Attacking Christmas the oldest Christmas tradition!
A quick holiday quiz: Name one ancient yet abiding Christmas tradition. If you answered "attacking the institution of Christmas," you would be right.
So says Elizabeth Pleck, a professor of American history at the University of Illinois. According to Pleck, the current criticism of Christmas as a purchasing holiday - where Santa Claus is the secular saint of consumerism and the jingle of cash registers drowns out the "Hallelujah" chorus -- is centuries behind earlier attacks on the holiday. Discontent with Christmas has deep roots, Pleck argues.
For example, an early attack came in the fourth century when St. Gregory Nanzianzen, the bishop of Constantinople, expressed "the fear that 'in making merry,' the populace was destroying the true meaning of Christmas. He urged Christians to commemorate the birth of Jesus in a heavenly rather than an earthly manner."
Christmas also came under scathing attack in colonial America, since it often was celebrated as a festival of drunken and unruly merrymaking -- carousing, begging, overeating, and masquerading. "Wherever the Anglicans dominated in the seventeenth century," Pleck wrote in her book "Celebrating the Family," "normal values were flouted and reversed." Typically, costumed young men banged on the doors of the wealthy and demanded the best food and drink in the house. Such merriment was tolerated largely because it was viewed as a social safety valve.
In the 1960s, 19th century complaints about Christmas having gone too commercial were "mixed with newer ones," Pleck argues in a chapter in a forthcoming book titled "Christmas: The Religion of Consumer Capitalism," (Richard Horsely and James Tracey, editors). Social unrest, alienation and movements for self, ethnic and gender identities of the 1960s tended to legitimize various complaints: Christmas was too white, too Christian, too commercial, too depressing and too labor-intensive.
In response to some of these feelings, a cultural expression of black power gave birth to Kwanzaa, a seven-day holiday just following Christmas. The celebration went mainstream in the 1980s, and promoted the rediscovery of lost African heritage. Jewish group consciousness in the '60s allowed American Jewish organizations to contest the seasonal Christianization of public spaces. It also helped make Hanukkah, a minor Jewish holiday, into a major one. Meanwhile, mothers and other working women who had been juggling heavy seasonal burdens made their claims of physical exhaustion and depression heard. In 1967, for example, Redbook magazine writer Harriet Van Horne conceded to her readers that Christmas had become "an obligatory, mandatory backbreaking ritual."
While alienation made African and Jewish Americans feel like outsiders at Christmas time, the complaint of the middle-class American homemaker was "that she was so much of an insider that all the work fell on her," Pleck wrote. The best advice then was: "Cut back, plan more, and think about the charitable possibilities of Christmas."