Americans have long exercised a vexed relationship with the Christmas season; and I say “Americans” here, because the vexation has long preceded the existence of the “United States.” If one takes seriously the tales told in the Gospels, then the Winter Solstice bears no possible connection to the birth date of Jesus. The stories very clearly state that shepherds were minding their flocks in the hills when the Star appeared. But shepherds would never permit their flocks to wander about the hills in the late days of Autumn, early days of Winter. So by irrefutable Biblical evidence, we know that Christ’s birth would never occur at “Christmas” time.
The early Puritans likely knew this as well. They certainly knew, as do we, that “Christmas” time came about as a stunt foisted by the early Church upon Pagans, to lure them into embracing Christianity by blurring the distinction between the Pagans’ holy day of Solstice, and a Christian holy day that nobody had a precise date for in any case. Amongst Pagans, the Winter Solstice is amongst the holiest of days. Indeed, it holds that status amongst many religions and believers. But its connection to Christianity is utterly fraudulent, a deliberate and calculated lie intended to ease the conversion of non-believers.
Consequently, amongst many of the early Puritan settlers in America, the celebration of Christmas was not merely eschewed, it was positively forbidden. That is what a “war on Christmas” really looks like! Which is ironic, given that it is to these Puritans that most conservative Christians – who are the only one’s spouting the nonsense about such a “war” – trace their roots.
It is not clear to me that the English ever had such a difficult relationship with Christmas. Granted, the Puritans were originally their people, but the Puritans left (those of them that could), and brought their cavils to North America. The tension one sees suggested with regard to the holiday in such sources as Dickens classic A Christmas Carol seem more about the annoying habit of workers asking for a day off, and all that charity crap, than about a principled objection to Christmas itself; the same objections would likely apply to any holiday. And having mentioned Dickens, it is worth observing that the spiritual dimensions of Christmas were the main thing being celebrated in the story, while the irascible Scrooge was held up for pity, and as a curiosity (if not outright monstrosity) in the face of the possibility of hope and the reality of community.
Which is to say that, commercialism was not the center piece of the celebration.
And yes, of course, gifts were exchanged. But with the exception of the enormous prize turkey that Scrooge anonymously sends to the Cratchit’s, these gestures are minimized and stand out not as the grand corpulence of conspicuous consumption, but as individual thoughts that connect one person or group of persons to another.
However, American corporate retailers were not happy with this approach. There is the oft told (and, evidently, more or less correct) story of how organizations like Gimbel’s and Macy’s began hyping the Christmas season as a time for gift giving – I mean, serious Gift Giving – some time around the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th Centuries. There was nothing spiritual about this movement, unless you’re the type of person to equivocate Ayn Rand with Jesus. The purpose was to stimulate sales during the Winter, when inclement weather people’s doldrums tended to see sales decline.
Calling this plan a spectacular success rather understates matters.
The result is now all around us, a long-term orgy of frenetically conspicuous consumption, and greed valorized as a religious experience. Insofar as there is anything like a “war on Christmas” (the term is so common any more – driven by the paid, professional liars at sources such as Fox “News” – that I’ll not bother to link to any references), that war is most assuredly NOT being waged by those who would reclaim some part of the Solstice from its Christian hijackers for their own neglected, and often oppressed, traditions. Rather, it has been waged – and won – by those conservative Christians who have completely abandoned the spiritual messages of the Christ story in favor of a rabid capitalism that knows of no mercy, disdains any thought of peace or goodwill, and cares only for its own profits.
Scrooge was an idiot to think that Christmas interfered with business.
There are those who object to this state of affairs, though it is hard to judge what their numbers might really be. As noted above, there have been some who’ve pushed back against the phrase “Merry Christmas” in favor of something more inclusive, so as to have at least a little space in the public world for their own traditions to be acknowledged. Others (whom, I suspect, are almost always from within the dominant “Consumerism is Christlike” tradition) simply despise the season. That season, it should be noted, now begins sometime before Halloween and runs until the end of the post-Christmalyptic sales, after the New Year. Some of these people are dealing with a genuine medical condition: Seasonal Affective Disorder (S A D), a form of depression that hits some people due to the lack of full-spectrum sunlight in the Winter. Still others are like myself, simply appalled by the annual paroxysms of hypocritical consumption. (I would note that Seasonal Affective Disorder and mere Seasonal Disgust are not mutually exclusive categories.)
This is not a new phenomenon, this resistance to the corporate Borg absorption of all that is human in the name of all that is profitable. (Resistance is futile … ) The discomfort with the consumerist Christmas is not particularly new; it was bad enough that, even in 1947, corporate Hollywood had to make a movie to let everyone know they were really good consumers, after all. (And that wishful thinking made everything all right in the end. That and a pipe … )
The system cannot be beaten, not at one stroke, anyway. (A reality which will leave many on both the political left and right not only bored but entirely incapacitated. The thought that real change requires real discipline and real sacrifice tends to eliminate the Summer Soldiers.) However, neither is it the case that this corporate consumerism has to be internalized. It is still possible to find quiet beauty in the solitude that the Solstice offers, and real community in the moments of life that drift our way, outside the mall and the online spendgasm. It does not even require much in the way of focus or determination to make this happen.
All it takes is a moment of humanity, in this, most auspicious, season.