Historian examines how the holiday exists at the intersection of the sacred, secular and profane

Dec. 6, 2010

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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.”

Controversies of Christmas Past

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"Christmas in America" provides background on the early church debates over the birth date of Jesus and the incorporation of pre-Christian traditions such as the Roman Saturnalia. But the book — among the first of several to examine public holidays from an historian’s perspective — focuses specifically on the development of Christmas in the United States, tracing holiday’s evolution from the Colonial period to the antebellum south, from the Gilded Age to the end of the 20th century.

Restad, a recipient of the inaugural Regents' Outstanding Teaching Award in 2009, says that researching and writing about Christmas appealed to her because "it seemed so obviously 'there' that is was almost invisibly embedded in our yearly routines. It was not something that 'happened' like a battle or an election."

"The holiday," she says, "presents a cultural mirror of sorts."

In early America, many colonists — a large percentage of whom were not church-goers — viewed the holiday as a break from the drudgery of work, an opportunity to engage in drunken revelry and feasting. More pious folks insisted on treating Christmas as a solemn and sacred observance while others let December 25th pass without any recognition.

Christmas celebrations particularly offended Puritans who saw the holiday as unbiblical and too tied to high church tradition and pagan ritual.

As Restad writes, they abhorred the “excesses of the holiday.”

“Philip Stubbes’s Anatomy of Abuses (1583) condemned revelous celebrants as 'hel hounds' in a ‘Deville’s Daunce’ of merriment. William Prynne’s Histriomastix (1633) inveighed against plays, masques, balls, and the decking of houses with greens. ‘Into what stupendous height of more than pagan impiety…have we now degenerated!’ he lamented.”

The holiday presents a cultural mirror of sorts. Dr. Penne L. Restad

After the American Revolution, colonists wiped the calendar clean of all British holidays, including Christmas. They were starting fresh, building their own identity as a nation. But the Yuletide appeal lingered, and Christmas would reemerge as a uniquely American festival with celebrants borrowing European traditions (Germany’s decorated fir tree, England’s caroling, Holland’s gift-bearing St. Nicholas) and inventing their own.

Borrowing and Inventing to Create an American Christmas

Many of today’s Christmas traditions took root in 19th century New York where city dwellers sought a unifying holiday in the midst of increasing diversity and where merchants, vying for economic dominance over other cities, needed a mascot.

A variation on the Dutch St. Nicholas, Santa Claus captured the country’s imagination. Poets, writers and artists offered several versions with the most enduring depiction captured in Clement Clarke Moore’s “An Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” also known as “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas,” a poem that began appearing in magazines and newspapers in the early 1800s.

Magazine articles also influenced domestic traditions with descriptions of European gift-giving rituals and candle-lit fir trees in the parlor.

Americans, Restad says, absorbed those images and thought, “We can recreate this.”

Literature also inspired them to embrace the intangibles of Christmas: good will, hospitality, charity and hope. As Charles Dickens demonstrated in “A Christmas Carol,” the season offered redemption for even the coldest hearts. And Santa Claus narrative, Restad says, played into that same longing to alleviate the world’s poverty and alienation.

Penne L. Restad
An 1810 woodcut by Alexander Anderson.

America's Santa Claus has strong roots in New York City. In 1810, the newly founded New York Historical Society commissioned the woodcut of St. Nicholas to commemorate its first dinner, held on Dec. 6, St. Nicholas' Day. The Dutch saint, a reminder of the city's origins as New Amsterdam, would also serve as patron for a thriving New York City. The left panel of the broadside depicts "Sancte Claus" as a slender religious figure, and the right shows a good child and a bad child posed above a glowing hearth. A switch to punish bad behavior balances rewards of cakes and toys.

By the end of the Civil War, most states officially recognized Christmas, and in 1870, Congress declared Dec. 25 a federal holiday. As America moved into the 20th century, Christmas moved more fully into the public square with President Calvin Coolidge lighting the first “National Christmas Tree” on the White House lawn and cities sponsoring their own public celebrations.

Again, the development of Christmas mirrored the cultural and civic concerns of the time. Middle-class urbanites, Restad writes, were concerned about the decay, poverty and corruption.

“In creating a Christmas in the city center, they reasserted symbolically citizens’ obligation to harmony, faith, family, and civic unity -– the qualities believed necessary to keep the nation healthy and prosperous.”

Christmas had evolved into a holiday that offered something for everyone.

Americans Continue to Debate Meaning, Purpose of Holiday

Fifteen years after the book’s publication, though, Restad says, Americans still struggle with its rich and varied interpretations.

“I think we tend to be more reductionist now,” she says, “because we can’t deal with the complexity.”

The 2005 book "The War on Christmas" put the holiday under greater scrutiny, Restad says, and the battles continues to rage over the meaning, purpose and role of Christmas in public life.

Should there be a Nativity scene on government property? Should public school children sing Christmas carols? In a country with an ever-growing non-Christian contingent, is it more appropriate to say Merry Christmas or Happy Holidays?

Many continue to rail against crass commercialism and make a religious claim on Christmas. But, Restad says, the nation’s economic well-being depends on holiday shoppers, which means the country will always lay a secular claim to Christmas as well.But while there may be no end in sight to the “Christmas wars,” Restad captures the possibility the holiday offers in her book’s closing paragraph:

“Christmas remains the most important holiday on our nation’s calendar, even though questions of proper celebration perplex us as they did Governor Bradford, the ‘newcomers’ to Plymouth Colony and other Americans over the nation’s centuries,” Restad says. “The holiday continues as always to cross the fluid boundaries between the realms of the sacred, secular, and profane.

"Sooner or later, on television or in church, its arrival brings individuals and culture into direct confrontation with ideals. It causes us to examine relationships with our families, our community and our faith. At Christmastide, we must, directly or even by omission, set our priorities, establish our tolerances, and square our hopes with reality.” 

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By Eileen Flynn

Photo of Dr. Penne L. Restad: Marsha Miller

Banner image: "Santa portrait" by Thomas Nast, Harper's Weekly, 1881.