It’s not yet noon on a grey Sunday early in December. The temperature hovers around freezing. I decide to swing over to Rockefeller Center on the way home from Mass. I want to take in the festive scene. Even at this early hour, tourists are massing on the street corners up and down Fifth Avenue. Police barricades are set up to keep the throngs from spilling onto the roads and bringing the already congested traffic to a standstill.
All of this will get more intense in the afternoon. By sundown the 15ft-wide sidewalks along the avenues will be impossibly crowded. That’s because people love to come into New York during what we wrongly call the Christmas season: the weeks of preparation for the coming of the promised Messiah, the season of Advent.
The chestnuts may not be – as Nat King Cole crooned – “roasting on an open fire”, but you can buy them from street vendors whose propane flames do the job. Shops trim their windows with evergreens and all manner of shimmering foil. Shopping bags are filled. Ribbons are everywhere.
It was not always so. The severe Protestants who ruled the northern colonies in America did not celebrate Christmas. In the mid-17th century, fearing the infection of superstition and other religious diseases, Massachusetts outlawed Christmas (as well as Easter and All Saints). The anti-ritualism of America’s early settlers carried on through the 18th century. In 1802, the United States Congress held a session on Christmas Day.
But the mood was already changing in the newly independent United States. Germans constituted a substantial portion of mid-Atlantic colonists. They sustained their Weihnachten traditions, including the now ubiquitous evergreen tree. Anglicanism saw a remarkable revival in the early 19th century, gaining adherents among the old Quaker and Puritan stock who tired of intense theological disputations and wanted to sponsor cotillions and dance with women wearing brightly coloured dresses. By the mid 19th century, Christmas was almost universally celebrated. In 1870 it was declared a national holiday.
With the early 20th-century invention of mass media and first stages of mass marketing, Christmas became the holiday season we experience today in the United States: the annual spasm of sales, shopping and groggy office parties (though the latter have been scaled back in our neo-Puritanical era in which worries about gluten have replaced concerns about gluttony, and #MeToo has turned the prospect of drunken co-workers mingling under the mistletoe into a legal nightmare).
The revival of Christmas in the United States followed a general pattern in Western Christianity. Friedrich Schleiermacher was among the most influential theologians of the modern era. He fused Romantic inwardness with classical Christian beliefs. His dialogues set on Christmas Eve, published in the early 19th century, inaugurated the family- and child-focused approach we now take for granted.
Silent Night was composed in 1818. It’s a Christmas classic that puts to music the atmosphere of feminine tenderness and domestic intimacy Schleiermacher thought so integral to the theological meaning of Christmas.
Schleiermacher set the trend. The familiar, warm, heart-tugging Christmas hymns are 19th-century confections: Away in a Manger, It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, O Little Town of Bethlehem. The last was written by Phillips Brooks, one of the great liberal preachers of 19th century who captivated generations with plaudits to the sweetness of Christ.
The Christmas songbook changed in the 20th century as Tin Pan Alley made its contribution to our collective consciousness. Many of the most popular songwriters of the early decades of the 20th century were Jewish. They gave Christmas tunes an ecumenical spin. Irving Berlin’s White Christmas is a classic in the well-populated Happy Holidays genre. Chestnuts Roasting on an Open Fire, Let it Snow! Let it Snow! Let it Snow!, and of course Happy Holidays itself are among the many modern songs that express the distinctly American image of Christmas: rustic lodges, jingling bells, Bing Crosby, bright spirits, good cheer and children beaming with happiness as they open their presents.
I’ve heard more than one homily lament the sentimentality, consumerism and superficiality that have overcome Christmas – “Christmas without Christ” etc. Others grumble at the euphemisms, as if an entire country of more than 300 million gathers itself to a fever pitch of anticipation, drives and flies great distances to be with their families, and shuts down almost everything on December 25 in order to be able to wish people an anodyne “Happy Holidays!”
I get the point. The large, established department stores in New York compete with each other, presenting elaborate displays in their windows for passers-by
to gawk at, as indeed they do in great numbers. Miniature statues of trim hotel porters carry small, discreet packages in the Cartier windows.
At Saks Fifth Avenue, femme fatales dressed for a night on the town evoke thoughts of holiday parties at glamorous Park Avenue apartments. Poodles figure prominently in flashy doggie couture. Large Nutcracker soldiers stand guard at the entrance to Trump Tower. Bloomingdales has a karaoke station where children can belt out Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer while their parents record them on their smartphones. There’s red ribbon, and fake snowflakes aplenty in these and other displays, but nothing taken from the Bible’s inventory of images and symbols.
The Christmas tree at Rockefeller Center is in the plaza in the middle of the complex. It towers above the skating rink sunken below street level, sitting atop a wall that forms the backdrop to a large statue of Prometheus, golden in colour as if to vindicate the Bible’s assumptions about idols. Along the wall below the tree runs a quotation from Aeschylus: “Prometheus teacher in every art brought the fire that hath proved to mortals a means to mighty ends.”
It’s hard to imagine an anthropocentrism more antipathetic to Christmas, the celebration of the God who came near, offering us the means – his alone – to the mightiest of ends: freedom from bondage to sin and eternal life with him.
So, yes, I see the point about our post-Christian society and its hijacking of Christmas. But to be honest I lack sympathy. The throngs on the streets of New York in December are smiling. Some push baby strollers; others tightly hold their children’s hands in the bewildering crush. One is atop his father’s shoulders, approaching the gigantic Norwegian spruce in Rockefeller Center festooned with Christmas lights and topped by a gleaming star. The father and son are reaching the railing overlooking the fabled skating rink. The child excitedly exclaims: “There’s Santa, Daddy! There’s Santa!” pointing to the red-clad, white-bearded, stomach-padded fellow hired to take confident turns on the ice amid the clutches of tourists who are holding each other as they wobble anxiously on their thin blades.
I hear a policeman giving directions with an outer-borough New York accent that makes you feel as though you’re in a gangster movie. It’s not midnight Mass. There’s no theological integrity. But it’s a good time and happy place. One could even say merry.
Why begrudge the cultural appropriation, to use the latest lingo? Aren’t we better off with fellow citizens who, as the days darken and the cold strengthens its grip, embrace a season of good cheer, take the excuse to buy gifts, and seek to taste the promise that life can be illumined by stars, perfumed by distant kings, and transformed by an eruption of love, even if they know not its true source?
RR Reno is the editor of First Things (firstthings.com). His latest book is Resurrecting the Idea of a Christian Society (Regnery Publishing)
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