There is a campaign underway to “restore Christmas” to the national retailers who, sensitive to our nation’s diverse religious and cultural traditions, have frequently substituted “Happy Holidays” or “Seasons Greetings” for narrowly Christian felicitations in this month of the equinox. The American Family Association is leading a boycott of Target for not using “Merry Christmas” in its advertising. Bill O’Reilly — the Fox anchor who so amused the judge hearing the case by suing Al Franken for stealing his words “fair” and “balanced” — returns to the linguistic fray, offering on his website a chart of stores that use the phrase “Happy Holidays,” along with a poll that asks, “Will you shop at stores that do not say ‘Merry Christmas’?”
This red-state vision of a liberal Grinch is silly stuff, of course. It was not so long ago that clerics overwhelmingly disapproved of how America had “taken the Christ out of Christmas” to make the birthday of the Savior into the economy’s savior. Now our corkscrew friends on the right are hell-bent on reuniting Christ with commerce.
Their attempt to impose homogeneity on our country’s December festivities is a little late, as Christmas is but one of many holidays associated with the harvest or the solstice. In fact, just as the Jesus of legend is a composite of other savior heroes, from Horus to Tammuz to Dionysus and more — Dionysus was born of Zeus and the virgin Semele; Horus was born to the virgin Isis-Meri on December 25 in a cave or a manger; Tammuz was born to the virgin Mylitta in a cave on December 25 — Christmas is an amalgamation of pagan festivals. Unmentioned in the New Testament and invented a good deal later, Christmas has been from its onset more a secular and political celebration than a religious one.
So maybe the red-staters are right to storm the barricades by decking the hall at the mall ...
Them’s fightin’ words to some, I recognize, so let me recount briefly how Christmas came to be our nation’s principal holiday, one so powerful that it transformed the way American Jews celebrated Hanukkah, sparked a new African-American holiday in Kwanzaa, and provoked nonbelievers to institutionalize the Seinfeldian anti-Christmas of Festivus. In the second part of this story, next week, we will focus on the two New Yorkers who created Santa Claus as the world knows him today — Washington Irving and Thomas Nast. But first let’s trace the early evolution of the infant Jesus, St. Nicholas, and Christmas itself from ancient times to the New World.
Contemporary scholars, working from textual evidence in the Bible, astronomical charts, and supporting historical documents — including such documented events as the tax decree of Caesar Augustus, the death of Herod, a lunar eclipse in 4 BCE and the conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn in the constellation of Pisces in 7 BCE—offer a birthdate for Jesus as early as April 17 (why, they ask, would shepherds be herding in the middle of winter?), or as late as September 15, in either 5, 6 or 7 BCE. (Yes, paradoxically, Christ was born before the Christian era.)
The Magi would have arrived at the inn at Bethlehem with their presents for the Christ child on the day the star stopped over that town—by modern calculation, December 1 in the year 7 BCE. In today’s Greek and Russian orthodox churches, however, Christmas is celebrated 13 days after the 25th, which is also referred to as the Epiphany or Three Kings Day, for it is believed to be the day that the three wise men found Jesus in the manger. Unanswered in all Christian scenarios is whether Jesus was a newborn in December or January, or a child of six to eight months, as historians think more likely.
It was Pope Julius I (with a reign of 337 to his death in 352) who chose December 25, almost certainly in an effort to co-opt the still robust pagan festival of the Saturnalia. In Rome, slaves would become masters for a week and peasants were in command of the city. Also around the time of the winter solstice, Romans observed Juvenalia, a feast accompanied by gift-giving — particularly clay dolls — that honored the empire’s children. Likewise early Church leaders, unable to stamp out the widespread pagan “Yule” (midwinter) customs in the Celtic and Teutonic regions, pragmatically put a Christian spin on them.
Isaac Newton observed that “the heathen were delighted with the festivals of their gods, and unwilling to part with these ceremonies,” and that the Church, “to facilitate their conversion, instituted annual festivals to the Saints and Martyrs: hence the keeping of Christmas with ivy, feasting, plays and sports came in the room of the Bacchanalia and Saturnalia; the celebration of May Day with flowers in the room of the Floralia; and the festival of the Virgin, John the Baptist, and the divers apostles in the room of the solemnities at the entrance of the sun into the signs of the zodiac in the old Julian calendar.”
The end of December was when fresh meat was plentiful as most cattle were slaughtered so they would not have to be fed during the winter; also, most wine and beer made in the fall was fully fermented and ready for drinking. By placing the Feast of the Nativity, as Christmas was first called, at the same time as traditional winter solstice observances, Church leaders increased the chances that their new holiday would be popularly embraced (Easter was the high holy day of the early Christian era; the birth of Jesus was not marked). However, they had no control over how it was to be celebrated. By the Middle Ages, even though Christianity had largely replaced paganism, on Christmas believers attended church, then celebrated in a drunken, carnival-like atmosphere similar to today's Mardi Gras. In an original Christmas tradition that survives as Halloween’s trick or treat, the poor would go to the houses of the rich and demand their best food and drink. Not only was an inversion of the natural order in which the rich had to answer to the poor a key element of pagan festivities, it was later invoked by the Church as an argument against gambling — that in its redistribution of wealth it inspired pagan sentiments.
Now on to St. Nicholas, whose historicity underwent a similar makeover to that of Jesus. Bishop Nicholas of Smyrna lived in what is now Turkey in the 4th century A.D. The legend came down over the years that that he was rich, generous, and so loving toward children that he would anonymously throw gifts in through their windows. The unsanitized story, though, was that Nicholas threw gold into the window of a pious but impoverished Christian so that he could provide his three daughters with dowries; the father had been had been ready to sell them into prostitution to support the rest of his household. The life of St. Nicholas, listing all his miracles, was recorded by Methodius, Bishop of Constantinople, in 842, and about a decade later the clergy of Cologne Cathedral were commemorating the saint’s death day (the feast day of December 6) by giving fruit and cookies to the boys of the cathedral school.
Nicholas became patron saint of a motley crew: seamen, merchants, archers, children, prostitutes, lawyers, pawnbrokers, prisoners, pharmacists, the city of Amsterdam and the whole of Mother Russia. He came to the New World in 1626 as the figurehead on the Dutch ship Goede Vrouw (Good Wife). The seafarers named their village Niuew Amsterdam, celebrated Kerstrydt (Christmas), and erected a statue in the square to St. Nick. (Even today, Sinterklaas or Sint Nicolaas) celebrations in the Netherlands on December 6 feature the arrival of St. Nick, or Sint, on a steamer from Spain, accompanied by his helpers the Zwarte Pieten, or Black Peters, who are sooty from going down chimneys and because they are Moors. A fragment from a poem of the Middle Ages attests to the antiquity of this tradition: “Ride he may to Amsterdam, / From Amsterdam to Spain / Put your finest tabard on, / So may you ride to Spain / With little apples from Orange.” The Pieten would climb on the roofs and shinny down the chimneys while Sint stayed on his white horse atop the roof and tells them which child has been good or bad. Accordingly, the Pieten would bring the children toys to play with or switches to be beaten with.)
The Puritans, who had preceded the Dutch by landing at Plymouth Rock in 1620, took the Bible as their sole inspiration for religious truth, and as the birthdate of Jesus was nowhere to be found, they declined to observe what they saw as an illegitimate celebration. On Christmas the church was closed and the able-bodied were set to work. In 1621 Governor Bradford wrote in his diary of a confrontation with some young men who wished to mark the day as a holiday:
One ye day called the Christmas-day, ye Govr called them out to worke, (as was used), but ye most of this new-company excused them selves and said it wente against their consciences to work on ye day. So ye Govr tould them that if they made it mater of conscience, he would spare them till they were better informed. So he led away ye rest and left them; but when they came home at noone from their worke, he found them in ye streete at play, openly; some pitching ye barr, & some at stoole-ball, and schuch like sports. So he went to them, and took away their implements, and tould them that was against his conscience, that they should play & others worke. If they made ye keeping of it mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in ye streets. Since which time nothing hath been attempted that way, at least openly.
In 1651 the State of Massachusetts made all observation of Christmas, “by forbearing of labor, feasting or in any other way,” a crime. But the English, who likewise banned it and the Dutch version of St. Nicholas upon their wresting control of New Amsterdam and renaming it New York, later came to accept the pleasures of the festival of the saint on December 6th, but with no connection to Christmas. As late as 1855, New York newspapers reported that Presbyterian, Baptist and Methodist churches were closed on December 25 because “they do not accept the day as a Holy One.”
But the tide had begun to turn against the naysayers in 1804, when the New-York Historical Society was founded with Nicholas as its patron saint. In 1809 Washington Irving revived St. Nicholas in his History of New-York by “Diedrich Knickerbocker,” describing the figurehead on the ship Goede Vrouw, as being ...”equipped with a low brimmed hat, huge pair of Flemish hose and a pipe that reached to the end of the bowsprit....” When Irving became a member of the Society the following year, the annual St. Nicholas Day dinner festivities included a woodcut of the traditional Nicholas figure (tall, with long robes) accompanied by a Dutch rhyme about “Sancte Claus.”
Next week, Irving, Nast, Clement Moore ... and more, up to the present day.