The Christmas season has always been the site of deep tension: exacerbating religious, social and political rifts in American culture. Today, these are primarily expressed in two ways: a critique of political correctness’ refusal to call Christmas by its name and concerns over consumerism’s excesses.

Not only do both criticisms fail to grasp the historical circumstances that gave birth to the modern Christmas, they also fail to comprehend the far-reaching consequences of its founding on the American way of life.

Bringing Christ Back Into Christmas

The movement to “bring Christ back into Christmas” has been around since the modern celebration of Christmas came to be forged. It focuses on two threats to the sanctity of the season: secularization and consumerism.

Secularization

The nineteenth century version of the argument against non-Christian celebration was turned against the spectacles of inebriation and riotousness that were common occurrences during the holiday. Deemed an inappropriate way to commemorate the birth of Christ, these scenes of drunken depravity were the target of this line of argument.

The religious diversity of present-day American society has shifted that focus instead towards “political correctness” and the uneasy compromises that are made in order to not give the impression of discriminating. The latest target of that critique is Starbuck’s red holiday cup which fails to make any mention of Christmas.

christmas cup controversy

Embracing the commercialized aspect of the holiday, these critiques only complain that the merchandise isn’t “Christmas-sy” enough.

Consumerism

Calls to reign in the excessive commercialization of the holiday have resounded every year since shop stalls started to offer Christmas cards and gifts. Keeping with the previous  line of argument, this critique focuses on the impiety of materialism and the enshrinement of Santa Claus – a character from Dutch folklore – and his sleigh full of gifts above the birth of Christ. As such, both critiques are completely compatible.

In a different key, however, consumerist excess has also been denounced from a social point of view. Nineteenth century exhortations to show mercy towards overworked shop staff and get the Christmas shopping done early mirrored the concern working conditions in the lower rungs of American society at the time. Today, different inflections are given to the social critique focusing on child labor, on environmental damage, or both.

environmentally friendly christmas

Defending themselves from being “Scrooges”, these critics are actually in line with early Puritans who would have liked to keep Christmas a day like any other – whether it is for fear of having it remembered for the wrong reason or because of the social and environmental casualties of holiday excess.

The Invention of the Modern Christmas

What both arguments fail to take into account is the highly constructed nature of the holiday, which was stitched together in the Nineteenth Century from various elements and consolidated in the celebration we know today.

A return to an earlier celebratory mode – whether fully Christian or completely un-consumerist – is impossible because a Christmas celebration simply didn’t exist until then. Moreover, these go against the forces that helped forge the festival we still celebrate to this day. Our Christmas was born in America, between 1800 and 1870, and upheld by the pillars of civil order and commerce, with Christianity offering little more than a veneer.

Civil Order

In the early 1800s, Christmas spirit was mainly about spirits. Drunken crowds would enact spectacles of social inversion by which the lowest rungs would be treated to delicacies and gifts by the upper classes. With industrialization and the gradual class-segregation of neighborhoods, this drunken cheer began to look like riotous mobs and demands for gifts from servants and workers began to sound like redistribution of wealth.

Importing the German tradition of decorating evergreens in the home, the American Christmas tree relocated the site of the celebration from pubs and streets to the home and reduced the scope of the holiday from the community to the nuclear family. This shift is embodied in the line from Clement Clarke Moore’s poem from 1823:

‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house
not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.

december 1850
“The Christmas Tree”, Godey’s Magazine and Lady’s Book 41 (December 1850)

Commerce

The second pillar of the modern Christmas celebration is none other than commerce itself. Until the Nineteenth century, the tradition of gift giving during the holiday season in America was embodied by New Year’s gifts and was already heavily accommodated by merchants of all sorts.

With the shift of the emphasis of the season from the street to the home and from December 31st to the 25th with the advent of Christmas tree, shop owners had to redeploy the folklore at their disposal to market the holiday. With enhanced emotional appeal and traditions from all over Europe coexisting in the melting pot of New York city, advertisers and shop owners played a prime role in the creation of the modern Christmas.

The re-purposing of the tale of Saint Nicholas, the creation of a cannon of now-classic tales and poems – all show the profound connection of the Holiday to the incipient consumer culture of the USA embodied in the second line of A Visit from St. Nicholas (1823):

The stockings were hung by the chimney with care,
In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there.
Thomas Nast 1881
Santa Claus, Harper’s (December 1881) Illustration by Thomas Nast

Christmas: a Blueprint for Suburbia

Centered around the nuclear family and consumerism, Christmas as it came into being in America in the 1800s displays the characteristics of the growth of suburbia in the 20th Century. The dominant feature of the American landscape in the 1900s – molded by individual family units and fueled by shopping – mirrored the rise of the modern Christmas in the previous century.

The spectacular take off of the contemporary Christmas celebration, to the point that its recent origin is completely forgotten, announced the even more drastic suburban flight of middle class Americans from city centers to the suburbs. As such, the recipe for a successful winter festival came to be a lesson in urban planning – and from redefining the calendar year, the forces of consumerism and family-centered social order would come to reorder the geography of the USA.

Keeping Up With The Joneses

The two clichés of Christmas and suburbia – festivities centered on the home and “keeping up with the Joneses” – join hands on December 25th in the quasi-competitive light displays in the front yards of suburban homes, demonstrating the deep connection between the two cultural phenomena.

keeping up