There is no easier way for politicians or pundits to rally the base this time of year than hyping the “War on Christmas” by liberal elites. Donald Trump’s son Eric told evangelist James Robison in an August interview that one reason Trump decided to run for president was because the White House “Christmas tree” was now called the “holiday tree.” (Multiple outlets noted that no such change had occurred.)
Hostility toward Christmas, Santa Claus, and the Christmas tree has a long history, as does disgust with the holiday’s appropriation by politicians, marketers, and lobbyists. Gerry Bowler’s often hilarious, sometimes tedious Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday (Oxford University Press) chronicles a mind-boggling array of conflicts stretching from the ancient world to today. Ever ready with wry zingers for Christmas’s legions of opponents or another quote illustrating the quixotic zeal of its appropriators, at times Bowler gives the impression of someone who loves his subject a little too much.
Bowler begins with the fascinating history of how the early church chose December 25 as the day to observe Christmas. The Bible gives little guidance, and Bowler is not convinced by the common argument that the church just decided to Christianize a pagan holiday. Instead, he attributes the date to obscure assumptions the early church made about the timing of Jesus’s conception, and the belief that great people sometimes died on the same date they were conceived (around mid-March, in Jesus’s case). Still, Christmas’s proximity to older pagan festivals would plague its reputation for millennia.
In the medieval era, Christmas became a fixture of Catholic festive culture, which sometimes featured drunken celebrations and “social inversions” such as the “Feast of Fools” and “Feast of the Ass” (that is, the donkey that carried Mary). These rites made Christmas a prime target for many Reformers, who viewed them as an unbiblical “popish” riot. In the 1640s, the Puritan-dominated English Parliament banned Christmas and “all other festival days commonly called ‘Holy-days.’ ” A century and a half later, radical French revolutionaries renamed December 25 “dog day,” viewing citizens who stayed home from work as potential enemies of the secular regime.
By 1800, Christmas was in bad shape, associated largely with working-class drunkenness and violence. But in the early 19th century, Christmas “revivalists” like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens began recasting it as a generically religious, culturally wholesome, and family-centered holiday. Clement Clarke Moore made perhaps the most significant contribution with his 1822 “Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas,” better known as “ ‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.” A friendly Santa Claus supplanted St. Nicholas’s traditional threats of wrath against disobedient children. Other menacing nocturnal visitors who had been fixtures of medieval Christmases, such as central Europe’s “Perchta the Disemboweller,” soon vanished before Santa’s kindly image. The gift-giving Santa also transformed Christmas into the merchants’ holiday par excellence.
By the mid-19th century, Christmas had come to signify “charity, family togetherness, reunion, and the importance of parental love for children.” It is this version that has become the “biggest single event on the planet,” in Bowler’s estimation.
Christmas’s singular prominence encourages not only critics, but innumerable appropriators. Bowler provides a thorough rundown of the groups, from totalitarians to atheists to animal rights activists, who have used Christmas as a platform for one cause or another. The Nazis replaced Jesus with “Der Fuhrer” in the hymn “Silent Night.” (“Adolf Hitler is Germany’s star, showing us greatness and glory afar.”) The ultra-fundamentalist Westboro Baptist Church replaced “Santa Claus is Comin’ To Town” with “Santa Claus Will Take You To Hell.” Planned Parenthood produced a version of the “Twelve Days of Christmas” in which a lover showers his beloved with gifts related to “family planning.”
The last chapter covers the barrage of lawsuits filed by the ACLU and other secularists who seek to eliminate all vestiges of Christmas from American public life. Bowler is (rightly) frustrated with the “relentlessness” of their litigious flood. He sees complaints like those of the two Caro, Michigan, atheists who professed to be “offended, affronted, intimidated, and distressed” when they saw a crèche on the town square in 2003, as furthering an “umbrage industry.” But he also has little patience for hyper-sensitive rage against the “War on Christmas”—and for those who exploit it to make money or build political capital.
As a cure for our Christmas ills, Bowler recommends the old-fashioned virtue of genuine tolerance, a commitment to “abide with one’s fellow citizens’ choices.” If Starbucks produces an unadorned seasonal red cup, or the Wal-Mart cashier merely says “happy holidays,” there’s no cause for a Moral Majoritarian freakout. Likewise, if baby Jesus shows up on a courthouse lawn somewhere in Middle America, there’s no reason to get lawyers involved. When it comes to Christmas, Bowler pleads, can’t we just live and let live?
Thomas S. Kidd is distinguished professor of history at Baylor University and the author of George Whitefield: America’s Spiritual Founding Father (Yale University Press).
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