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Christmas Isn't Just Sentimental. It's Subversive, Too.

Carsten Koall/Getty Images News

In large doses, the American Christmas really is a little hard to swallow. For some palates, the gooey mass of kitsch, gumming together everyone from Rudolph the red-nosed reindeer to Amahl and the Night Visitors, seems merely to sweeten Christian hypocrisy in the service of cash. No wonder sensitive souls, from fervent believers to militant atheists, have found the confection indigestible.

Of course there are variations in this ecumenical revulsion. Christians may employ a rhetoric of authenticity and decline, and lament the passing of a purer Christmas past. Those outside the Christian tradition are more likely to experience the American yuletide as alien, threatening and even contemptible. Consider Alexander Portnoy, telling about his recoil from the gentile neighborhoods at Christmas:

Not only is there a tree conspicuously ablaze in every parlor, but the houses themselves are outlined with colored bulbs advertising Christianity, and phonographs are pumping “Silent Night” out into the street as though—as though?—it were the national anthem, and on the snowy lawns are set out little cut-out models of the scene in the manger—really, it’s enough to make you sick. How can they possibly believe this shit? Not just children but grown-ups too, stand around on the snowy lawns smiling down at pieces of wood six inches high, that are called Mary and Joseph and little Jesus—and the little cutout cows and horses are smiling too! God! The idiocy of the Jews all year long, and then the idiocy of the goyim on these holidays! What a country! Is it any wonder we’re all of us half nuts?

In part, this outburst by Philip Roth’s notorious protagonist is an understandable Jewish response to the semi-official Christianity of a season in which “Silent Night” might as well be the national anthem. But Portnoy’s complaint stems less from his Jewish upbringing than from his adult identity as a secular, left-liberal managerial professional, a man who despises talk of God in any idiom. He rails as often against Yahweh as against Jesus, and finds the Jewish dietary laws as revolting as Nativity scenes. He is, in short, a strong if cartoonish representative of the enlightened intelligentsia of the century.

And his attitude toward Christmas is typical of the liberal intellectual tradition. For decades, Christmas has at best inspired benign neglect among critics and historians of American culture. The relentless secularism of academic culture is partly to blame, but so is the utilitarian cast of American social thought and the ascetic criticism of “materialism” at the heart of our moral philosophy. These tendencies all came together in the enormously influential Thorstein Veblen, who did more than any other American thinker to shape educated Americans’ understanding of their encounter with material things. Veblen lumped “conspicuous consumption” with sports and games, “devout observances” and aesthetic display. They were all reducible, he insisted, to “pecuniary emulation,” his characteristically inflated term for status striving. Veblen fancied himself a socialist and disdained superstition as a survival of primitive animism; and he looked forward to the day when “the discipline of the machine” would promote rationality among the entire population. One can only imagine his howls of derision at the modern American Christmas.

In recent years, however, historians and critics have begun to emerge from Veblen’s shadow. They have begun to write the anthropology and the history of the festival. Intoxicated by heady draughts of Mikhail Bakhtin, they have discovered the “subversive” elements of pageantry and ritual. (The discovery of subversion has become as popular as it was in the McCarthy era, only now the moral connotations have been reversed.) With only a few exceptions, their focus has been working-class and political rather than middle-class and religious: the people out of doors and the lusty leather-apron crowd, rather than the Victorian family clustered around the Christmas tree in their parlor. This should come as no surprise. What, after all, could be more redolent of those dreaded “family values” than the sentimental, middle-class holiday of Christmas? The question, and the assumptions behind the question, suggest more about contemporary ideological reflexes than about the history and the culture of Christmas.

But here are two books which suggest the beginnings of a nuanced perspective on Christmas in American culture. Leigh Schmidt’s book is the more systematic and scholarly, the more conceptually sophisticated, the more widely ranging; he treats Valentine’s Day, Easter and Mother’s Day as well as Christmas, all within a delicately balanced framework of tensions between market rationality and romantic sentiment. He knows it is impossible to take festivals seriously from a Veblenesque perspective, since “festive behavior is built in large part on wastrel prodigality, on surplus and abundance, on conspicuous consumption.” Penne Restad is less theoretically explicit, but she knows enough anthropology to have a subtle understanding of how rituals work, enough cultural history to know that “time-honored traditions” can be invented overnight, enough diaries, letters and manuscripts to have a lot of good stories to tell. Both writers sometimes let the religious dimensions of their subject slip away entirely; but this, too, is in the Christmas tradition.

Still, these books are fresh and timely alternatives to contemporary academic fashion. Schmidt proclaims himself a defender of the despised Protestant bourgeoisie, and his words could characterize Restad’s work as well. The American appropriation of Bakhtin, he writes, “all too easily mires middle class folks and their rites in a one-dimensional netherworld. Repressed, neurasthenic, even hysterical, the bourgeois are left holding the dim candles of the carnivalesque, terrified by a shadow circus of released inhibitions and enclosed in a cluttered interior of kitsch with a host of tepid domestic rituals to perform. I have tried to accord the same respect to these feminized, commodified, middle-class forms of piety and celebration as is so readily accorded the topsy-turvy world of carnival.” This evenhanded approach allows both writers to avoid the easy equation of embourgeoisement with decline, to grant the private, domestic household its dignity and its complexity, and generally to explore the wide range of meanings that have been attached to Christmas over several centuries.

The origins of Christmas lie in the syncretist cunning of early Christianity. By the second century the Romans were regularly feasting, drinking and cavorting like satyrs from December 17, the first day of Saturnalia, to Kalends, January 1. Devotees of Mithras set the feast of the Invincible Sun on December 25, the winter solstice on the Julian calendar. In the fourth century, Christians began to celebrate the Feast of the Nativity on December 25, partly to pose a challenge to the pagan cults, partly to head off the Arian heretics (who claimed that Jesus was merely a human agent of God) by assigning Jesus one undeniably human quality: a birthday. But gradually the significance of the date became more than Machiavellian. Christmas came to embody the theology of the incarnation, which merged human flesh and divine spirit in the figure of Jesus; it preached the resurrection of the body as well as the soul. What more appropriate time to celebrate this regenerative vision than the short dark days from Saturnalia to Kalends, when Romans decorated their houses with evergreen boughs to pay homage to the inexhaustible fecundity of the natural world?

Incarnational theology, however unsystematic and diffuse, lay at the heart of Christian expansion. As Restad writes, in somewhat anachronistic, therapeutic language, “the Church layered profane activities with sacred ends to answer the needs, spiritual and physical, of the total person.” Ecclesiastical leaders were never entirely comfortable with this marriage of sacred and profane; medieval moralists fretted over the persistence of pagan pleasures, drawing sharp boundaries between “the time of business” and “the time of salvation.” But the people at large continued to play whenever they had the chance, merging religious festivities with the fleshly excess of carnival, and later with the great commercial fairs that brought exotic consumer goods to early modern Europe. Christmas was part of the liturgical cycle, the dramatic framework that created a life lived on multiple but overlapping planes of meaning. In that life, matter and spirit were hopelessly muddled; the humblest artifact could bear the most exalted meaning.

The Reformation brought sweeping but uneven changes. Calvinist reformers aimed to clarify the medieval muddle, to live life in accordance with a unified spiritual discipline: Christmas was a work day like any other, only the Sabbath was holy. Anglicans and Roman Catholics clung to the old calendar. The conflict between Anglican and Puritan shaped the early American Christmas. On December 25, 1621, at Plymouth, Massachusetts, several “lusty yonge” Englishmen told Governor William Bradford that “it wente against their consciences to work on that day.” Bradford said he “would spare them till they were better informed;” but when he discovered them bowling in the street, he sent them indoors, outraged that they should play while others worked. Farther south, the Virginia Anglicans were stuffing themselves on Christmas Day with “plentie of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wild-foule, and good bread,” as John Smith reported in 1608. And Catholics bound for Maryland aboard the Ark in 1633 drank so much wine on Christmas that “the next day 30 sickened of feve[r]s and wherof about a dozen died afterward.” The contrast between prodigal Southerners and censorious New Englanders would persist at least until the Civil War.

There were many strange local variations on carnival traditions. Some may have been more African than European. In Wilmington, North Carolina, from the start of the nineteenth century if not earlier, small bands of slaves known as John Cooners paraded about the city, dressed in ribbons, rags, feathers and raccoon-skin masks. They capered about frantically, beating “gumba-boxes” with sticks and demanding gifts from their masters. Outside the slave South, the holiday spirit inflamed class issues more directly, presenting the respectable classes with the need to contain carnivalesque excess.

In early modern Europe the revelry had persisted from Christmas through Twelfth Night and beyond, often peaking at New Year’s. The pattern persisted in many parts of the United States into the 1820s and ‘30s. Yet without the framework of social hierarchy that gave the carnivalesque subversions their meaning, the antics seemed (especially to the better sort) like a lot of dangerous hell-raising. Across the countryside, young men (and sometimes women) drank hogsheads of rum, fired muskets wildly and costumed themselves with animal pelts or the finery of the opposite sex—crossing species and gender. In New York, Philadelphia, Baltimore and other cities they formed “Callithumpian” parades, which involved “shouting, singing, blowing penny-trumpets and long tin horns, beating on the kettles, firing crackers, hurling missiles, etc.” Unlike the European carnival, this “freeform holiday mayhem” did not so much satirize existing authority as, in its very randomness, challenge social order itself. So the more respectable classes felt as, safely behind their bay windows, they exchanged New Year’s gifts—a custom begun by the ancient Romans and revived by the Tudor aristocracy.

New Year’s became a cultural battleground. As early as the 1770s, evangelical Christians challenged “the feasting and entertainments of the wicked” on the Callithumpians’ own turf; they held hymn-singing “watch nights” in the streets on New Year’s Eve. Longings for a middle way began to intensify among more affluent and liberal Protestants. Some, such as Washington Irving, had long lamented the lack of American holidays, seeing it as a symptom of the general barrenness of the American cultural landscape. Others, such as the Reverend Horace Bushnell, began to envision a shorter, more refined, and more domestic celebration at the end of the year, one that would remove “what is sensual and low, and very close to vice itself” in the existing Saturnalia. Gradually the focus shifted from New Year’s to Christmas, for a variety of reasons.

By the 1830s and 1840s, Protestant theology was becoming more Christ-centered and more child-centered. German scholarship had established the historical existence of Jesus; childbirth was becoming a rarer, more special event among the Victorian middle and upper classes. With a declining birthrate, more fortunate parents were able to lavish more attention and more resources on each individual child. Children (along with their mothers) became icons of domestic sentimentality. Liberal Protestants reshaped religion in accordance with these new preoccupations: “religion loves too much the plays and pleasures of childhood, to limit or suppress them by any kind of needless austerity,” Bushnell wrote. Christmas offered the opportunity to abandon “needless austerity” by linking religion and children’s play.

By mid-century, the process of embourgeoisement was well underway. Within a very few decades, the holiday would be sanitized and feminized, leather aprons and muddy boots would be supplanted by waistcoats and crinolines, the people out of doors would be disbanded, reformed and brought to the domestic hearthside. It would be possible to dwell on the class blinders of the bourgeois Christmas. American Christmas cards, unlike their English counterparts, lacked any references to contemporary poverty. The American Christmas carols that proliferated between 1840 and 1880 (“It Came Upon a Midnight Clear,” “We Three Kings,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem” and others) emphasized mythic resonance rather than social realism, as in the English “please put a penny in the old man’s hat.” Americans, according to Restad, preferred “music that resonated with the strains of American optimism and avoided the mire of history and social condition.” When they were confronted with the mire, they stepped nimbly aside. Consider Frank Woolworth, the department store king who made a fortune selling glass tree ornaments. On a buying trip to Lauscha, Germany, he threaded his way through the “dirty hovels” where the glassworkers and their families lived eight to a room. He was disgusted, but otherwise unmoved.

However repellent the promoters of the bourgeois Christmas sometimes may have been, the holiday was more than an exercise in denial. Secular conversion narratives, such as Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, had some effect. Gift-giving reinforced philanthropy, even if it was only extended to “worthy paupers” (mostly women and children); it was also a way of reinforcing kin and community ties in a society given over to a corrosive market ethos of “root, hog, or die.” The rituals and the symbols of the emerging Christmas expressed an abundance of cultural meanings.

Few symbols were more important than Santa Claus. He appeared with increasing frequency from the 1820s (when Clement Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas” was first published) to the 1860s (when the cartoonist Thomas Nast immortalized His Corpulence in Harper’s Weekly). He was truly a carnivalesque figure—“one of the ‘raging beasts of the mummers’ world’”—covered with animal pelts, his gut overhanging his enormous belt. Yet he was successfully, if awkwardly, domesticated. Indeed, he became a kind of anti-patriarch, embodying both Christlike and “feminine” traits. About 1875, a New York department store printed “Annie and Willie’s Prayer” on the back of a Nast image of Santa Claus; according to Schmidt, “the children’s invocation of a gentle Jesus and an indulgent Santa Claus breaks the ‘stern heart’ of a cold, angry father who, softened, learns to purchase presents for his children with glad abandon.” Santa Claus subverted Calvinist patriarchy. He also undermined the possessive individualist impulse toward accumulation. “A robber baron in reverse,” in Restad’s phrase, he was the genius of creative prodigality, presiding over the annual potlatch of the American bourgeoisie.

By the end of the century, on every street corner, the lion of commerce was lying down with the lamb of Christianity. In 1898, the advertising trade journal Printers’ Ink noticed an extraordinary model of a church in a New York shop window, ten feet by four feet, with a tower and arched entrance, snow-covered grounds and stained glass windows with light streaming through them. “But the wonderful part of the show is that the church is built entirely of lace handkerchiefs.” Christian symbols had become part of a “show” used to sell commodities.

Which did not necessarily mean that they had lost their religious significance. In many cases the impresarios of the spectacle were sincere, believing Christians. Consider John Wanamaker. Every Christmas, beginning in the 1910s, he transformed the Grand Court of his Philadelphia department store into a virtual cathedral, complete with the largest pipe organ in the world. The practice continued after his death in 1922, well into the 1950s. And judging by their ecstatic correspondence to the store, which Schmidt quotes effectively, many shoppers had what could be described as a religious experience in the Grand Court. Writing in 1949, one man found his heart “strangely warmed” as he sang carols there amid the “reverent throng,” feeling “the tie of brotherhood” to these strangers. It was “as if ‘Someone, whom I shall not name,’ had ‘turned a switch’ and sent ‘the happy current of Christmas’ through this ‘sea of faces.’”

The evangelical tradition of a personal God and close-knit community had faded into impersonality. The event was sponsored by John Wanamaker (and Philadelphia Electric) rather than John Wesley. Yet who could deny the genuineness of the moment, for all its fleeting anonymity? The rise of a “spectacle of spirituality” was not simply a bait-and-switch scheme concocted by wily merchants. Customers demanded a mix of sacred and profane, and merchants struggled to keep up. The commercial Christmas developed into a “tangle of piety and plenty.”

Unraveling that tangle is not easy. Schmidt unearths and deftly interprets the diaries of some middle-class women from the second half of the nineteenth century. Some fit the model of the jaded consumer, their experience of Christmas embittered by “the tincture of unmet desire,” or simply by the weariness of fighting the crowds downtown on obligatory errands. For many more of these women, however, the holiday was an opportunity to reaffirm familial ties; for parents, a chance to play Santa Claus—to give gifts without thought of reciprocation. (The temptation could be dangerous if taken too literally. In New Castle, Pennsylvania, in 1893, a well-intentioned paterfamilias climbed down his chimney with a sack of presents on Christmas Eve and remained stuck there until neighbors could rescue him; his cries for help had frightened his family from their home.) Those who had recently lost children could only go through the motions: “Am so thankful my Christmas work is over now,” Elizabeth Merchant of New York wrote in 1870. “It has become a duty now, instead of a pleasure, as it used to be when I had precious Charlie with me.” Yet fifteen years later she recorded with obvious satisfaction that another son, home from college, “came down & opened his stocking on my bed, as he has always done.”

These family rituals were at the heart of the holiday, coexisting (sometimes clumsily) with spiritual devotion. Mary Knowlton described Christmas 1905, when her son John “took the part of Santa Claus” and handed out presents from around the tree. Sandwiched in the middle of her account was this sentence: “Christmas is the day, above every other day in the year to be celebrated, when Christ our blessed Saviour was born a babe in Bethlehem and knew all that was to come, to secure eternal life to a sinful world. Presents have been well distributed by members of the different families.”

This sort of juxtaposition leads Schmidt to larger conclusions regarding the role of religion in American lives. Contrary to the tradition spawned by Max Weber, Schmidt argues that there has been “no sweeping march of secularization, but instead a dance of the sacred and the secular, sometimes graceful, sometimes awkward.” There is a lot to recommend this view. The Protestant reclamation of Christmas was a sacralization of what had been (at least in the United States) a bawdy and secular holiday. It was, if not an invention of tradition, a pastiche of existing ones in the light of new romantic sensibilities that sanctified Jesus, childhood and family. These sensibilities affected Catholics as well as Protestants. For all, Christmas—like the idealized domestic circle—posed a redemptive counterpoint to a self-seeking market society. Yet the institutions of that society provided the agents of redemption, the gifts. Commerce served Christianity as well as vice versa.

Even today, Schmidt concludes, the marketplace is not a “naked public square” (in the words of Richard John Neuhaus), at least not at Christmas. It is full of carolers as well as merchants hawking their wares. That, of course, is precisely the problem, not only for militant secularists such as Alexander Portnoy but also for the many Muslims, Jews and other non-Christians who feel surrounded by alien schlock. Granting the legitimacy of their discomfort, it is still possible to see the American Christmas as a version of carnival. It provides not only an excuse for mindless excess, but also a meeting ground for sacred and profane.

So why the persistent lamentations of decline? Ineradicable nostalgia for a past that never was? A neo-Calvinist obsession with recovering a pristine faith? Or is Christmas being made to bear the burden of a broader disease? As Schmidt observes, modern Christmas fables such as Miracle on 34th Street try to have it both ways: to celebrate the possibilities of commercial festivity while they indulge “a theme at the heart of the modern Christmas—the romantic longing for enchantment in the face of the disenchanting forces of the Enlightenment and a market economy.”

Since at least the 1890s, Santa has had some heavy metaphysical burdens to bear in his pack. In 1897, Frank Church of The New York Sun received a letter from a girl named Virginia O’Hanlon, asking the straightforward question: “Is there a Santa Claus?” Like everything else about Christmas, his answer has become a cliché. And like some other clichés, it is worth a closer look. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” Church wrote, and then launched into a revealing exposition of the nature of belief, a blend of Jonathan Edwards and William James. Virginia’s friends, who denied Santa Claus, had been corrupted by the skepticism of the age: “they do not believe except they see.” They do not realize that “in this great universe of ours man is a mere insect, an ant, in his intellect as compared with the boundless world about him”; they do not acknowledge the reality—or the psychic necessity—of the unseen. Without Santa, “there would be no childlike faith then, no poetry, no romance to make tolerable this existence,” he argued. Like Edwards, Church affirmed that “the most real things in the world are those that neither children nor men can see”; like James, he admitted that without those things, life would be unbearable.

Church’s editorial nicely limned the religious dimensions of the modern Christmas, their weaknesses as well as their strengths. The association of Christmas with “childlike faith” reinforced the modern tendency to link religious belief with a touchingly naive but intellectually immature stage of personal and cultural development. It implicitly infantilized religious beliefs while explicitly exalting them. And it located them in a fondly remembered past of warmth and plenty. But a past it truly was. The childishness of Christmas made it a focus for an adult nostalgia that often had cosmic overtones: “out of the great bulk of the giving the soul has gone,” lamented the Sunday School Times in 1912, voicing a sentiment repeated endlessly before and since. Once, when we were children, things were different: Romantics have long assumed this.

Haunted by this sense of loss, many Americans continue to search for the elusive “spirit of Christmas.” It is a quest likely to continue for a long time, and for all its occasional sentimentality it can yet command respect. Still, as these books remind us, there is an alternative way of seeing Christmas, one that is rooted in both incarnational and carnivalesque traditions. Toys-R-Us is not the best place to recall it, but the American Protestant appropriation of Christmas may have been a revolt against the dualism of spirit and matter, an attempt to recover a more sacramental conception of the world. From such a perspective, the mystery of faith may not always be hidden by the mountains of things; it may also live, however infrequently and ineffably, in the things themselves.