Recently the internet was humming with commentary about a challenge issued to Starbucks to honor the celebration of Christmas. Joshua Feuerstein, an Evangelical Protestant Christian, posted a video in which he decries the coffee giant for what he considers its “war on Christmas,” evidenced in the absence of any explicit acknowledgement of the holiday on its seasonal red cups. (I myself do not find the challenge very compelling, not due to any lack of sympathy for Mr. Feuerstein or allegiance to Starbucks, but to the fact that when I stand in the store waiting for my coffee I observe that the cup in question is framed by shelves loaded with a seasonal roast called “Christmas Blend”).
In any case, it is hard to believe that the holiday could really disappear from American culture any time soon. If nothing else, it is far too great a cultural institution. It is rooted too deeply in what modern Americans value. It enhances, for instance, domestic life. Christmas is an opportunity for family togetherness, cozy times by the fireplace sipping hot drinks, listening to holiday music, watching holiday movies, enjoying the blinking of holiday lights, and opening presents. And all of these domestic pleasures are of course mediated by our consumer economy, which shifts into overdrive the day after Thanksgiving to produce, market, and distribute an immeasurable amount of holiday stuff.
However, these twin themes of contemporary Christmas–domesticity and consumerism–were not always a part of its celebration. I will write later about its significance in ancient times. Here I would like to reflect on its more recent history during the past couple of centuries. It is a history that will be unexpected for some Christians who have responded positively to the censure of Starbucks.
In a fascinating study of the origins of modern American Christmas entiled The Battle for Christmas, a professional historian named Stephen Nissenbaum shows how urban leaders of the nineteenth century directed a kind of cultural reform that rescued Christmas from near oblivion. In the early 1800s, he argues, the holiday, when it was celebrated at all, was often in the hands of unruly mobs of workers who caroused their way through cities in December, drinking, breaking windows, and stealing property. Wealthy industrialists and city planners abhorred such behavior and used their influence to reshape the holiday into an image of domestic stability and consumer well being. The resulting product was the “Victorian Christmas” that can be found in cultural monuments from Clement Clarke Moore’s famous 1824 poem A Visit from St. Nicholas (opening with its memorable “T’was the night before Christmas . . .”) to carols such as Deck the Halls (1862).
However, what I find most interesting about Nissenbaum’s narrative is that the celebration of Christmas in a predominantly Protestant America was not only minimal prior to the nineteenth century, it was actually illegal in some places at some times.
He brings particular attention to a “long New England tradition” of actually banning the holiday. With their Puritanical heritage, the states of the American Northeast looked on holiday celebrations as a violation of an austere Christian morality. This was an inheritance from Calvinism, which, though largely watered down in modern forms of American Protestantism, remains an important theological legacy of a Reformation that has inspired many American Christians, both in colonial and modern times. It is certainly strong within Evangelicalism today.
Under its influence, Christmas was quite literally suppressed in early America. “As early as 1621,” Nissenbaum writes, “just one year after the Pilgrims landed on Plymouth Rock, their governor, William Bradford, found some of the colony’s new residents trying to take the day [of Christmas] off. Bradford ordered them right back to work. And in 1659 the Massachusetts General Court did in fact declare the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense” (4).
This historical detail is remarkable and perhaps surprising in light of the fact that many who “defend” the celebration of Christmas today consciously or unconsciously contrast it to an imagined American past in which the holiday was kept safe behind the walls of a Christian cultural fortress. Perhaps there was such as cultural fortress in America’s past, but in its Puritanical form it actually excluded the celebration of Christ’s birth, and did so far more effectively than Starbucks ever could!