Wednesday, November 29, 2006

Christmas Presence

"No holiday season is complete, at least for the courts,
without one or more First Amendment
challenges to public holiday displays."

This was the wry observation in December 2004 by the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit, called upon to decide a case pitting Andrea Skoros, a mother of two public school students, against the New York City Department of Education. Only three out of 127 pages of the decision are available on-line; a pdf error message prevents further reading, and the error has never been corrected. The Second Circuit web site seems to be particularly vulnerable to such errors. But the details hardly matter.

There is a reason that Christians have, for many decades, been uttering the slogan "Put Christ back in Christmas." Jesus Christ did not have a particularly prominent role in early American observance of the Christmas holiday. Our earliest models of piety in government, the Pilgrims and Puritans, forbade observance of a Christmas holiday. From 1659 to 1681, the law in Massachusetts Bay colony imposed a fine for observance of Christmas "by abstinence from labor, feasting, or any other way."

The Anglican church observed an Anglican mass for Christmas. Many Anglicans ONLY went to church for this special occasion, or perhaps also for Easter. Roman Catholics celebrated Christ Mass; that is where the name Christmas comes from. Accordingly, Baptists, Congregationalists and Presbyterians remained hostile to observance of the holiday, until well into the 19th century, long after the American Revolution. Methodists were all over the map, coming out of the Anglican church, but in America often converted directly from unbelief in emotional mass revivals during the Great Awakening. For strict Methodists, celebrating the Christ Mass was as sinful as playing cards or dancing the Virginia Reel.

Whatever Christmas is, it does not fall on any likely birth date for Jesus. Mary's baby boy may have been born in April or August (more likely times of year for shepherds to be watching their flocks by night in Palestine). The date of Christ Mass was timed by the fathers of the church, after becoming the official state church of the Roman Empire, to pre-empt the pagan Saturnalia. As missionaries moved north to convert the pale-skinned, blond-haired, blue-eyed barbarians of northern Europe, it also scooped up the midwinter festivals and co-opted the Yule logs.

Dutch families of the Reformed Church, and German Lutheran immigrants, brought to America their own traditional celebrations of Christmas, supplying America with "Sinter Klaas" and the Christmas tree. But no state recognized a Christmas holiday until 1836, roughly the 60th anniversary of American independence. Congress made no act recognizing the holiday until 1870. Sometime in the 1840s, a committee of New York businessmen got behind making the holiday a major annual event. Why? To boost sales of course. Our current orgy of gift giving, not to mention returns and exchanges, was not a thoughtless byproduct. It was the original motivation for the holiday as we know it.

Eventually, most churches caught the spirit of the great national civic celebration. If the stores rendered themselves profitable off of Christmas, the churches certainly found it appropriate to get in a word or two about Christ. Special services for the holy day, which were once explicitly rejected, became commonplace. In recent years, church choirs have even been known to come downtown singing spiritual carols in the midst of the secular holiday sponsored by the chamber of commerce. (They have a constitutional right to do that, as long as the celebration is held in the public square).

Many of our modern Christmas customs came from devout religious observance in one century or another. (Jesus was not born "amid the winter snows," but the English carol is a beautiful icon). As far as American observance is concerned, celebration that the Messiah is born, and God reconciled to a sinful world, is a late-breaking add-on to feasting, buying, and extended vacations. For that matter, Hannukkah was not such a big deal in traditional Jewish communities, until American Jewish immigrants sought for a way to join the American civic holiday season. These religious observances do add a certain significance to the whole exercise.

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