roman Catholic “mass of Christ” contravened the requirement to worship only as the Bible has explicitly commanded. As Gerry Bowler, in Christmas in the Crosshairs, observes, “The only day to be kept holy, the Puritans asserted, was the Sabbath.”
One public notice warned its citizens:
The observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical Practices are hereby FORBIDDEN, with the Offender liable to a Fine of Five Shillings.
Because of the Puritan influence on this particular religious holiday, the United States Congress regularly met on Christmas Day from 1789 to 1855. Public schools met on Christmas Day in Boston until 1870. The first state eventually to declare legal the celebration of Christmas was Alabama, in 1836.
“The very smell of the Christmas Trees”
One year later, in 1837, Princess Victoria, the only daughter of the Duke and Duchess of Kent, became Queen of England. Three years later she married her first cousin, Prince Albert of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha. Unlike the English Puritans, German Protestant Christians, like Victoria’s mother and Prince Albert’s family, retained the historic traditions of Christmas.
Because Victoria’s Hanoverian ancestors had already introduced the custom of Christmas tree decoration to the English court, it was not a difficult decision for the queen to introduce the Christmas tree to the English people at large. Together Victoria and Albert modeled for the people of the United Kingdom a family-centered celebration. This is the second key influence on Christmas in America.
An entry from Queen Victoria’s journal on December 24, 1841, says this:
Christmas, I always look upon as a most dear happy time, also for Albert, who enjoyed it naturally still more in his happy home, which mine, certainly, as a child, was not. It is a pleasure to have this blessed festival associated with one’s happiest days. The very smell of the Christmas Trees of pleasant memories.
As the historian Stephen Nissenbaum summarizes things in The Battle for Christmas, what was once marked by liturgical celebrations at church and festivities in the village, revolving around public rituals and civic activities, eventually turned into a domestic affair, revolving around a children-centric holiday, marked by extravagant gift-giving and, in time, commercial-oriented activities.
Tom Flynn in The Trouble with Christmas adds this remarkable fact: “[It is] surprising how small a role the churches played in the Victorian revival. From its inception, contemporary Christmas was primarily a secular and commercial holiday. The parsons were as surprised as anyone else when after a century-long hiatus, the pews started filling up again on Christmas morning.”
“I have always thought of Christmastime as a charitable time”
Six years after Victoria acceded to the throne, Charles Dickens published A Christmas Carol. With his story of ghosts of Christmas past, present, and future, Dickens essentially created a myth devoid of particulars from the Gospel narratives. This is the third influence on the American account of Christmas.
For Dickens, it was the “spirit of Christmas” rather than the Spirit of Christ that captured his attention.
Humanitarianism rather than the humanity of Jesus became, for him, finally determinative. The effect of Dickens’s tale cannot be overestimated. As Bowler summarizes it, “He revived the lost medieval link between worship and feasting, the Nativity and Yule, and emphasized the holiday as a time of personal and social reconciliation.”
Ebenezer Scrooge’s nephew speaks for the era when he remarks, “I am sure I have always thought of Christmas-time … as a good time; a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.”
During Dickens’s day, working on Christmas Day was a normal thing. What A Christmas Carol did was to effectively shame this practice out of use.
The secularization of Saint Nicholas
The final influence on American Christmas is the work of painters, storytellers, and illustrators, beginning with the philanthropist John Pintard in the early 19th century. Hoping to inspire the virtuous habits of his Dutch ancestors in the people of New York City, once a Dutch colonial town, Pintard campaigned to make Saint Nicholas the patron saint of the city. As Bruce David Forbes describes it in Christmas: A Candid History:
Under Pintard’s leadership, the New York Historical Society began an annual Saint Nicholas Day dinner on December 6, 1810, and for the occasion Pintard commissioned a woodcut illustration of Nicholas, clothed in a bishop’s robes.
This, for all practical reasons, would be the last time that artists would represent Nicholas the Bishop of Myra in his original liturgical garb.
In 1809, on Saint Nicholas Day, the writer Washington Irving portrayed Saint Nicholas in his satirical book Knickerbocker’s History of New York flying over trees in a horse-pulled wagon and sliding down chimneys to deliver gifts. In 1823, a poem titled “A Visit From St. Nicholas” was published, describing Saint Nicholas on a sleigh with individually named reindeer. This poem cemented the basic features of the American Christmas story.
Another influential figure of this time period is Thomas Nast, a German-born illustrator. In 1862, Nast drew a cartoon for Harper’s Weekly that represented Saint Nicholas as a small, elflike creature. Eventually, Nast added other details: locating his headquarters in the North Pole, depicting him as a toy maker with elves as assistants, receiving letters from children and snacks when he visited their homes.
A final influence worthy of mention is the illustrator Haddon Sundblom. In 1931, as the Coca-Cola Company chronicles the story, the company wanted its soft drink campaign to show a wholesome, realistic Saint Nicholas, or as the Dutch called him, Sinterklass. So they commissioned Sundblom to develop a series of images that used Santa Claus.
They wanted readers to encounter Santa himself, not just a man dressed as Santa.
From 1931–1964, Sundblom produced at least one illustration per year of Santa Claus drinking a Coca-Cola. It is at this point that Santa Claus went global. According to Bowler, in his book Santa Claus: A Biography, “The overwhelming ubiquity of these advertisements … ensured that no rival version of Santa could emerge in the North American consciousness.”
Any ties that may have remained with the Bishop of Myra in Asia Minor are hereafter severed in the American imagination. Nicholas the Wonderworker has become Jolly Old St. Nick; the saint has been secularized.
The power of a liturgical vacuum
So what happens when the Protestant church in the 17th century evacuates its worship of the celebration of Christ’s birth? A liturgical vacuum is created that non-ecclesial entities willingly fill. The government determines the legal shape of Christmas, the market shapes a society’s emotional desires and financial expectations about the holy day, the ideal family replaces the holy family, and the work of visual artists shape its imagination, while musicians and writers fill the empty space with their own stories about the “magic” of Christmas.
For instance, in 1863, not only is Santa enlisted to support the war effort, he is also given a partner in order to enhance his market value.
In 1939, Montgomery Ward’s advertising men dream up a character known as Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in order to compete with Marshall Fields. The same year, President Roosevelt declares the fourth Thursday of the month to be Thanksgiving Day, moving the holiday forward by one week. This break with tradition is prompted by requests from the National Retail Dry Goods Association to extend the Christmas shopping season.
What happens to the church in the light of all these things? It loses its distinctive voice in the public square. What happens to plenty of Christians great and small? They get mad about the wrong things. What happens to the gospel stories? They get co-opted by alternate stories and distorted by lesser stories. What happens to the voices of the protagonists of Matthew and Luke? They get swamped by the noise of advertising jingles and the voices of fictional characters who invite us to “just believe.”
The reason why we can’t merely put “Christ back into Christmas” is this.
Every time we try to put a little more Jesus into the story of “Christmas in America,” Jesus, as it were, routinely loses. As an instance of civil religion, “Christmas in America” always aims to sanitize the Nativity story—make it safe for public consumption. It robs Luke’s story of its sting by removing its scandalous elements—its songs of protest, for instance. In placing a crèche next to a blow-up BB8 or Frosty on the front lawn, it absorbs Matthew’s strange tale into a tale of generic good cheer.
If it is true that those who tell the stories rule the world, then the story that “Christmas in America” tells is a juggernaut force.
Thinking we can throw in a dash of the baby Jesus into the tale of “Christmas in America” without a mutation of the God-Man baby is naïve. Believing a shout of “Merry Christmas” at Target will be heard as a faithful announcement of angelic tidings is equally naïve. The story of Matthew the publican and Luke the physician inevitably gets drowned—and drowned out.
Because the story of “Christmas in America” is bound up with fundamental American myths, like baseball and apple pie, the difficult details of the Nativity narratives get swallowed up and repurposed by the nostalgic story of Americans at Christmastime. “The most wonderful time of the year” invariably reconstitutes the account of the birth of Christ “in the days of Herod.” And while “Christmas in America” is not all bad by any means, it involves inertias that resist the more demanding story of God Incarnate and to which Christians should be alert.
The stories of a publican and a physician
But what would happen if the church were to become more profoundly shaped by the stories that Matthew and Luke tell? How might our traditions change if we attended to the whole narrative and not just to the highlight reel of the Nativity stories?
For the gospel writers, the story doesn’t merely illustrate a point; the story is the point. If this is so, then how might the point of view of the narrator, the characterization of its protagonists, the settings, and the use of metaphors, signs, and songs show us the meaning of Jesus’ birth? Four fundamental characteristics imbue these stories with their meaning.
First, these stories are fantastical stories.
An angel repeatedly communicates with Joseph through dreams and in person with Mary and with Zechariah. An angel warns the Magi in a dream to not return to Herod and a host of angels appears to a group of shepherds in their field. A group of astrologers/astronomers see a star in the heavens and decide to visit Bethlehem in order to visit the child king in light of their celestial observations.
We hear a lot about the magic of Christmas. But what if the magic of Christmas is less like the wonder of a Pixar movie (as wonderful as it is!) and more like the deep magic of Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia—far more fantastical than anything we could ever imagine? What would it mean to encounter afresh the awful and awe-filled news of Christ’s birth in our festivities? How might we taste anew the terrible and terrific word of the angel in our testimonies and prayers?
Second, these are stories of hardship, loss, and pain.
A child is conceived out of wedlock. A social stigma accompanies Joseph’s decision to take Mary to be his wife. Infertility characterizes the experience of Zechariah and Elizabeth. A refugee family moves away from family at the most inopportune time of a child’s life in order to live among strangers in a foreign land. A massacre of children takes place in the town that the holy family has fled.
Suffering haunts every corner of the birth narratives. Pain and loss mark the experiences of each character in these narratives. So, yes, the celebration of Christmas ought to be a merry celebration of Christ’s birth—marvelously merry! But perhaps Christ’s birth is an encounter with joy and not happiness because joy, biblically considered, can account for suffering, while happiness cannot.
Third, it’s a multi-generational, multi-cultural story.
Jesus has a teenage mother and his cousin-once-removed, Elizabeth, is advanced in age. Simeon the God-Receiver and Anna the Prophetess are decidedly elderly. Mary and Joseph belong to a low socio-economic class, while Herod belongs to an upper socio-economic class. The shepherds belong to a social outcast class, Zechariah to the priestly class. The Magi are Persian astrologers. And they all belong to the Nativity narrative.
However else we may describe the story of Christ’s birth, we describe it unfaithfully if we erase all the “multi-”s: multi-ethnic, multi-linguistic, multi-economic, multi-cultural, and multigenerational.
And in being all these things, it anticipates the good news of Pentecost, where the Spirit of God brings together a host of “multi-”s in the name of Christ.
Fourth, it’s a story of spontaneous songs.
Like characters in a musical theater production, the protagonists of Luke’s gospel find mere speech insufficient to the task of expressing their astonishing experiences. Mary breaks out in song in response to Elizabeth’s benediction. (It is not a “sweet” song.) Zechariah sings his way out of silence at the pronouncement of his son’s name. (It, too, is not a “sweet” song.) The angel choir sings of God’s fantastic glory to a socially insignificant collection of shepherds, while Simeon bursts into verse at the sight of the Christ child.
The experience of God’s redemption is so very extraordinary, that it prompts extraordinary patterns of speech—in this case, musical and lyrical eruptions. As New Testament scholars like to point out, the Gospel was born in song. Nothing less, it seems, would befit an encounter with the living God.
Celebrating the Nativity of Christ
So how shall we then live? I might recommend two things here.
First, enjoy in good conscience all that is good about “Christmas in America.” Enjoy it for both personal and missional reasons. Enjoy the twinkling lights that dot your neighborhood. Take pleasure in making the sugar cookies and homemade wreaths. Have a good laugh, or a good cry, by rewatching A Charlie Brown Christmas. Listen to your Bing Crosby and Mariah Carey records.
Enjoy them because the grace and goodness of God are not absent from these things. Enjoy them because we are always, as Augustine might say, citizens of two cities. Enjoy them because they become a way for us to be wholly present to the lives—and longings—of our neighbors.
But I also encourage us to remember that the story that “Christmas in America” tells is not to be confused with the Gospel story.
While the former makes plenty of room for wonderment and kindly regard for our neighbors, the latter makes it possible for both joy and sorrow, both justice and mercy, to coexist in the redemptive tale of God.
In the Matthean narrative, both the experience of refuge and of the refugee represent signs of God’s providential care. In the Lucan account, both the lowborn and the highborn become equal participants in the drama of Christ’s incarnation. To know that our own fears and yearnings belong in this story becomes a source of great comfort to many in our communities.
In the end, I don’t think much good will come from trying “to put Christ back into Christmas.” I say, leave that story alone; it’s not worth the fight. Let America have its Christmas story. Treat it like any other aspect of our nation’s traditions, for better and for worse.
But I do think a great deal of good will come when the church learns to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity and to discover in this astonishingly beautiful story of Christ’s birth the better-than-we-could-have imagined nature of the gospel.
I also believe we’d become a more winsome witness to a watching world that sorely wants to know if God is in fact with us—here and now, in this time, this place.
W. David O. Taylor is assistant professor of theology and culture at Fuller Theological Seminary and the director of Brehm Texas, an initiative that seeks the renewal of the church through the arts. His book Glimpses of the New Creation: Worship and the Formative Power of the Arts is due out with Eerdmans in 2019. He tweets at @wdavidotaylor.
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