The Battle for Control of Christmas

December 25, 2008

Clay Nelson

Christmas Day


I have to confess, it’s tricky preaching at Christmas. There are a number of reasons. It is impossible to say anything new about it, so I no longer try. Preparing a Christmas sermon when I still have shopping to do is stressful. I also fear sounding as trite as a sentimental Christmas card. But mostly because I think there is an expectation by the church that I put on the armour of righteousness and go fight the battle for Christmas waving the banner, “Put Christ back in Christmas.” But in this is a war I’m a pacifist.


There are plenty of preachers, however, who do take up the standard. You will know them by their insistence that Jesus is the reason for the season while chastising those in their congregations who come only once a year to hear about him. They will rant about consumerism and the commercialisation of Christmas, as if boosting the economy wasn’t the modern reason for the season. They even go so far as “dissing” Santa. These soldiers for Christ view the culture as a threat to the true spirit of Christmas. But I do wonder if the true spirit of Christmas really requires bashing others for not celebrating it the way we do?


I got a reminder of this mentality first hand recently. St Matthew’s is blessed to be the pro bono client of a major advertising firm. Their gift to us is to create the billboards displayed throughout the year outside the church on Hobson Street. These billboards are intended to be provocative yet fun. The most successful ones take the Mickey out of religion, turning pre-conceived notions about what Christianity is on their head. A little self-mocking and a dash of irreverence are important ingredients to this enterprise.


Most of the time the creative team behind them is quite successful but the Christmas billboard is always challenging for them. This team of young adults are not “into” religion, yet they assume that because we are a church we are at war with the secular culture over Christmas. Every year I have to reject a number of their ideas because they mock the fun aspects of Christmas the culture infuses into the holiday. They forget the most important piece of their brief: If most ministers would be happy to put their idea up in front their church, it doesn’t belong in front of St Matthew’s. This year they wanted to put up heresy – a billboard denying Santa’s reality. I said no way, put up the one from a few years ago instead with Santa and two elves sitting in the back pew of St Matthew’s. We are an inclusive church; Santa is especially welcome here.


This year’s battle of the Christmas billboard caused me to reflect more deeply on why I’m put off by the battle for Christmas. At some level I feel that I am being asked to be an accomplice in the domestication of Christmas by the powerful. Except for the first 300 years of the church’s history, when Christmas as a holiday didn’t exist yet, the church has been intimately a part of the power structure. After becoming the official religion of the Roman Empire, the Church began domesticating Jesus out of its own self-interest. The preacher of the Beatitudes was way too radical for the newly respectable church. They began transforming him from a rebel who opposed social injustice in the here and now into a sweet Jesus who promoted justice, but only in the next life and then only for those who submitted docilely to its authority. Domesticated, he became a useful tool for keeping the rabble in line. If the church was willing to domesticate Jesus for the sake of power, I don’t have to ask, would it have any qualms about domesticating Christmas? I think not. At some deep level I know intuitively that if I aid and abet their efforts I am somehow undermining Jesus’ vision.


An American historian, Stephen Nissenbaum, has validated my intuition in his history of Christmas, The Battle for Christmas.


Nissenbaum’s thesis is that throughout history Christmas has been at the centre of a class struggle.


For thousands of years in its pre-Christian phase the holidays around the Winter Solstice were celebrations of the harvest. Saturnalia was one such celebration, a week-long feast in honour of the God of agriculture and harvest, Saturn. This was serious party-time, with plenty of food and drink being available to all. Even slaves were given time off. But what made it spiritually important is that it was a time to invert the social hierarchy, masters were expected to share their wealth with, and even wait on, their servants. It was time when the world was turned upside down.


Around the fifth century the church, now being respectable, began trying to Christianise these “pagan excesses.” I can hear the bishops now protecting the entrenched the social order: “It is all well and good for people to let off a little steam now and then. Keeps the peasants manageable, but inverting the social order sounds a little too much like the Beatitudes. If it catches on it could be a problem. Let’s diffuse it by attaching a new holy day, Christmas, to their festival. Celebrating the birth of God in a humble manger captures the inversion of the social order idea but spiritualises it without having to live it.” The bishops however didn’t succeed. Remembering Jesus birth instead of giving thanks for the harvest did catch on, but did little to dampen excessive celebrating in the centuries that followed. Nor did it stop the inversion of the social order.


By the Middle Ages the inversion had become personified. Each Christmas the peasantry would draw lots to be the Master of Misrule. The title was highly sought for the Master could turn ordinary rules on their head for his appointed time. He was given full licence to do as he desired, and lead others down the same merry path of dalliance and delight. Boundaries were tested and social hierarchy inverted as the poor made demands on the rich. Wren boys, wassailing, carolling are all very old traditions that included plenty of drink, naughty escapades, and aggressive begging – it was not just a case of the rich giving alms to the poor, but the poor demanding gifts.


To those wishing to celebrate Jesus’ birth in a pious manner, this was an abomination, but they were never in the majority, so they never manage to control how the holiday was celebrated. The old traditions were too deeply rooted in popular culture and in the human psyche, and the Church never succeeded in significantly changing them.


So the midwinter revelry and the Christian holy day continued to live uneasily side by side, sometimes openly clashing – with bishops banning pagan practices like the use of evergreens. With the Reformation the battle was intensified; celebrations were even outlawed for a time. Cromwell had Parliament make the holiday illegal, as it was “papist and pagan”. Christmas, declared the reformed Church, was corrupted: a holiday of misbehaviours. The sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer, puts it most succinctly: "Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”


This attitude travelled with the Puritans to America, who also suppressed Christmas, even forbidding it in New England. However, the Master of Misrule made the journey on the Mayflower too. Colonial Christmas was carnival time, with public displays of eating and drunkenness. Wassailing continued – meaning lower-class workers, mainly men, would lay siege to the homes of the well-off, demanding free drink and food. Some church doors opened in the hope of bringing order to the Yuletide chaos, but to no avail: religion again failed to dampen the public’s desire to party on or to give the poor power over the holiday.


But where the church failed to control Christmas, the emerging middle class in America and England succeeded. They weren’t so concerned about Christianising Christmas as making it respectable and non-threatening to middle and upper classes. Through the likes of Washington Irving and Clement Moore, who wrote ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas,’ a new Christmas was literally invented. They did it by using Santa instead of Jesus to change it. It takes place in the house, and does not involve opening the doors if you are rich. It excludes the outside world. Instead of centring on the poor and lower classes it focused on children, in a structural way it replicated old patterns: people in authority still give gifts to their inferiors; not along the lines of class but within the family. In the 19th century, children would have spent their time hanging around with the servants, and really belonged on the bottom of the social scale. There is a duplication of the old structure, no longer rich to poor, but still powerful to powerless. Psychologically this seems to have satisfied the old need without the threat of opening one’s doors to the riff-raff.


Irving and Moore were not alone in their efforts to shape a new festival more in tune with the industrial era. The emergence of a middle-class and wage earners produced a new type of society in Victorian England. The new middle classes brought the Christmas tree in to their sitting rooms in the nineteenth century, it signalled an effort to shape a new kind of ordered, disciplined and above all respectable holiday. The ruling classes could no longer afford to have their servants taking December off to drink and be merry, but wanted them to show up sober and deferential to work every day of every month, and especially on Christmas to serve dinner. And so Boxing Day was born. However while both made strides to contain and change the holiday, it was the Americans who saw its potential to modern capitalism.


As you could not give children what you gave beggars – they already eat your best food! – you had to go shopping, and spend. Christmas created a new consumer society—the Christmas present was born. The essence of the Christmas present is that it cannot be a necessity. When you are giving inside the family it needs to be something special, a luxury item. This was the way the consumer economy got created. Even in times of depression we feel we must buy something nice, some luxury for our own dear ones. The only people we still give necessities to at Christmas to are the poor!


I wonder what the undomesticated Jesus would think of Christmas as it now is. I think there are parts of it he would like very much. He certainly would be at all the parties. He would look forward to having a few drinks around the barbie with his family and mates on Christmas Day. I think he would approve of Santa and a culture that focuses on giving generously. I’m sure he would enjoy singing Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer as much as Silent Night. I’m certain he wouldn’t restrict the guest list to his birthday party only to Christians. As someone who welcomed children to come unto him, he would have no problem with the focus of Christmas being on children. I don’t even think he would have a problem with the commercialisation as it benefits society economically, making fewer people poor. I do think he would have misgivings about Christmas becoming respectable to middle class mores. I do think he would have a problem with his being used by the church to take the fun out of Christmas or to bash those who don’t dance to the church’s tune. And I believe with all my heart he would be most concerned that we have lost a lot of the emphasis on empowering the poor and powerless. For Jesus, that would be the reason for the season.

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