In the late 1600’s in colonial Boston, the celebration of Christmas was against the law. Indeed, anyone evidencing the “spirit of Christmas” could be fined five shillings. In the early 1800’s, Christmas was better known as a season for rioting in the streets and civil unrest.1 However, in the mid-1800’s some interesting things changed the cultural response to the feast and, in 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday (which is to say that prior to 1870, Christmas was not a day-off in America). What happened?
American Christmas demonstrates the amazing influence of literature on a culture. The first important book was by the author, Washington Irving (of Sleepy Hollow and Rip Van Winckel fame):
In 1819, best-selling author Washington Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house. The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly. In Irving’s mind, Christmas should be a peaceful, warm-hearted holiday bringing groups together across lines of wealth or social status. Irving’s fictitious celebrants enjoyed “ancient customs,” including the crowning of a Lord of Misrule. Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended – in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually “invented” tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.2
The second book, however, was, by far, the more influential: Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. When Dickens is dubbed, “the man who invented Christmas,” it is not far from the truth. For the American cultural celebration of Christmas largely began through the popularity of Dickens’ classic story. That same fact, though, accounts for much of the non-religious aspects of America’s celebration.
Dickens’ A Christmas Carol does not overlook the birth of Christ. It presumes the religious aspects of the day and its presence is woven throughout every part of the story-line. There is a brief mention of Bob Cratchett and his son, Tiny Tim, attending Church on the day. But it was not this part of the story that caught the popular imagination. All told, it was the “spirit” of Christmas that sold America on the importance of the day.
Dickens wrote in the depths of the Victorian era. That period was marked, both in England and America, by a rise of romanticism, a popular sentimentality for “old things,” “traditions,” and “customs.” The century before had been dominated by the Enlightenment, when all things rational ruled the day. Indeed, it is not incorrect to see the sentimentality of the Victorian period as a reaction to the coldness of reason. It was a swinging of the cultural pendulum.
America’s religious history has been a conflicted mix since the very beginning. The New England colonies (among the earliest) were settled largely by Puritans, dissenters from the Church of England, who wanted a radical reform of English Christianity. Unable to achieve their desires in England, they came to America and established their Churches here. They opposed Church festivals and frivolities of almost every sort. Their strict and dour form of Christianity waned and morphed over the decades, becoming a fairly moderate version of generalized Protestantism. The lower colonies (Virginia and to the South) were settled (officially) by Anglicans. However, migrations quickly populated those areas with dissenters, particularly the Scots-Irish who were largely Presbyterian with Baptists as well. Catholics were a tiny minority, restricted, for the most part, to Maryland.
English Churches outside of the Catholic and Anglican were non-liturgical. The “feast” of Christmas was as absent as the “feast” of anything else. It was not part of their consciousness. Thus, the growth of a popular Christmas in the mid to late 19th century took place outside the walls of the Church. It became a cultural holiday, with an emphasis on family and the home.
Surprisingly, Christmas is probably far more a part of Protestant Church life in America today than at any time in our history. But the echoes of cultural Christmas remain strong. When Christmas Day falls on a Sunday, Christianity in America revisits its conflicted past. It is not unusual to see Churches of a more Evangelical background cancelling Sunday services, deferring to Christmas as a “family” celebration. For liturgical Churches (Catholic, Orthodox, Anglican, Lutheran, etc.) such a practice seems scandalous in the extreme.
I might note, however, that the “power” of Christmas as an event in our culture, is rooted in the culture rather than the Church. In the Orthodox Church, Christmas is but one of twelve major feast days. If those feast days fall anytime other than a Sunday, attendance at Church will be thin indeed. And though Christmas is one of the three greatest of the twelve (Pascha, Christmas, Theophany), only Christmas and Pascha (always on a Sunday) receive great attention in America. Those of us who feel a certain superiority in our Church’s celebration of the Christmas feast, would do well to reflect on our own neglect of the other feasts.
This is not an article about what “should” be. Cultures are what they are and got that way by their peculiar history. If America were an Orthodox or Catholic country in its beginning, many of the other major feasts would likely be national holidays and their customs would be widespread. Such is the case elsewhere in the world.
There are protests against the secular Christmas that say, “Put the Christ back in Christmas!” From a liturgical point of view I’ve wanted to add, “And put the Mass back in Christmas!” It is, after all, a feast of the Christian Church. Neither of these, however, will likely be dominant in a culture that once had little Christmas at all.
Another suggestion I might make is to “put the Dickens back in Christmas.” I can think of no better homage to the man who “created” the modern celebration of the holiday than to read his delightful A Christmas Carol. If you do not want to read, watch a movie version. Several of them are quite faithful to the book.
But, more than this, would be the moral of Dickens’ story: Christmas is well-kept by a life of generosity and kindness. That dear story is one of profound repentance, the healing of relationships and the righting of wrongs. Dickens’ Christmas was synonymous with a life lived in accordance with the gospel. He said it well at the end of his story:
Bob Cratchit was very surprised, and so were many people who found Scrooge so changed. Scrooge became a better person. To Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. Scrooge became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city or town in the world could know. It was always said of Scrooge, that he knew how to keep Christmas well. May that be truly said of us, and all of us!
I absolutely think that Christmas should be a time for Christians to gather in Church to give thanks for the birth of Christ. But outside its doors, no one of us could do better than Scrooge. The busy-ness of Christmas, as well as the business of Christmas, could do well to listen to the words of Scrooge’s partner, Jacob Marley, the tortured soul doomed to wander the world in chains. Scrooge observed to him that he was always a good man of business. Marley replied:
“Business!” cried the Ghost, wringing its hands again. “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
Would that such business were as popular as the tinsel and trees. Thank you Charles Dickens, for having said it so well.
Footnotes for this article
- For a short article on the history of Christmas in America see this article.
God bless us, every one!
My father read “A Christmas Carol” from an old leather bound book every Christmas for years. It provide more religious instruction for me than I can speak of. It was probably the best instruction my father ever gave to us in the faith.
I pray to God that one day I might put the Mass back in Christmas. But my Protestant family would be too deeply hurt if I was absent on Christmas Eve and Christmas morning. Pray for me and my family, Father, that we may be healed.
My favorite line is Marley’s: “I wear the chains I forged in life..’. The old movie version staring Alistair Sims was quite good, Ithink.
I love Alastair Sim, too! He was a great lover of poetry, and it just shows in his relish in playing Dickens’ lines. But that whole film and its cast is wonderful in every minute.
Tonight (Christmas Eve) we got a treat as at mass there was also the tonsuring of a Deacon (Greek Orth. Archdiocese). I always feel like an ordination is like watching a birth, so double “Nativity.”
This is excellent, Fr. Stephen. For being a “ghost of a story,” ” A Christmas Carol” is such a profound little book. I haven’t the last couple of years, but I used to read it every advent. I even taught it once in one of my university courses–the students were surprised at the religious overtones. Marley forged bonds of steel with money because he never forged bonds of love with others. May we all learn from that lesson. A Blessed Nativity to all!
Thanks, I’d say more, but I’m off to Christmas liturgy!!
Definitely like Michael Caine’s Muppet Christmas Carol! After singing a round of Lutheran Advent hymns at our family’s Christmas Eve gathering, we topped if off with Mr. Caine’s born-again song “With a Thankful Heart” adding the echo parts with Gonzo-like voices! Mighty joyful! Now, off to Christmas morning Divine Liturgy. mjb
My favorite sobering moment of any film version of “A Christmas Carol” is where Ebenezer Scrooge sees his own tombstone. And it’s never in a brochure-worthy cemetery like Forrest Lawn or Sky View Memorial.
Well, my family spent much of Christmas in the ER with my brother. He will be in the hospital for the next 2-3 days recovering from congestive heart failure. Please pray for him and us!
In all things, God is good!
Prayers said, Byron! So sorry for such distress, peace
Dear Byron I shall pray for you and your brother and family. May God bless you all with courage, strength and peace, and God willing, with healing.
«Ὁ ἀχώρητος παντί, πῶς ἐχωρήθη ἐν γαστρί;»
For your brother, Byron…
“O Lord Almighty, the Healer of our souls and bodies, You Who put down and raise up, Who chastise and heal also; do You now, in Your great mercy, visit our brother (Name), who is sick. Stretch forth Your hand that is full of healing and health, and get him up from his bed, and cure him (her) of his illness.”
God’s care and blessings….
My prayers for you, your brother, and family.
Besides heart problems, lots of flu going around. My wife missed Christmas liturgy, and our traditional family get together. Yet, as Byron says, in all things God is good!
Many thanks, all! Glory to God!
Love A Christmas Carol!
This was the first year I was able to attend both the Christmas Eve Vigil and the Divine Liturgy for the Orthodox Feast of the Nativity. (It has been our family pattern up til now to be visiting my parents and their Evangelical church.) The Vigil was especially beautiful and nearly as well attended in my parish as Pascha. (It undoubtedly would have been as well attended, but we have a Slav/Polish congregation within our parish that still celebrates on the Old calendar.)
Thanks for the informative history lesson. Our Christmas customs in this nation are a bit of a cultural hodgepodge (or should I say gallimaufry? H/T DBH), to be sure. We could certainly have done worse than to found some of them on Dickens’ story.
“Dickens wrote in the depths of the Victorian era. That period was marked, both in England and America, by a rise of romanticism, a popular sentimentality for “old things,” “traditions,” and “customs…Thus, the growth of a popular Christmas in the mid to late 19th century took place outside the walls of the Church. It became a cultural holiday, with an emphasis on family and the home.”
I must say that my relationship to the Holiday of Christmas is becoming with each passing year more difficult, this in large part due to the overwhelming sentimental and romantic nature of the Holiday. This may have began back in the Victorian era but modern marketing and advertising has taken it to a much higher level. I believe this is one of the reasons why depression is so common during this season. Who of us can truly experience the “spirit of Christmas” as its currently known in America?
In Scotland Christmas was not a holiday until the 1950s. I was in Edinburgh in 1960s and Christmas was spoken of with tight lipped disapproval by my elderly landlady!
Fascinating! I had not known that this persisted so long. But, Calvin’s long arm reached deep into Scotland.
I have to admit that I have a great patience with Christmas – even it’s commercial aspects – at least to a degree. First, it is surrounded with Church services for me, so that the day never loses that focus. The other aspect, its commercial side, in a culture that is, essentially, driven by commerce, I’m not surprised. If you look for the best and brightest parts of things – increased charity and such – (I try to fill my wallet with dollar bills so that I can always have something to contribute to the bell-ringer’s bucket at the stores) – it’s bearable. On the other hand, the devil hates Christmas (and its truth) and well whisper to us all of his criticisms without fatigue. So, I work at enjoying it just so I can tick him off.
I want to thank everyone for your prayers for my brother, Dean. We removed life support last night and prayed him through. God is compassionate and merciful and he went very peacefully. Please pray for my family as we continue. Again, many thanks to all! God is good!
My prayers for you, your family and your bother Dean, memory eternal.
You are dear to us dear Byron. God bless your family with peace and heartfelt love.
Oh Byron! I am so sorry. For some reason I did not expect to hear this. Yes, God is good, but I am still sorry.
Surely, our prayers dear brother, for Dean and for all of you.
Almighty God, our Comforter, reigns…