Sarah Palin, Clement Clarke Moore, and the Villainous Hordes of Thuggish Carolers: The Story of the Real War on Christmas

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[Note: As will become immediately apparent, a slightly different version of this article was originally published in 2013 in The League of Ordinary Gentlemen.]

Christmas is still two weeks away, yet it’s already proved to be a banner year in the annual War On Christmas brouhaha.  The conservative media has once again resurrected the silliness on television, talk radio, and blogs alike, and their liberal critics have gleefully treated each inane War On Christmas utterance like a beautifully wrapped parcel placed under a… well, you know.

Just last week, Fox anchor Megyn Kelly sent eyeballs rolling with her confident assertion of the “historical fact” that both Jesus and St. Nicolas were white, despite all evidence to the contrary. A week prior to that, Tea Party zeitgeist Sarah Palin pulled out the “Two Great Tastes That Go Great Together” card, linking the brave stance against Santa-cide with none other than the Founding Fathers. Thomas Jefferson would have been a fierce War On Christmas warrior, Palin claimed, because the Virginian would “recognize [that] those who would want to try to ignore that Jesus is the reason for the season are angry atheists armed with an attorney. They are not the majority of Americans.” Palin was promoting her latest ghostwritten cash cow, Good Tidings & Great Joy, itself an attempt to cash in on the War On Christmas’s seemingly never-ending appeal.

The War On Christmas’s most modern incarnation has been providing anti-secular soundbites for over a decade. Bill O’Reilly has made Christianists’ fear of the phrase “Happy Holidays” a regular annual trough feeding. Conservative talk radio host and hairspray sponge John Gibson used the concept to springboard from third-tier Fox celebrity status to international best-selling author. Pat Buchanan declared the nation’s Jews’, Muslims’, and secular humanists’ inability to get fully down with the Christmas spirit a “hate crime against Christianity.”

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But here’s the thing: there really was a War On Christmas, and those who waged it triumphed long, long ago.  So crushing was their victory that it changed entirely the way we all perceive not only the tinseled ghosts of Christmas Present and Future, but the ghosts of Christmas Past as well.

Christmas, we all know, is a long-celebrated religious holiday that was once sacred and serene, before it was tainted by crass commercialism.  The Founding Fathers and the Pilgrims alike are no doubt spinning in their graves, aggrieved at the notion that their holiest of holy days has become separated from church and family. The holiday’s American secularization, be it through activist judges or a fat man in a red suit, have taken a universally celebrated, Christian communal sacrament and placed it on the brink of extinction — if not as a national recognized holiday, then as one dedicated solely to the birth of the baby Jesus. These are things we all know; they are, as Megyn Kelly might say, historical facts.

Except, of course, that they aren’t.

Everything you think you know about Christmas is wrong.

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When I attended 2012’s Value Voters Summit, most of the rhetoric circled like a vulture around the nation’s Stalinist Kenyan usurper. There were other anti-secular sidebar points to be made, however, and one touched upon often by the cavalcade of opportunists and true believers addressing the crowd was liberals’ War On Christmas.

One of these social conservative celebs was Christianist activist and direct-to-video star Kirk Cameron. Cameron argued that many of America’s problems — including our self-annihilating War On Christmas — stemmed from our turning away from the principles of America’s true Founding Fathers, the ultra-religious pilgrims.  The applause from the social conservative audience to this thought was thunderous. It might therefore come as something of a surprise to Cameron and the War On Christmas crowd to learn that in the Puritan colonies of the 17th century, the celebration of Christmas was illegal.  The fine for doing so was five shillings. (As a point of comparison, five shillings was a typical amount to pay for the rent of an apartment in London at the time.)  Not that such a law needed to be enforced. Christmas was largely ignored at the time, and with good reason.

The Puritans reasoned — rightly, it should be pointed out — that Christmas was a non-Biblical holiday. Though Jesus’ birth is described in the Gospel, there is no mention of the time of year in which it took place. Early European missionaries fashioned the concept of a Christmas as a way to conscript and arrogate the popular European Pagan solstice celebrations of the time. And while that might have been all fine and well for the medieval Eurotrash, the Pilgrims wanted nothing to do with it. The very idea of attaching the Son of God to the sensual observances of false deities was anathema to those early fundamentalist colonists.

Over time, as the colonies became more secular, the laws prohibiting Christmas celebrations were softened and eventually discarded; still, religious celebrations of Christmas did not follow. In a late 19th century edition of The New-England Magazine, the historian writer, and Reverend Edward Everett Hale remembered this about the Christmases of his Boston childhood:

“The courts were in session [on Christmas], the markets were open, and I doubt that there had ever been a religious service on Christmas Day, unless it were on a Sunday, in that town.”

Although not entirely accurate, Hale’s personal observations were not too far from the truth. Historians such as Stephen Nissenbaum have found records of various churches’ Christmas observances; such observances, however, were few and far between.[1] Contrary to the modern testimonies of Ms. Palin, neither Thomas Jefferson nor his fellow Founders considered Christmas a holiday, religious or otherwise. Which is not to say that Christmas celebrations didn’t occur; they absolutely did. They simply happened to be the very antithesis of what we now think of as a Christmas observance.

To understand why, it’s necessary to take a look at what Decembers were like in the United States in the late 18th and early 19th century.

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The time around winter’s solstice was marked by harsh weather, but paradoxically also by great bounty. For one thing, the last of the fall harvests were in and ready to be consumed. More importantly for the hungry, however, was the fact that December was the season for meat.  Animals were primarily slaughtered in the deep winter, because the season’s natural refrigeration allowed the meat to be safely stored without risk of spoilage. What’s more, meat wasn’t simply far more plentiful in December than at other times of year, it was far more edible. Meat eaten at other times of the year would have been seasoned with an staggeringly large amount of salt in the hopes of keeping it from rotting. Often times the degree of salting made the eating of meat a chore rather than a pleasure. Unlike their ancestors throughout most of history, post-revolutionary Americans who could afford to eat well actually ate better in December than in the spring and summer.

In addition, while the industrial revolution ensured that many lower-class citizens could now work throughout the year, many still could not. Agriculture largely shut down for the season, for example, and for those in coastal towns the weather was just as likely to keep sailors ashore as at sea. This meant that a lot of young men were both idle and restless, which is a bad enough combination in the best of situations. But in early America, December also brought the culmination of an entire year’s worth of apple farming.  This made young men’s’ idleness all that more dangerous, because in early America apples were not grown for eating — they were grown to make alcohol.[2]

741180fe4f37487e76806d05a5e30271.jpgThe celebration of Christmas in early America was therefore something of a terror.  It was a day when bands of inebriated young men from the lower classes showed up at the doors of the wealthy to demand drink, food, and gift of money.  These days we think of wassailing as a happy, neighborly form of caroling. But in the days when people actually went a’ wassailin’, it was done as a thuggish extortion with threat of violence. Modern conservatives often mention that in the United States’ earliest years the government did not hand out food stamps, and that the charity of the successful largely took care of the issue in times when people could not work. They are correct in this claim, but they usually neglect to mention that this charity was most often given against the giver’s wishes out of fear for the safety of their property and their selves. Local police forces were either unable or (being lower-class themselves) unwilling to curb the problem.

The nation’s gentry largely hated Christmas for this very reason, and in the early 1810s a group of concerned upstanding citizens (read: rich men) decided to embark upon a most unusual strategy to make Christmas safe for themselves and their families. They set out to create a public relations campaign that would transform the way the common man thought of Christmas. To do so, they decided to create a character that embodied a kinder, gentler Christmas, and they keyed in on the works of one of their own members, the now-classic American author Washington Irving, as raw material.

In 1809, Irving wrote The Knickerbocker’s History of New York.  In it, he noted repeatedly that St. Nicholas of Myra was a “great and good” patron Saint of New Amsterdam (the settlement that would later change its name to New York City), and suggested that Nicholas still looked out over its boroughs. Though Irving had not once connected the Greek icon to anything remotely yuletide in his earlier book, the saint’s reputation as a kind and gentle man was seen as good whole cloth from which to remake December 25. Thus, Irving and his cohorts began a strategy to remake Nicholas as a symbol of American Christmas, and in various published stories and pictures unleashed their creation to the masses.

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Their plan was a colossal flop.  The earliest versions of Santa Claus suggested an almost comical lack of empathy toward the lower classes from the upper-crust lot that created him. He was depicted as a wealthy, authoritarian bishop, someone whom the masses should obey because he was of “the right stock,” and he went over with the country’s common man exactly as well as you might expect. The idea appears to have been largely discarded by 1823, when a wealthy religious scholar by the name of Clement Clarke Moore anonymously published a poem in the Troy, New York Sentinel.  It was entitled A Visit from St. Nicholas, and its success was both immediate and stunning.

There may not be another poem in the history of the English language that had the seismic cultural impact that Moore’s had. As Edwin Burrows would later note in his book Gotham: A History of New York City to 1989, New Yorkers (and the rest of the country) immediately “embraced Moore’s child-centered version of Christmas as if they had been doing it all their lives.” True, the movement to make Christmas a genteel family holiday had been slowly creeping along prior to Moore, but A Visit from St. Nicholas would cement the deal within a generation.

There are several reasons why Moore succeeded where Irving and others had failed. Moore avoided potential religious controversy by having the story occur not on Christmas, but the night prior.  Also, the poem wisely chose to promise wondrous delights to eight year-olds rather than dully sermonize to eighteen year-olds. Then there is the description of St. Nick himself:

He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot,

And his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot

A bundle of Toys he had flung on his back,

And he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.

Irving and the others had tried to make the human embodiment of a plebian Christmas someone that looked like them.  Moore’s St. Nick, on the other hand, was made to resemble a Yankee trader.

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Throughout the burgeoning nation, children began growing up with A Visit from St. Nicholas, and as they grew up they held onto Moore’s vision. Within ten years, newspapers up and down the Atlantic began reporting that the growing Christmas Day trend in families of all income brackets was children opening gifts while surrounded by family.

In short order, those children began to grow up, and as they did they chose to recognize Christmas as a sacred, religious holiday. Eventually, shortly before the Civil War, churches began to observe the holiday as well. Ironically to modern eyes at least, the churches pushing the hardest for the religious observance of Christmas were the various Massachusetts Unitarian ministries. (Unitarians and the population of Massachusetts: two groups of Americans who the War-On-Christmas-friendly would be most like to dismiss as being Godless and lacking in faith.  Go figure.)  Within twenty years, Christmas services in Christian churches were occurring throughout the United States. In a single generation, churches formally observing Christmas went from being the exception to the norm.[3]

And there you have the most amazing and subversive truth about the real war on Christmas, waged a century and a half ago:

Christmas in America isn’t a holy, religious holiday that got hijacked by secularists and merchants; it was a manufactured secular holiday, created by merchants, whose followers adapted it for holy and religious purposes.

Christmas has always been the most transferable of religious holidays, because its historical connections to religion are tenuous at best. Yes, the seeds of the Christian Nativity are buried deep within Christmas’s soil. But so too are the seeds of paganism, secularism, and every other “ism” that existed where Christians dared to venture. Indeed, solstice holidays themselves tap into something profoundly human that lies within all of us: that recognition of the power of hope in times that are seemingly hopeless, symbolized by the return of light after the longest of nights. The darkest of all the year’s days, amid its frigid grief, fear, and scarcity, can bring out the worst in us — but somehow, against all reason, it can also bring out the best. That this profound and paradoxical truth finds a way to be celebrated throughout all winter cultures is perhaps unsurprising, and may in fact be the real story of Christmas.

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The Sarah Palins, Bill O’Reillys, John Gibsons, and Megyn Kellys of the world might not care that much for seculars. And they certainly recognize it’s in their financial best interests to blame secularists for everything their viewers don’t like about the Christmas season. But if they so love America and Christmas to the degree to which they claim, they would be wise to study up on the history of both. Were they to do so, they’d see that a little less hostility and a little more acceptance are in order.

It’s been almost two centuries since Clement Clarke Moore transformed Christmas from something ugly into something both secular and sacred; something both material and spiritual; something both wholly American and utterly borderless.  It’s time to recognize and acknowledge both sides of his amazing gift.

It’s time to finally call a truce in the War on Christmas.

 

[1] Though I will be quoting from several different sources, the definitive book on the birth of modern Christmas is Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. I cannot recommend this book enough. Nissenbaum, who was a professor of US Cultural History at UMass prior to his retirement in 2004, writes in an engaging and accessible way, and has both a scholar’s attention to detail and a Bill-Bryson-like talent for rooting out the fascinating human stories behind historical events.

[2] This is true.

Apple trees are similar to humans in that every one grown from a seed is entirely unique, having its own distinct qualities.  And when it comes to apples, sweetness is a largely recessive trait. Most seeds will grow trees that bear bitter, inedible fruit.  In order to grow an orchard of, say, Gala apples, you have to graft branches of an existing Gala apple tree to other trees.  If you simply planted a seed from a Gala, you’d get a completely different kind of apple, one that was most likely unpleasant tasting. This grafting is a relatively difficult and expensive procedure, and as a result for most of our country’s history almost no one bothered to do it commercially. American apple producers only began making the extra effort and subsequent attempts to market their product as food with the advent of Prohibition. Before that, apples were what you farmed in order to get drunk.

John Chapman, aka Johnny Appleseed, was a real guy; he really did go from town to town growing orchards in the earliest years of our nation. But the expertise he shared with settlers wasn’t how to cultivate seeds; they already knew how to do that. Chapman’s mark was made because in addition to bringing fresh seed to town, he taught people how to transform the tree’s fruit into an intoxicant.

If you want to know more about our nation’s early, inebriated history with the apple, I encourage you to read Michael Pollan’s amazing Botany of Desire.

[3] By the 1850s, there was a growing movement to make Christmas a holiday that was officially recognized by the government, and by the time of the Civil War most states had done so. In 1870, Congress and Ulysses S. Grant would designate December 25 a federal holiday, though it should be noted that being a federal holiday did not mean then what it does now. At the time, it simply gave the day off with pay to any federal employees who worked in Washington, DC — a group which included, probably not coincidently, Congress and Ulysses S. Grant. All other federal employers were required to come in and work on Christmas until 1968.

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