Sunday, December 23, 2012

A Christmas Story

Ah, Christmas at home. The house smells all spicy, the tree is covered with lights and sparkles, and the air is filled with carols, courtesy of the Christmas music channel on Mom's TV. For visual interest, in addition to the album information for each song, the channel has a "Did U Know" box with holiday-related "fun facts". Most of them are so obvious and banal that they scarcely qualify as fun and have little educational value, though I suppose they are still technically facts. However, one piqued my interest. It said something like "when Parliament banned Christmas, mince pie was forbidden." The mince pie bit is of no consequence, especially since I hate mince pie, but what about this banning Christmas thing? "Did U Know" declined to elaborate on the subject, preferring instead to next inform me that Natalie Wood starred in Miracle on 34th Street (well DUH), but that's what the internet is for.

(The following information and quotations are all pulled from Wikipedia, because that's the highest level of scholarship I'm willing to go to for a blog post during my R&R.)

Turns out Christmas was banned in England from 1647 to 1660, as the Puritan Parliament ruling at the time objected to it as "'a popish festival with no biblical justification', and a time of wasteful and immoral behavior." They felt that the holiday was so hopelessly tainted with pre-Christian winter solstice rituals - yule logs, wassailing, holly and mistletoe, etc. - that it was better to ditch it entirely and replace it with a day of fasting. This led to pro-Christmas riots in Canterbury, with protestors carrying holly and shouting royalist slogans.

Colonial Puritans were no less Grinchy; Christmas was banned in Boston from 1659 to 1681. Though most other Protestant sects didn't take things to the same extreme, the holiday's pagan associations led some groups to reject some aspects of traditional Christmas celebrations and/or de-emphasize the holiday in favor of Easter and Epiphany, which had more obviously Christian themes (easter bunnies aside). "Prior to the Victorian era, Christmas in the United States was primarily a religious holiday observed by Roman Catholics, Episcopalians, and Lutherans." Congress didn't recognize Christmas as a federal holiday until 1870.

Christmas in its modern form is largely a result of a mid-Victorian Christmas revival led by Charles Dickens and exemplified by A Christmas Carol,  in which "Dickens sought to construct Christmas as a family-centered festival of generosity, in contrast to the community-based and church-centered observations, the observance of which had dwindled during the late 18th and early 19th centuries." American celebrations followed suit; "[h]istorian Stephen Nissenbaum contends that the modern celebration in the United States was developed in New York State from defunct and imagined Dutch and English traditions in order to refocus the holiday from one where groups of young men went from house to house demanding alcohol and food into one centered on the happiness of children. He notes that there was deliberate effort to prevent the children from becoming greedy in response." (How did that work out?)

So there we go. I did end up learning something interesting from the Christmas music channel, despite its best efforts. I also have new respect for Dickens, who I had no idea was so instrumental in rescuing my most favorite holiday from the grasp of dour papists and Puritans. I'll raise a glass of eggnog in his honor.

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