Christmas in America has something for virtually everyone—even Scrooges and Crachits. Ancient customs (Christian and non-Christian) and modern secular traditions have become so intermingled that it is difficult to distinguish the individual trees from the Christmas forest. Christmas in the marketplace now begins before Thanksgiving and ends sometime after the beginning of the New Year (or whenever you take down the tree). Merchants capitalize on every aspect of Christmas from Rudolph to the crèche, and entertain our shopping with both secular and religious Christmas music. Marketing at Christmas is highly successful, and we all have the mood to be separated from our money—gift giving and/or donating to obscure charities (after a second trip to the wassail bowl, perhaps). Commercialism is not all bad, however. In many ways, what is good for the marketplace is good for the country, and what is good for the country generally translates into chickens in our Christmas pots.
True, the season has deep religious roots—a lot of different ones, in fact. We are reminded of a Judean lad born in Bethlehem. But before Christians started celebrating the birth of Jesus on December 25th (in the 4th century!), the Roman Empire had long celebrated Saturnalia, an agricultural festival incorporating many of the same customs we still observe today at Christmas. Saturn was a venerable deity in Italy fabled to have reigned during a period of peace and happiness. December 25th was also celebrated both as the birth of the Unconquerable Sun and Mithras, the Persian deity of light. The ancient Jewish Feast of Hanukkah (the festival of lights) celebrating the rededication of the temple and Judean political independence also falls in December. The customs and symbols of these non-Christian festivals have merged with the Christian, and we Americans celebrate them all during the winter solstice season with lights, candles, gift giving, family gatherings, shopping, evergreen trees, and garnishes of holly and mistletoe. Somehow it all seems to make sense—even to largely Christian America. There is something distinctly egalitarian and democratic in our celebration. The "huddled masses," the "wretched refuse" from foreign shores, brought their religious customs with them, and we later generations have woven them all together (menorah, piñata, wassail bowl, parties, Santa Claus, Saint Nikolas, babe in Bethlehem, Christmas tree, midnight Mass, and yule log) into one textured tapestry of solstice traditions.
I like the diversity. The commercialism enriches the complexity of the season. But it is difficult to know if it all truly fits together. What meaning do we find in the collage and clash of our Christmas customs?
We make little distinction between the secular and the religious. We enjoy the secular festivities of the season, the cycle of parties and receptions, the tinsel and colored lights, foodstuffs and spirits; with equal gusto we sing "White Christmas," "Have a Happy Jolly Christmas" and "Little Town of Bethlehem." Yet lurking in the back of many minds is the sobering claim that some 2000 years ago the secular was invaded by the holy, and recalling that often occasions a momentary reflective pause in the festivities.
Making sense of the diverse symbols and customs, and finding a comprehensive reason for the Christmas season is challenging. Of course, some people have all the answers and dismiss the significance of everything except the lights at the end of their own myopic tunnels. I, however, try to embrace all the diversity of the season.
In reflective moments I see the American winter solstice season symbolizing a primal search for stability, happiness, and security in the world. Faced by the uncertainty of our future, these traditions, as different as they are, serve to anchor the spirit. We return to them annually because of the emotional comfort they bring. They nourish a deep-seated hope in Western culture, best expressed for me by the ancient Israelite longing for the advent of an ideal ruler, whose eternal reign will be characterized by peace, justice, and righteousness (Isaiah 9:7). All people of good will (Luke 2:13-14) share such a hope, and celebrating it in an American Christmas seems appropriate for a nation of immigrants.
Charles W. Hedrick
This essay appeared in the Springfield News-Leader sometime before 2006 and was later published in Hedrick, House of Faith and Enchanted Forest. American Popular Belief in an Age of Reason (Cascade, 2009), 70-71. It appears here in revised form.