Friday, 1 November 2013

Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained

Despite all the solemn noise from conservative commentators about a "war against Christmas" waged (in their imaginative opinion) by secularists, multicultural enthusiasts, and the generally "politically correct", the one time when Christmas was banned in the English-speaking world was the result of the actions of ultra-conservative Christians.  As a result, in fact, there was a long period when people in English-speaking countries didn’t really celebrate Christmas. 
It all began during the time in the seventeenth century when Oliver Cromwell ruled England. Like any leader of any government, Cromwell did some good things, some bad things, and some silly things.
  • The best of the good things Cromwell did was to allow Jews to live in England after they had been banned from the country for centuries. 
  • The worst of the bad things Cromwell did was the way he allowed (or, depending on the historians you read, encouraged) his army to run riot in Ireland.  
  • The silliest of the silly things Cromwell did was to ban Christmas.
Cromwell and his supporters practiced a very dour, austere, narrow version of their faith and they wanted to impose a similarly dour, austere, narrow religion upon everyone. In today’s language, they’d be called “fundamentalists”. They were very suspicious of Christmas, as it was, on the one hand, a major Christian celebration and, on the other, a lot of fun for people as well. And as we all know, there really isn’t a lot of “fun” in fundamentalism.
Unless Christmas Day happened to fall on a Sunday, it was illegal during the time of Cromwell’s government to close a shop or open a church on Christmas Day. Parliament met and courts sat on the 25th of December. Families who celebrated Christmas did so in secret, for fear of being fined or jailed.
There were demonstrations, of a sort, against these laws. People protesting the laws against Christmas would go out at night and decorate public buildings with holly and other Christmas greenery.
Some historians have said that Cromwell’s laws banning Christmas were a major factor in turning popular sentiments in England away from Cromwell’s Puritan republic back to the royal house of Stuart. A public meeting in Kent passed a resolution saying, “If we can’t celebrate our Christmas Day, we would have the King back on his throne.”
Cromwell died. Cromwell’s son tried to rule for a while, but Charles II soon became King. After Cromwell, the laws against Christmas were repealed, but many people in Britain were already out of the habit of celebrating Christmas. Christmas became less and less important a celebration through the seventeenth, eighteenth, and early nineteenth centuries. As a result, it's important to note this little-known fact: During the period when Handel wrote “Messiah”, when the Wesley brothers were engaged in evangelizing the British working classes, when the United States achieved its independence, and when the British established their first colonies in Australia: during that lengthy period, the 25th of December was just another day on the calendar.
It was only during the middle of the nineteenth century when Christmas as a major celebration for churches, families, and the wider community began to take the familiar shape we now know in Australia and other English-speaking countries. This change took place as a result of:
  • a very German princess named Victoria becoming Queen of Great Britain and popularising many German social customs (including German Christmas customs) in Britain and its empire;
  • the Oxford Movement in the Anglican Communion (and similar movements in other churches) creating renewed interest within the churches in pre-Reformation worship and spirituality, including the celebration of Christmas; 
  • immigrants from Germany and the Netherlands coming both to America and to Australia (Think of the Barossa Germans, for example.), bringing their Christmas customs with them;
  • writers such as Charles Dickens popularising the family and community dimensions of the Christmas celebration throughout the English-speaking world.
I'll give a few examples of how these changes took place.
The Christmas Tree: The Christmas tree was a German custom which was popularised among the middle classes in Britain (and in the British empire) largely because of pictures in magazines of Queen Victoria and her family with their Christmas tree. In America and Australia, it was popularised because of German immgration.

Scrooge: Charles Dickens’s novel “A Christmas Carol” told the story of Ebenezer Scrooge’s transformation, which one later writer described as a “secular spiritual conversion”. This gave the Christmas season the sense of a time of profound human transformation; an idea that has continued in many later books, films, and TV specials. (One example is Dr. Seuss’s children’s book “How the Grinch Stole Christmas”.) The Christmas season itself was seen as having the potential of calling forth our better nature, as it did for Scrooge, or for the Grinch, or for ... many others. 

Santa Claus: The figure of Santa Claus, as we know him, developed in the nineteenth century as a combination of Dutch, English, and American influences, particularly the Dutch celebrations of St. Nicholas.
St. Nicholas was a 4th century Christian bishop and saint in Asia Minor (present-day Turkey) who came from a wealthy family and who was well-known for his generosity. One story about St. Nicholas involved a poor family who contemplated selling their children as slaves. St. Nicholas went to the house at night and threw money in through the window, so the children didn’t have to become slaves. St. Nicholas became the patron saint of just about everything: the Netherlands, Russia, children, sailors, pawnbrokers, people who have been unjustly imprisoned, and the cities of Galway in Ireland, Aberdeen in Scotland, and New York in the United States.   (He shares his patron saint gig for New York City with St. Patrick.)  As well, in his role as Santa Claus, he’s also the patron saint of reindeer drivers, last-minute Christmas shoppers, bearded men, employers of elf labour, and overweight people who still think they look good in red.
In the Netherlands, St. Nicholas’ Day (6th December) is a major celebration, including gifts for the children brought by the saintly visitor, who breaks into homes by the windows to bring gifts to the children, just as the original St. Nicholas threw money into the window of the poor family. He is depicted by the Dutch as wearing the vestments of a bishop, and riding in a carriage or sled pulled by a team of horses.

In the nineteenth century, Clement Clarke Moore, an Anglican priest and theological professor in New York, wrote a poem for his daughters entitled “A Visit from St. Nicholas”: “’Twas the night before Christmas, and all thought the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse, etc.” In Moore’s poem, St. Nicholas came to bring gifts, but appearing somewhat differently from the traditional Dutch St. Nicholas.
  • Instead of wearing bishop’s vestments like the Dutch St. Nicholas, he was dressed a bit more like the figure that became the traditional Santa Claus.
  • He used the chimney of the house as his means of entry and egress, rather than the windows.
  • He travelled around by means of a sled pulled by flying reindeer, rather than by horses.
Thomas Nast, a famous nineteenth century American cartoonist, added to the contemporary picture of Santa Claus in a series of newspaper and magazine cartoons. He gave the midnight visitor an address at the North Pole, a plentiful supply of elf labour to make toys, and a predominantly red colour scheme for his clothing. He also helped standardise the name “Santa Claus” in English usage from the Dutch pronunciation of St. Nicholas.  (Nast was also known for giving the two major political parties in the US their animal symbols, the donkey for the Democrats and the elephant for the Republicans.  You may note that there are far more asses among the Republicans today than there were in Nast's day.)
A series of magazine advertisements for Coca-Cola from the 1920s until the 1950s drawn by a commercial artist named Haddon Sundblom standardised the visual image of Santa Claus, and Coca-Cola red as the exclusive colour of his clothing, at least in the English-speaking countries. (It is possible, though, to find European Christmas decorations in which Santa Claus wears blue, green, or purple clothing, as well as red.)

Australian developments: In the early years of European settlement in Australia, Christmas was not actively celebrated. It was before the 19th century revival of Christmas. As the Christmas celebration gained in popularity, there was tension as to what extent Christmas in Australia should either reflect the summer setting of the Southern Hemisphere or copy the winter celebration of Europe and North America. By the early 20th Century, the predominant style of Australia’s Christmas celebrations had definitely become a copy of that of the Northern Hemisphere. In the later decades of the 20th Century, there was an increased affirmation of Australia’s geography and climate in our Christmas celebrations. Probably the most important specifically Australian contribution to the Christmas celebration is Carols by Candlelight, large evening gatherings for carol-singing, normally held outdoors in public places such as parks, frequently in support of various charitable organisations.  Obviously, such an event would suit the Australian summer far more than it would suit a Canadian or Norwegian winter.
Christmas has changed a great deal over the years.  In fact, many of the most notable trappings of Christmas today were not really part of the Christmas celebration until the mid-19th century.

And, if you'd like some of my reflections on Advent and Christmas sitting on your bookshelf as well as on your computer, you may want to buy my book  Christmas Lost and Christmas Regained from Amazon.

No comments:

Post a Comment

Constructive comments, from a diversity of viewpoints, are always welcome. I reserve the right to choose which comments will be printed. I'm happy to post opinions differing from mine. Courtesy, an ecumenical attitude, and a willingness to give your name always help. A sense of humour is a definite "plus", as well.