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An essay by Gerry Bowler, author of “Christmas in the Crosshairs”

For most of the last two millennia, people have been arguing about Christmas—struggling to adopt it, abolish it, reform it, marginalize it, appropriate it or suppress it. The earliest Christians were at first indifferent to any sort of celebration. They were more interested in the imminent return of Jesus than in his obscure earthly origins. Only pagans, they told themselves, marked the birthday of their rulers or heroes.

But pressure from those who denied that the Christ had taken a physical body—or who denied that he had ever existed—prompted the Church to take the events of the Nativity more seriously. No sooner had the faithful decided to invent a Christmas festival than they were disagreeing about when it should be: Rome & Western Europe had decided on Dec. 25; the great eastern cities of Alexandria, Jerusalem & Antioch fought a losing battle for Jan. 6.

The choice of a midwinter date created a new problem: how to keep the holiday free from the customs of the pagan celebrations that were going on at the same time. For centuries, the Church would rail against the greenery, gift-giving, drunkenness, dancing, cross-dressing & nighttime disorder of Saturnalia & the Kalends of January (the Roman New Year).

Some of these battles would be won (few of us mark Christmas anymore by dressing in animal skins), & some harmless practices, such as the use of candles & greenery, were sanctified & found a lasting place in the holiday.

For centuries, the lower clergy nurtured a number of bizarre customs in the spirit of turning the familiar social order upside down—an idea at the heart of the Christmas story. In the Feast of Fools, rowdy young clerics in medieval France would mock sacred ceremonies, play dice at the altar, caper about dressed as women or minstrels & stink up the church with the smoke of burning shoes. Popes & kings eventually outlawed such practices.

By 1500, Christmas was well-established as a beloved festival, a time of deep piety but also of sanctioned merrymaking. It was the season of charity &, in the figure of St. Nicholas, European children had a magical gift-bringer, an avatar of generosity. The Protestant Reformation soon engulfed the continent in religious controversy, however, & celebration of the Nativity became a victim.

In many countries, the abolition of the Catholic cult of saints drove St. Nicholas away, & Christmas itself disappeared in some places. The authorities in 16th-century Scotlland arrested people for baking seasonal treats, offering hospitality to neighbors &, in the words of officials in Aberdeen, “playing, dancing & singing of filthy carols on Yule Day,” while ministers equated carol-singing with fornication.

In Englland, a Calvinist rebellion in the 1640s swept away the monarchy &, with it, Christmas, a holiday that was now deemed too riotous in its celebration & too close to Catholicism in its rituals. Down came the greenery, away went the feasting. The baking of mince pies was outlawed, as were church services on Christmas Day. Businesses were forced to remain open on Dec. 25, & neighborhood snoops reported on those caught feasting, playing cards or bowling. In the Puritan colonies of North America, those who celebrated Christmas were fined five shillings.

Christmas was restored in England in 1660, with the return of the Stuart kings, but it had fallen in public esteem. The elites tended to ignore it while the lower orders seem to have forgotten its religious import, treating it as a time of vulgar disorder, street crime & alcohol-fueled revelry. On the Continent, intellectuals of the Enlightenment sneered at its superstitions; enlightened despots banned nativity scenes; & Masonic lodges treated Dec. 25 as the feast of Saturn. By the turn of the 19th century, Christmas looked close to perishing.

But instead of dying, Christmas underwent a series of near-miraculous revivals. In New York, in the first few decades of the 19th century, a group of poets, artists & essayists constructed a new, magical gift-bringer, Santa Claus, out of folk memories of Sinterklaas, the Dutch version of St. Nicholas. The Industrial Revolution, which made possible the mass production of cheaper presents, coincided with the embrace of milder, more affectionate methods of child rearing. American parents conspired to attribute the arrival of gifts on Dec. 25 to this sleigh-borne elf, an idea that soon crossed the Atlantic.

In England, Charles Dickens’s “A Christmas Carol,” published in 1843, reconnected the holiday with older meanings of charity, forgiveness & social solidarity. Musicologists rescued almost-forgotten carols from oblivion, & railways made possible wintertime travel & family reunion. German customs such as the Christmas tree, the wreath & the Advent calendar spread with immigration. By 1900, the rude lower-class behavior of previous eras had been purged from the season, & Christmas had a firm hold on Europe & the Americas as the pre-eminent family holiday, rich in religious & secular meanings.

The growing popular enthusiasm for Christmas made it a phenomenon that political leaders of the 20th century had to deal with, especially those of a totalitarian bent for whom any allegiance to a power other than the state was seen as a threat. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union targeted Christmas for destruction in its attempt to create the world’s first atheist society. Komsomol, the Communist Party youth cadres, mocked believers emerging from church services, composed scurrilous anti-Christmas carols & held show trials of the Bible & Christianity.

By the late 1930s, when Stalin felt in need of popular support during the repression of the Great Purge, the party chose New Year’s Day as a time of midwinter festivity. Grandfather Frost (Russia’s traditional Christmas gift-bringer) was rehabilitated, & evergreens were permitted for sale again. After World War II, the Soviet-occupied countries of Eastern Europe were forced to adopt Grandfather Frost & to cast St. Nicholas, the Christ child & angelic Christmas figures into oblivion.

Rather than abolish Christmas, other totalitarians chose to co-opt the season. In Germany, with its deep love of Christmas, Hitler’s Nazi Party could easily pose as the defender of the holiday given the hostility shown to the season by his Communist & Social Democratic opponents. After achieving power in 1933, the Nazis were quick to associate themselves with Christmas, sponsoring vast charity drives, setting up community evergreens & replacing overtly Christian elements with subtly pagan themes.

When the Nazis took Germany to war in 1939, a careful handling of Christmas was even more urgent. The notion of peace on Earth had to be played down, but Nazi war aims could be cast as a means to protect traditional German customs. Churches were denied opportunities to promote the religious meaning of Christmas (the state controlled both broadcasting & the supply of printing paper), & Nazi agents monitored church attendance & sermonizing. Government publications touted the swastika & the solstice sun as suitable tree ornaments.

By the end of World War II, Christmas had gone global, particularly in its North American version. Allied soldiers had taken its customs around the world, spreading Santa Claus, turkey dinners & the idea of a snowy setting for the holiday.

Local cultures didn’t always react well to this seasonal imperialism. In France in 1951, Catholic archbishops, resentful that Santa had replaced the crèche as the focus of Christmas devotions, burned an effigy of him in front of Dijon Cathedral. A year later in Spain, Catholic bishops warned against Santa & the Christmas tree as Protestant attempts to undermine the deepest meanings of the holiday. & religious leaders from Mexican bishops to Serbian Orthodox priests have characterized Santa as a pagan myth & a fat drunk.

In recent decades, nationalism & antiglobalism have generated additional hostility to the American gift-bringer. German & Austrian devotees of the Christ child called for “Santa-free zones,” while in the Czech Republic, video artists likened Grandfather Frost & Santa Claus to illegal immigrants. Chinese authorities—heedless of the fact that their country is now the leading purveyor of Christmas lights, ornaments & cheap gifts—are attempting to keep the nation’s youth from adopting the celebration of the holiday. “Strive to be outstanding sons & daughters of China, oppose kitsch Western holidays” read banners at a university in the central city of Xi’an in 2014.

There have been fleeting & feeble attempts in Latin America to indigenize the Christmas gift-bringer. In 1930, the Mexican government constructed a replica of an Aztec temple in the national stadium, where Quetzalcoatl, the Plumed Serpent himself, delivered presents to a crowd of children, watched by approving politicians. Before Fidel Castro banned the public celebration of Christmas in 1969, there was a brief attempt to create a Cuban-style holiday free of Yankee influence. Christmas trees & foreign treats were banned. In street art, the Three Wise Men were portrayed as Fidel Castro, Che Guevara & Juan Almeida, bringing the gifts of agrarian reform, urban reform & education.

In the U.S., attempts by secularists, atheists & civil libertarians to banish religion from the public square have made Christmas the focus of decades of protest, debate & litigation. Public officials & school boards have been challenged in a series of court cases about the presence of Christmas decorations, songs & symbols in classrooms & on city property.

Judicial rulings on these matters have been bafflingly inconsistent, often depending on such questions as whether a Nativity scene is accompanied by secular symbols such as Santa’s reindeer. A 1989 Supreme Court case about seasonal decorations in a Pittsburgh courthouse banned a crèche but permitted a Hanukkah menorah; a 2006 federal appeals court decision in a New York case ruled against a Nativity scene in a school display but permitted a menorah, an Islamic crescent & a Christmas tree.

The uncertainty created by these legal precedents & the threat of further litigation have caused many school principals & town councils to ab&on their traditional Christmas displays. This, naturally, has created a backlash, with the emergence of groups ready to go to court to defend the public face of religion. The intensity of this struggle can be seen in the trivial nature of the objects that have been at the center of some of these disputes: a string of colored lights, a school play called “A Penguin Christmas,” carols in a veterans’ hospital, the use of red or green bows, the phrase “Merry Christmas” on public transport or the presence of Santa Claus in a parade.

Adding to the seasonal tension are the efforts of aggressively proselytizing atheists, who can be found at Christmastime renting billboards to proclaim the nonexistence of God, setting up displays in public buildings mocking religion or singing anti-Christmas parodies. The late Christopher Hitchens denied that he & other atheists wanted to ban Christmas, but he was more than a little hostile toward its public presence. If Christians wanted to celebrate the Nativity, they could do it in their churches. “If this is not sufficient,” he wrote, “then god damn them. God damn them everyone.”

Given these attacks on their favorite holiday, it is little wonder that tradition-minded Americans discerned in the reluctance of some retail chains to utter the dread words “Merry Christmas” during December a state of cultural warfare. Great was the brouhaha from both sides of the ideological divide until Bill O’Reilly of Fox News declared victory in 2014. “This is the only year we have not had a store that commanded its employees not to say ‘Merry Christmas,’ ” he said. “It’s over. We won.”

In fact, the war continues on many fronts, not least on the part of Christians unhappy with the reigning version of the holiday. For them, Christmas is not about the words on the lips of retail clerks but about worship, service & charity. From this impulse have emerged campaigns such as the Hundred Dollar Holiday, the Advent Conspiracy & the Buy Nothing Christmas Movement—all of them attempts to emphasize the spiritual core of Christmas in the midst of consumption gone mad.

Perhaps some common ground in the continuing controversies over Christmas can be found in the old virtue of tolerance, which was once the mark of a cultured citizen. Pro-Christmas advocates could tolerate the slights of corporate advertisers & the provocations of the anti-religion crowd, knowing that Christmas is secure in the hearts of their compatriots & will never disappear. They could work instead to heighten their religious appreciation of the season & to show their neighbors a joyful face.

As for those who dislike or fear religion, they could set aside their trepidation for a few weeks & see that, for most people, Christmas is a secular celebration of enormous value. During a cold & barren part of the year, it injects a much-needed measure of goodwill & magic.