To a large extent, Christmas is what Kris Kringle, in Miracle on 34th Street, called “a state of mind.” It is a broadly inclusive notion that expanded throughout the twentieth century in tandem with commerce and continues into the twenty-first. The combination has allowed Christmas to maintain a prominent place on the American calendar. At the same time, its ambiguous meanings and uses within the culture continue to render it vulnerable to ongoing reinterpretations and borrowings—the same processes that generated the domestic form of the holiday as it emerged in the antebellum years. Changes in concepts of private and public, a declining portion of the population claiming to be Christian, a rise in multiculturalism as a national value, and the significant expansion of consumer-driven economies in previously more traditional cultures outside America, have changed the holiday in subtle but important ways.
For example, changes to Christmas have resulted from greater American emphasis on cultural diversity. In the 1960s and 1970s, minority groups increasingly claimed rights to celebrate their own beliefs, sometimes in place of Christmas and sometimes alongside. Hanukkah, the Festival of Lights, a traditional but minor Jewish holiday, took on a higher profile after the founding of Israel in 1948. In the United States, its observance has continued to increase, providing both a symbol of Jewish identity and, since the eight-day festival usually occurs in December and has developed a gift-giving component, a counterweight to Christmas. Kwanzaa, another December holiday, celebrates African American and pan-African unity. American Maulana Karenga created the seven-day celebration of “traditional African values of family, community responsibility, commerce, and self-improvement” in 1966, as an expression of black consciousness. Kwanzaa has since spread throughout the world; an estimated 18 million now annually affirm its Seven Guiding Principles. These are but two examples of ways in which the keeping of Christmas has come to share, rather than claim with near exclusivity, in the expression of American identity.
This widened sense of the holiday season comports with demographic trends and a series of Christmas-related church-and-state legal opinions. Between 1990 and 2001, the proportion of the population classified “Christian” dropped from 86 percent to 77 percent, while “none of the above” has grown significantly. This changing religious demography has been reflected in an increased sensitivity to Christmas displays in public places. Some claim that a Nativity Scene, a school choir singing “Silent Night,” or, most recently, a store employee greeting a customer with “Merry Christmas” conflicts with personal beliefs and practices of non-Christians and nonobservers. The heightened tension has resulted in a number of lawsuits concerning the Establishment Clause of the First Amendment, some of which have ascended to the Supreme Court. Yet courts have not set a clear standard. At most, the Court seems to have put a “stronger emphasis on the context in which Christmas symbols are placed than on the symbols themselves.” The implication is that a single crèche in a city park may be unconstitutional, but if “plastic reindeer,” Santa, and other secular symbols are displayed with it, the scene transforms from religious to a secular tableau and will probably be allowed.
The evolving pluralism of the American holiday season, replete with the most enduring of popular Christmas artifacts and symbols, has taken on an international dimension. Some regard this as a specimen of cultural imperialism or the result of the globalization of the marketplace. Following World War II, for instance, as occupied Japan became a trading partner with the Western world, it began to adopt a secular version of Christmas. Holiday lights and gifts began to appear side by side with eastern traditions and belief but seemingly offered little real religious or cultural competition. In fact, American-type Christmas celebrations may be characteristic of nations as they modernize trade and seek new and wider domestic markets. In most cases, Santa Claus, a god of materialism, reigns, but as important, each nation’s dominant culture adjusts its new holiday to its own ways. For example, secular Christmas images have begun to appear seasonally in China’s big city stores, but within the context of Chinese life, holly and Santa take on a slightly altered meaning and look. The same can be said of the holiday as it emerges in other lands. A recent television image showed Iraqi street hawkers wearing Santa hats. The red and white hats evoked Christmas, but not precisely the Christmas that Americans know.
At each turn, the expansion of Christmas has raised questions about its profanation, secularization, and commercialization. While some groups periodically fight to “put Christ back in Christmas,” others stress its more pluralistic values of peace on earth and good will toward all. Perhaps it is this very tension that keeps the holiday woven tightly into the fabric of American culture.
Excerpted from Encyclopedia of American Holidays and National Days
By Len Travers
Did you know the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas? Or that trick or treating on Halloween began in the late 1930s? Every holiday has a history, and this book sets out to tell it.