My most significant boyhood memories are of the poem, “Twas the Night Before Christmas,” Santa and sleigh bells, and the Christmas Eve service at Ebenezer Mennonite Church, west of Bluffton, where children of all ages participated in telling the Christmas story of Baby Jesus, Mary and Joseph, angels, and shepherds surrounding the manger.
Afterward, we went home and opened presents. On Christmas Day came dinner with family, grandparents at times, and at others with aunts, uncles and cousins.
Imagine a time when there was no Santa Claus, no Christmas trees, no Christmas cards, not even Scrooge. If that’s difficult, it is because no one living today experienced such a time. What we remember, in addition to celebrating the birth of Jesus, are decorated trees, ornaments, carols, cards, bells, wreaths, mistletoe, lights, and the exchange of gifts.
Midwinter festivals, with revelry and feasting, and celebrating the gods of harvest and the coming of a New Year, reach back centuries to the Roman Empire and beyond. In those days and for several centuries into the Christian era, the celebrating the baby Jesus was hardly the central event.
But as Christianity developed and spread through Europe, older traditions fused with what came to be the traditional religious understanding: God through the person of Jesus entered a broken world of suffering and injustice, promising salvation to those who believed in his healing power of hope and love.
With dozens of overlapping customs in play, there never has been a time when Christmas was an entirely spiritual holiday. In the territory that became the United States, more than a century passed before parts of the story took hold. In many places of colonial America, Christmas was barely maintained. People were few in number and thousands lived away from urban centers. Only a small minority were church members — often not more than 10 percent.
Members of the large Puritan migration to New England during the early 17th century did not celebrate Christmas. In fact, they were forbidden to do so. Puritan theology was heavily Christian, but in the eyes of these strict people Yuletide revelry by “hel hounds” appeared as heathenish, even “Popish.” They heard that in colonies to the south, Christmas had become an occasion for raucous partying, hunting and dancing.
It was not until after the Civil War and titanic social changes brought about when millions of European ethnic groups entered the country, that the mixing of foreign traditions and nascent American practices produced the widespread, and heavily secularized, celebration of Christmas as we know it today. Honoring foundational Christian beliefs was also a civic act on the journey of becoming American.
The giving of gifts has played an ever-growing part in the making of our modern Christmas. Americans spend more on Christmas than the entire gross domestic product of some countries, and yet, according to a Pew Research Center poll, more than half are bothered “some” or “a lot” by the pharaonic commercialization of our most important holiday. We revel in gift-giving yet are troubled by its lavish excesses.
Our lives, like history itself, are layered with contradictions. We spend and spend, yet exhibit a self-conscious awareness that a purely materialistic view of life is unfulfilling. Christmas reminds us of that.
More especially, the Christian set of beliefs in its oldest and most fundamental form remains strong among us. Earlier this month, the Pew Research Center reported that among U.S. adults, 73 percent believe Jesus was born to a virgin, that Baby Jesus was laid in a manger (81 percent), that wise men, guided by a star, brought Jesus gifts (75 percent), and that an angel announced the birth of Jesus to shepherds (74 percent).
Those who wish to take Christ out of Christmas must remain restive under that circumstance, for the story that speaks to us through the centuries of religious meaning and purpose assures us that the characteristics of love, generosity, compassion and forgiveness are marks of the divine in us all.