The creation of Christmas, the secular holiday, is a story of collaborative creativity. Christmas trees, giving gifts, Santa–all emerged from a distributed social process. It’s a story about history and culture; about the industrial revolution and the family; and about how our conceptions of childhood have changed. It’s a story of social innovation.
Some older folks may remember that a few years ago, there was a “war on Christmas.” According to conservative commentators, there was a secular humanist attempt to remove Jesus from the holiday. Evidence of this war on Christmas included lawsuits to remove nativity scenes from public property. Anytime someone said “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas,” conservatives saw evidence of the war on Christmas. But the first war on Christmas was a war waged by Christians in the 1600s through the 1800s. Good Christian people did not celebrate Christmas. Why not?
There’s a clue in the popular Christmas carol: “Here We Come A-Wassailing.” Do you know what wassailing is? You might have learned that it’s an old term for singing carols door to door. Yes, I suppose that’s true, but it was a special kind of caroling. In wassailing, groups of people would walk from door to door and sing a song in the expectation that the owner would answer the door and give them a drink of alcoholic punch from a communal bowl called “the wassail bowl.” After the first house or two, their singing was pretty bad. It sounded just like they were singing drinking songs in the tavern. If, for some reason, the host didn’t give you a drink, the roving band would get angry—shouting curses at the owner and sometimes vandalizing the house. Needless to say, “bad singing” wasn’t a valid reason to withhold the punch bowl. It was essentially like trick-or-treat for adults but with alcohol instead of candy. Here are some synonyms for wassail in the Merriam-Webster dictionary: carouse; binge; revel. Here’s the example of use given in the dictionary: “The knights feasted and wassailed for three days after the battlefield victory.”
As you can imagine, good Christian people found this custom to be evil. Christmas was known as a time of drunken revelry. During the Protestant Reformation in England, the Puritans led the call for a more pure form of Christian worship. The Puritans knew that most elements of the traditional winter celebration—Christmas trees, candles, holly, and mistletoe—were pagan in origin. When England was ruled by Oliver Cromwell and a Puritan parliament (1649-1660), the celebration of Christmas was banned as “a popish festival with no biblical justification.” Puritans brought this attitude to America. Until the mid 1800s, Christmas wasn’t celebrated in many parts of the United States. The story of the nativity wasn’t taught in most Protestant Sunday Schools until the 1850s. It was only between 1837 and 1890 that individual states began to recognize Christmas as a legal holiday.
Christmas was created over a 100-year period when this primarily pagan holiday, and its pagan traditions, was re-integrated with mainstream U.S. society in the 19th and 20th centuries. The holiday we celebrate today had its origins in a mid-Victorian revival led by Charles Dickens, based on his famous story A Christmas Carol. In 1843 Dickens wrote that Scrooge found grace when he learned to share his wealth through gift giving. Family togetherness (as in the Cratchits’ Christmas dinner) was synonymous with the celebration of affluence that was associated with the growing economy. The moral of Dickens’ story? Accumulating wealth is justified if you spend it on Christmas gifts.
After about 1820 giving toys to children at Christmas became more common. The toys were handmade by the parents, because there were no toys to buy—very few toys were manufactured until after the Civil War. After the harvest was done, farm families had lots of spare time, and a child’s Christmas present was lovingly crafted by the parents.
As U.S. society became increasingly successful economically in the 19th century, giving gifts to children became a way of demonstrating personal affluence. Parents increasingly purchased toys rather than making them. That’s because industrialism expanded and toys became mass produced more cheaply. It’s also because Americans were increasingly taking factory and office jobs, and they lost the skills and the post-harvest spare time they needed to make their own toys. When you’re working six days a week, ten hours a day in the factory, there’s no time left over to make toys. But parents felt guilty about buying a manufactured toy. When they’d been children themselves, nothing communicated their parent’s love like a handmade toy. So when they bought a toy at a store it felt like cheating, like using a box cake mix instead of cooking from scratch. So how did parents resolve the conflict?
The conflict was resolved by another social innovation: Santa Claus. Santa resolved the ambivalence parents felt about buying manufactured toys. The Santa myth disguised the commercial origins of toys. Santa had legions of happy elves who handmade every toy. Picture Santa’s factory with elves working at long tables in rows. What does it remind you of? Of any other factory, of course, with low-paid labor doing boring repetitive tasks 12 hours a day without breaks. But with the singing and the charming red and green elf outfits, it makes Capitalism look like fun!
In 1875, FAO Schwartz used a dressed-up Santa to promote toy sales. It was a huge success, and by the 1890s, Santa was in every big city department store. By the 1920s, stores put out press releases announcing Santa’s arrival from the North Pole. Santa became the star of the Macy’s Day Parade. Santa resolved the tension between the magic of childhood innocence and the reality of commercialism, industry, and affluence.
In Europe, Father Christmas and St. Nicholas were dramatically different from today’s Santa. In England, Father Christmas did not give gifts; in many other European countries, it was the Christ Child who delivered gifts to the young. Santa is largely a U.S. invention. Clement Moore, from New York, wrote his poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas” in 1822. The American cartoonist Thomas Nast first sketched Santa as a jolly fat man in 1863. A famous advertising campaign by Coca-Cola gave us our current Santa, with his jolly nature and red cheeks. He looks more like Bacchus, the God of revelry and drinking, than like the thin, gaunt Father Christmas of Europe. (Wassailing, anyone?)
Several years ago, in November, I was on a worldwide speaking tour. I gave talks in both Malaysia and Hong Kong. I was surprised to find that Christmas was everywhere! The mall speakers played Frank Sinatra singing Jingle Bells and Vince Guaraldi’s jazz piano from the Charlie Brown Christmas Special. Christmas trees and lights were everywhere. And, for the record, Malaysia is a Muslim country and Hong Kong is primarily Buddhist. There’s a reason why it’s so easy to celebrate Christmas without Christ: because the Christmas holiday and its traditions predate Christianity in Europe. The midwinter celebration was largely unrelated to Christian doctrine until the late 19th century. The Bible doesn’t specify a date or even a season for Jesus’s birth, and that’s one reason the Puritans rejected the holiday. (That, and the wassailing.)
The Christmas that Americans have collectively created is a lot of fun! Come to think of it, once Covid fades away we should celebrate by reviving the wassailing tradition. A trick-or-treat holiday for adults, where you get free rum punch instead of candy, sounds like a great idea to me! But still, maybe we should trade in the communal wassail bowl for individual cups. Wassail is traditionally celebrated on Old Twelfth Night, January 17, if anyone wants to join me in 2023.
The story of Christmas is a story of collaboration, of social innovation. Like almost all of our customs and traditions, no one single person is “the creator.” I believe in the Christmas that we have all collectively created: A Christmas that celebrates family and close relationships through the ancient pagan custom of gift giving. A Christmas that celebrates the innocence of childhood. A Christmas holiday filled with wine, spirits, good food, and good cheer. A Christmas time when we wish for peace on earth, good will toward men.