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Christmas… an extremely difficult holiday to Christianise

Rex A E Hunt

I’ll call him Merv, a young minister fighting Christmas crowds, looking for a special gift at one shop, a toy another place, a card at still another.

Eventually he finds something he likes, or more importantly, that he thinks someone else will like.

The saleswoman wishes him a ‘Merry Christmas’ as she hands back his purchase and change. Merv responds with a smile and a cheerful, “Have a materialistic Christmas.” Apparently the saleswoman misses the sarcasm, for she returns the smile before moving on to her next customer.

Pleased with his protest, Merv moves on, too. Not only is he determined to avoid the frantic holiday crowds that seem to grab everyone else in December, he will make a statement as well.

The Christmas that Australians celebrate today seems like a timeless weaving of custom and feeling beyond the reach of ordinary history. Yet the familiar mix of cards, carols, parties, presents, tree and Santa that have come to define December 25 is little more than 120 years old.

Since its inception Christmas has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, and reshaped. A study of its development suggests this festival has always been a weaving together of popular culture and religion within each environment where it is acknowledged and celebrated, and neither side can lodge any claim of exclusivity.

As a pre Christian festival, its traditions go way back in time to changes in the seasons and the affects these changes had on people, their social life and work situations.

As a Christian event, the so-called "Feast of the Nativity of our Lord" rather than “Christmas” didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until well into the 4th century and then as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals such as the Norse ceremonies for Odin, the birth of the Persian god Mithra and the Roman Saturnalia. Such a ‘take-over’ seems to be the pattern of Christianity. “Expansionist religions like Christianity,” writes Australian theologian Roland Boer, “work by taking over and appropriating the symbols and practices of a whole range of non Christian belief systems” (Boer 2000:41-42).

As an event in Australian society, Christmas in the early days of the colony held little importance. Unless Christmas Day fell on a Sunday a holiday was not declared. And the day was usually celebrated with a compulsory Anglican church parade or, if punishment had to be administered to a convict, perhaps a reduction in the sentence was ordered. Indeed, it would appear that on Christmas Day in 1788 a convict was arrested for stealing and, because it was Christmas Day, had his sentence of 200 lashes reduced to 150. At other times, a double share of rum and rations was offered.

It wasn’t until the mid- to late- 1800s that much of what we in Australia identify as ‘Christmas’ was really celebrated. And this came about as the result of the influence of several events, primarily in England and America, including changes in technology, the development of the ‘penny post’ system and at least three samplings from within popular culture:

(i) an imaginative poem written by an protestant American minister of religion for his three daughters, called ‘A visit from St. Nicholas’;

(ii) some art sketches inspired by that poem, along with a series of commercial advertisements for an American soft drink manufacturer, and

(iii) a Christmas morality story published in England by Charles Dickens originally called A Christmas carol, in prose, being a ghost story of Christmas.

Let me just briefly expand these three samplings.

The poem

The literary focus on the Santa Claus fore-runner was popularly shaped by a lay professor of religious studies at General Theological Seminary, Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) in his unpublished 1822 poem, ‘A visit from St. Nicholas’, or as it is more commonly known, ‘T’was the night before Christmas…’ A fore-runner, as Moore’s poem never mentions Santa Claus but instead has as its main character a “jolly old elf” with a beard “as white as snow” and dressed “all in fur, from his head to his foot”.

While debate raged for several years as to whether Moore was indeed the author of the poem – both John Pintard and Washington Irving had written articles and poems about St Nicholas before Moore’s attempt – this appears to have been settled when Moore let his name appear with his verse in The New York Book of Poetry, an 1837 anthology, and again later in 1844 in a book entitled Poems by Clement C. Moore, LlD.

Moore apparently meant to only entertain his family as he wrote the poem for his three children, Margaret, Charity, and Mary. But he so wove a subtle reinterpretation of the gift bringer into a memorable vignette that balanced magic with reality, that the poem touched the imagination of many people.

The sketches

An artistic development in the depiction of Santa Claus came with German immigrant Thomas Nast’s drawings, which appeared in the New York Harper’s Weekly between 1863 and 1886. However, while Nast’s vision of Santa begun the process, his vision did not become the Santa archetype.

The present-day Santa Claus is recognised due to a distinctive red and white costume worn by ‘men’ during the pre Christmas period. Prior to 1930s the costume might be in green, purple, pale blue, blue-black, brown, or red, even a multi-coloured figure, smoking a clay pipe with a glass of wine in his hand. Later, during the 1930s, the American soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola Company, who had adopted Santa Claus as a salesman for the idea that ‘thirst knows no season’, employed artist Haddon Hubbard Sundblom (1899-1976) to paint a redesigned Santa Claus for their popular outdoor billboard advertising campaigns. “World wide”, writes Coca Cola archivist Philip Mooney, “the public embraced what they saw, and Haddon Sundblom’s vision became everybody’s vision. What started as an advertising campaign soon became a tradition”.

The story

It is claimed that Charles Dickens, after hearing the minister of the Little Portland Street Unitarian chapel in London preach a Christmas sermon, was inspired to write his ‘A Christmas Carol’. Others claim Dickens had just returned from his first trip to America, and was broke and needed some fast money. He quickly dreamed up a Christmas story… based on his American experiences and dashed it off just in time for a London paper to serialise it in mid December.

While both accounts are not mutually exclusive of each other, Dickens’
story had a deep impact on its readers with 15,000 copies of the book sold in its first year (6,000 in the first day), and nine London theatres staging dramatised versions of the story in 1844 alone. A similar situation happened in America when the book was released there.

However, while it is called a ‘carol’, Dickens shows no evidence he knew what a carol was; but he had the feeling for wassail on a bolder scale. He understood well that the better-off had a duty to help their dependants with gifts at Christmas time – that indeed was the basis of his creed. So he was making a social comment on the greed and industrialised poverty of his day which made celebration difficult for most people. But he was also recalling his own childhood Christmases, where “a really good Christmas should always be white”.

With these popular ‘reinventions’ – the story, the sketches, the poem – and a few other things besides, Christmas emerged as the leading consumer fete, as well as becoming a global festival heavily laced with sentimentality.

In the 1880s in Australia, old customs and symbols such as the tree and presents were yearned for, and the arrival of food stuffs and other items were eagerly awaited as ships from England docked in December. Former traditions were never totally abandoned, but aspects of the festival were ‘Australianised’ and became increasingly nationalistic. Churches were decorated with leafy branches and the geranium, lily and Christmas bush, the gum branch and the fern frond replaced the ivy and the green and red holly of England. The small tree, aptly named ‘Christmas Bush’, which was growing in great abundance around Sydney, quickly became a very popular substitute for the fir or evergreen tree.

Writing back in 1912 Clement Miles generally describes the Christmas festival as being shaped by two distinct streams or feelings: the ‘carol spirit’ and the ‘mystical spirit’. The former being the simple, human joyousness, the tender and graceful imagination gathered around the folk song/culture called the ‘carol’. The latter being the ‘religious’ feeling which is associated with the ‘babe’.

The broadening out of these two streams is, I believe, the basis for the at times bitter debate which seems to go on between ‘church’ and ‘culture’.
While many clergy of the likes of Merv, argue the ‘problem of Christmas’ is it has become too commercialised, few lay people however, want to lose the Dickens sentimentalism.

On this, let me offer three brief ‘protest’ stories by way of example, all centred on that mythical invention Santa Claus.

Story No. 1

In France in 1951 a group of clergy staged a protest which resulted in the newspaper headline: ‘Sunday school children witness Father Christmas burnt in Dijon Cathedral precinct’.

It appears they had become so disturbed by what they saw as the ‘paganisation’ of the nativity, they staged the hanging and burning of a ‘Father Christmas’, as a usurper and heretic, in front of a large group of school children. A media release issued by the clergy ended by saying: "For Christians the festivity of Christmas must remain the annual celebration of the birth of the Saviour".

Story No. 2

In December 1994, Brisbane newspaper The Courier-Mail run a front page story of ‘angry’ Michael Butler, an evangelical minister, who had Santa Claus gunned down in a mock assassination in front of shocked shoppers and terrified children in the northern NSW town of Lismore.

During the mock slaying a church member dressed as Santa ran through the streets yelling ‘Ho, ho, ho’ while being chased by a man armed with a realistic-looking plastic water pistol. Witnesses said the ‘gunman’ shouted ‘Freeze Santa’ and when Santa stopped, the man said: ‘You’ve ripped me off for the last time. You’re a fake’. The gunman fired the water pistol accompanied by sound effects from a bursting balloon.

Children were shocked. Many screamed and some burst into tears. One of them, the daughter of the man dressed as Santa, thought her dad had been shot. The local baker said: “People, particularly children, don’t need to be scared like that… the lowest criminal wouldn’t shoot Santa Claus”.

No wonder Bishop Jack Spong has called on the church the undergo a “reality test”!

By comparison, let me tell you the third story.

Story No. 3

About 100 children under the age of eight had gathered in the front of the church and were talking about Christmas and whose birthday it was, when the officiating priest pointed to the back. Coming down the aisle was Santa Claus.

The normally quiet church was abnormally silent. Santa walked in front of the children and went over to the crib. He took off his hat, genuflected, said a prayer, and walked out of the church. Nothing more needed to be said about whose birthday it was.

At several Christmas storytelling workshops I have conducted over the past 25 years, including many with church groups, their religious piety is to the fore. Slogans such as “put Christ back into Christmas” or “Jesus is the reason for the season” – both often equally commercialised through the production and sale of such items as tee-shirts, bumper stickers and printed balloons – abound.

But, when I also attempted to ‘unwrap’ the many customs and traditions which make up Christmas today, they are often shocked and insist it would not be the same without them. Most Australians, I would argue, still want
the tinsel!

Clement Miles continues to be helpful. He suggests what I believe is a very important reason for the popularity of this festival: the pre Christian folk festivals were essentially life affirming. They said ‘yes’ to life while the Christianity of that time, essentially a religion of the monks, was pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come, which meant it was a religion of saying ‘no’ to the world. In the Festival of Christmas, popular tradition won out.

No matter how vehemently some might decry the fact, Christmas is firmly established in its sociocultural environment, in terms of that environment.

And while it seems there will always be people for whom Christmas is a pious devotion rather than a festival or carnival, such people were always in the minority. As one historian has said: It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianise.

While the Christian religious ‘infancy stories’ around the birth of Jesus of Nazareth may have provided the fundamental rationale for the festival within the institutional church, for the most part and for most people, they no longer function as determinative. For many people today Christmas is just that… Christmas! An accepted part of the annual cycle of events, and something to be entered into and enjoyed.

Clement Miles again observes: "The God of Christmas is no ethereal form, no mere spiritual essence, but a very human child, feeling the cold and the roughness of the straw, needing to be warmed and fed and cherished. Christmas is the festival of the natural body, of this world; it means the consecration of the ordinary things of life, affection and comradeship, eating and drinking and merry-making…" (Miles 1912/76:157).

As such Christmas is the most human and loveable and easily the most popular festival of the year involving nearly all the population.

I began with a story about Merv. Let me return to that occasion… Merv has made his protest. But what about the saleswoman? Had she understood his sarcasm, she would only have felt hassled. Converted to his opinion?  Not by his arrogance!

As for himself, Merv has simply found another way of being distracted during the holiday season. He still does not understand the subtlety of Christmas.

Christmas is a global weaving together of religion, media and popular culture, creating a legitimacy of its own, and independent of the church’s definition of spirituality. And now comes that ‘one minute’ bit I flagged at the beginning… while most of us would say there is a problem with Christmas, some religious critics believe the problem is called ‘commercialisation’. A few of us, critics of the religious critics, disagree with that answer.

The problem is not ‘commercialisation’. That is just a modern age-old wrinkle. And if you believe the reports in "The Canberra Times", such commercial vulnerability that Christmas spending brings is not always welcomed by the commercial sector. No, the problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but their messages are rehashed and blatant. There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety.

Richard Frazier suggests: "The dynamic is similar to the difficulty we have seeing rainbows and smelling roses. Rarely do we experience beauty in depth. Instead we move on to something else, distracted just enough to miss that which is most important and immediate” (Frazier 1992:71).

We will not understand Christmas by simply trying harder. This is what Merv did not know, for he tried to force recognition rather than allowing surprise. Christmas is best seen as we are open and receptive to its simple mystery: being sensitive to opportunities from the present moment when an incognito God is in the midst of ordinary daily events.

By Rex A E Hunt www.rexaehuntprogressive.com

Photo : Rex A E Hunt