Here we are, back in the suicide season: It’s Christmas time. Half of us are thinking not of our fellow man and woman, but of pills and pistols; the other half are out shopping, partying and trying to make the Christmas feast fit the picture they have of a fat, ho-ho-ho Santa in the living room, spreading presents under the tree after Mommy and Daddy in PJ’s have gotten the children to bed-but not before leaving, of course, some cookies for Santa and lettuce for his reindeer. Did it ever exist? If it did, do you want it?
To deaden or lessen the pain, there is no want of preachers and editorialists to explain the real or true meaning of Christmas, though the bumpy history of the holiday suggests that its real meaning is whatever the deuce you want it to mean. Holidays do not have one meaning for all time. A few years ago Kwanzaa didn’t exist, and now it does, with its own intricate semiotic overlays. Nov. 11 used to be Armistice Day, a bitter moment of reflection on the needlessly dead; now it’s a pep rally for the next war.
Marley’s ghost notwithstanding, looking into the past will not yield up any meaning of the Christmas holiday that most of us will recognize. The December date on the festive calendar two centuries ago was an occasion for public brawling by wandering crowds of inebriates.
Until Christmas was transformed in the 1830’s and 40’s, it was not unlike Mardi Gras. Men dressed as women and vice versa; off-key, discordant, squeaky, tub-thumping bands marched through the streets; liquored-up groups of revelers would force their way into the households of honest burghers to demand money, food and drink. When they managed to get what they came for, it wasn’t Christmas alms or charity, but something close to extortion-the same begging by menace that New Yorkers, prior to Rudolph Giuliani’s administration, used to have to put up with. These bands of not-so-merry makers would stand in front of homes and wassail those inside with such songs as this:
We’ve come here to claim our right …
And if you don’t open your door
We will lay you flat upon the floor.
Twenty-first-century New Yorkers, putting cash into envelopes for doormen, cleaning staff, janitors, trash personnel, etc. under threat of rotten service next year, are observing the last of the not-so-nice Christmas customs of the 17th century.
(Incidentally, the carol quoted above is from The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of America’s Most Cherished Holiday by Stephen Nissenbaum, from which the other information about Christmas’ history in this piece is drawn.)
In 1659, Massachusetts outlawed Christmas. A five-shilling fine was to be imposed on anybody “found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting or any other way.” So how did this non-family-holiday become the epitome of domestic celebrations for American Christians and others taken in by the thought of everyone gathered round the bright, gleaming tree?
The bright, gleaming tree is itself supposed to have been an ancient bit of folkloric ritual brought over here from Germany, which is true as far as it goes. Apparently there was nothing ancient about it in Germany, where it was nearly unknown until the middle of the 18th century, when it may been popularized by the description of one in a Goethe novel. The tree doesn’t seem to have arrived in the U.S. much before 1820, and the first reference to it in an English-speaking community dates from 1835, when one was set up in Cambridge, Mass., by a German professor at Harvard.
Santa Claus, evidently with a similar developmental history, arrives in roughly the same time period as the tree. He was imported from Holland in 1810 by John Pintard, the founder of the New-York Historical Society, with an eye toward suppressing lower-class misbehavior.
It appears from what Mr. Nissenbaum has found out that our contemporary child-centered Christmas cum tree and Claus was first popularized by that least of all Christian sects or churches, the Unitarians. To the extent that the modern child has become the tender, protected and special being that he/she is, the Unitarians must shoulder more than a little of the credit or blame. Turning Christmas into a children’s holiday was one of the ways they achieved their ends.
And yet, although tree and Claus were important elements in shaping the commercial horror that is the modern American Christmas, it was the work of three writers who tamed the holiday and converted it into the form we recognize today. The first was Washington Irving, whose description of Squire Bracebridge in The Sketch Book making Christmas in the ancient (if largely fictitious) way seems to have had a great effect on the nascent middle-class American reader. Next came Clement Clarke Moore, a crusty, slave-owning reactionary who opposed abolitionism, and his relentlessly anapestic “A Visit from St. Nicholas”-or, as it is better known these days, “The Night Before Christmas.” Finally, Charles Dickens did the rest when, in 1843, he gave us A Christmas Carol. For enduring impact, nothing compares with it, not even the Christian Bible (a document whose connection with the American way of Christmas demands a reach of the imagination): The sacred writing for this holiday was supplied by Dickens, who, given his antipathies for the uptrodden, might not welcome how his tale seems to have become propaganda for the rich. The message conveyed by the story in 2004-even though it doesn’t reflect the author’s intent-is that the best course is to stay cheerful and pray.
Look at the Cratchets. Without health insurance, their best-beloved child is a sickly cripple. Like millions of Americans in the same fix, the parents worry about their child, but the last thing on God’s green earth to occur to them is that a society which lets little boys waste and die is one asking for a few adjustments. In the first half of the 19th century, the time of William Blake’s “satanic mills,” no money was available for public medicine. Extra capital in that epoch was being spent on new factories and technologies. As things worked out, those profits became seed corn for today’s wealth and a society that does have enough money to attend to the medical needs of sickly youngsters-if the people have the means to pay.
Bob Cratchet is the precursor of the office-working armies to come. Like his white-collar successors, Bob is powerless against any petty cruelty or wage cut that his employer inflicts on him. He can’t tell Scrooge to “Take this job and shove it,” since he is living from paycheck to paycheck; he has no back-up resources, no power to defend himself. No law, no union, no professional association will intervene if Scrooge decides to can him. He and his little family are alone, utter isolates. Read in our time, A Christmas Carol counsels that Bob should work harder, grovel more enthusiastically, and throw himself ever more into the work of making a profit for an employer who is not going to share the extra money with the ever-pleasant, obsequious bookkeeper scratching away in the ledgers in the next room.
In the end, the long hours in the cold and the sweet optimism of the almost saintly naïf (or, if you will, the sucker) pay off: Scrooge has a nightmare in which it is revealed to his miserly self how cruelly he has treated poor Cratchet, whose faithful obedience could not even be found in an adoring dog. We know the rest of the story. It’s New York’s 100 Neediest Cases writ large. The Christmas goose and other goodies arrive at the Cratchet house, where Tiny Tim in his modest gratitude brings tears to our eyes.
Whatever the dark origins of Christmas in the Roman feast of Saturn, this is a tale of Christian virtues being rewarded. For the humble, the obedient, the happy striver, the dependent thinker, the cheerleader and the cheer follower, the possibility exists that those with power and money will have a bad dream, wake up and do right by those whom they employ.
It may have taken a couple of hundred years, but the starch has been purged from Christmas. No more bricks through the windows: The mobs of long ago have become the agitated shoppers of today, the office-party lechers, the Yuletide hysterics going further into debt to achieve a sparkly Christmas, for all is right and all is well, and the lesson of the day is trust to charity and the kindness of billionaires.