College of Liberal Arts

Christmas in America

Is Christmas sacred or secular? Pagan or Christian? Private or public? A commercial event or a season of hope and possibility?

Every winter, Americans debate the questions that surround their most celebrated and controversial holiday. And every year, senior lecturer of history Penne L. Restad, finds herself fielding media requests to settle the matter. If anyone would have the answer, it’s Restad whose 1995 book "Christmas in America: A History" (Oxford University Press, 1995) documents in rich detail the evolution of the holiday in the U.S.

Penne L. Restad
Dr. Penne L. Restad

But the historian’s take often surprises people. Christmas, Restad says, is all of the above.

There exists no singular Christmas past to reclaim, she says. Tension and controversy have always surrounded the holiday. “Jesus is the reason for the season” may ring true for some today, but many of the earliest American settlers either rejected the the holiday as unChristian or engaged in rather unholy, whiskey-fueled celebrations. Even the oft-lamented commercialism of Christmas isn’t new. If anything, it’s one of the main reasons Christmas took hold in this country.

Far from fitting into a single category, Restad says, Christmas has grown large enough to encompass the frenzied shopping and the White House Christmas tree, the family gatherings and reverent church observances. More than any other holiday in the U.S., Restad says, Christmas — in one way or another — taps into our national consciousness and “provides a communal and calendrical touchstone of the nation’s faith, hope, and moral aspiration, a national monument of harmony and transcendence.”

In that sense, she says, Christmas is open to all interpretations.

“The thing about the holiday is it has so many layers to it that a person can enter it in as many layers as they want,” Restad says. “It becomes a sieve through which all culture sifts.”

As an historian, though, Restad understands why the Christmas Wars still rage. Americans, she says, tend to read the past through their own lenses, particularly when it comes to a holiday that holds such personal connections and nostalgia.

“Everyone looks at Christmas from their own experience,” she says. “Their experience becomes the history, and they just project it backwards.”

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