In 1687, the great Puritan preacher Increase Mather wrote a tract titled, “A Testimony Against Several Profane and Superstitious Customs Now Practiced by Some in New England.” He was talking about Christmas and his fellow colonists’ growing enthusiasm for celebrating it.
Christmas has been observed in different ways in America and sometimes not celebrated at all. The early Pennsylvania Quakers ostentatiously ignored the day, going about their regular business. The Puritans, like their English counterparts, had a shot at outlawing it.
Even then, the religious, commercial and simple merrymaking strands of the day marking Jesus’ birth were becoming deeply entwined. Depending on the locality, there were parades, plays, fireworks, shooting contests and concerts. The equally dour Cotton Mather called them “an affront unto the grace of God.”
It is unlikely that he would have accepted an invitation to celebrate Christmas at the Virginia home of Col. William Fitzhugh, where, in an account quoted by historian Penne Restad, “there was good wine and all kinds of beverages, so there was a great deal of carousing.” Also, there were fiddlers, a jester, a tightrope walker and an acrobat.
Earlier this fall, there was an attempt to organize a boycott of Walmart stores because employees were greeting customers with “happy holidays” instead of “merry Christmas.” This and other skirmishes in the overhyped “war on Christmas” are not an anomaly peculiar to our age, but part of a debate that arrived with the first European settlers over the proper way to celebrate Christmas.
Implicit in the impassioned effort to keep Christmas front and center in our banks, big-box retailers and town squares is the assumption that at some time in an idyllic past there was a proper and accepted way to observe Christmas and somehow we have strayed from that tradition.
In fact, Americans have pretty much made up the celebration of Christmas as they went along. The Christmas we know today — with Santa, presents, trees, elves, reindeer, et al. — largely evolved during the 19th century with substantial input from Charles Dickens, Washington Irving, cartoonist Thomas Nast and Clement Moore, author of “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” now better known as “’Twas the night before Christmas.”
The proper seasonal salutation should not distract us from what is the simple message of Christmas that one day, as the angel said in Luke, peace and good will to men will prevail on Earth.
Merry Christmas. Or, if you prefer, happy holidays. We sincerely mean both.