Monday, October 13, 2008

Christmas in October

Here it is, mid-October, and believe it or not, I’m all set to talk about Christmas. Some of you may think that’s sad, but what’s even sadder is that some others of you reading this post, despite this October warning, will still leave all of your shopping until Christmas Eve.

Here are the facts. On October 2 Wal-Mart announced, based on consumer feedback, that they would be opening Christmas shops inside their stories within ten days. They also began discounting toys immediately. This was being done to help consumers stretch their holiday dollars in the face of rising food and energy prices, the housing slump and a disastrous economic climate.

Meanwhile, reports are that the Sears at the CambridgeSide Galleria in Cambridge, MA, already has its Christmas tree up and decorated. There may be one up and decorated near you.

In fact, you may have already witnessed a home in your neighborhood with Christmas lights up--and that doesn’t count those @###$@++ lazy neighbors three doors down who never got around to taking down their lights from last Christmas.

Some of you will be mortified by this early start to the holiday season.

Some of you—and I count myself in this group—will be delighted by an early Christmas. In fact, I think we should make it as early as possible. (More below.)

You should at least rest easy in the knowledge that the “battle for Christmas” has been going on for centuries. In fact, Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent 1996 The Battle for Christmas details a clash over the dates and meaning of Christmas that’s been going on for some sixteen centuries.

Here are a few interesting take-aways from Nissenbaum’s book:
1. Most states did not grant legal recognition of Christmas until the middle of the nineteenth century. In 1621, just a year after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth, governor William Bradford found some of the colony’s residents trying to take Christmas Day off and ordered them back to work. In 1659 the Massachusetts General court declared the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense.

2. The Puritans had a serious and practical reason for opposing Christmas: There was no biblical or historical basis for placing the birth of Jesus on December 25. In fact, Puritans argued that the weather in Judea was too cold for shepherds to be lounging in the fields with their flocks in late December.

3. Not until the fourth century did the Church decide to celebrate Christmas on December 25, a choice made because it was the approximate arrival of the winter solstice—an event celebrated long before Christianity. The Puritans argued that “Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.” In fact, the selection of the 25th was a deal with the devil; in return for insuring near-universal celebration of Christ’s birth, the Church tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated as it had been. Nissenbaum says “Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.”

4. [Ed. Note: You go, Pagans.]

5. The other reason the Puritans suppressed Christmas was that its celebration was traditionally accompanied by excessive eating and drinking, aggressive begging (with threats and the occasional invasion of wealthy homes), and the mockery of established order. This tradition grew from the harvest season, at least in northern agricultural societies: December was the time to eat well from newly-slaughtered animals, drink the recently fermented beer or wine, and take a well earned post-harvest break. It was a “time to let off steam—and to gorge.” Increase Mather referred to December as Mensis Genialis, or the “Voluptuous Month.”

6. It gets wilder. A report from 18th-century England described two especially ominous practices, mumming and the singing of Christmas carols. Mumming involved men and women cross-dressing to make merry with their Neighbors “in disguise.” Hmmm. And Christmas carols? They were usually done in the midst of “Rioting, Chambering, and Wantonness.” (I thought I knew what mumming was but didn’t. You, dear reader, are going to have to look up “chambering” for yourself.) One cleric remarked, “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.”
Suddenly the Puritans seem, well, less puritanical. Almost reasonable. And the outrage of Christmas lights and sales in October seems rather tame in comparison.

I guess, in light of the evidence, I’m mostly against mumming—though wouldn’t have minded being a colonial fly on the wall once or twice just to see how that cross-dressed "disguising" worked exactly. But I’m all for caroling and keeping December “voluptuous.”

In fact, my experience is that during the Christmas season people are just nicer. They smile more. They’re kinder and more polite. They yield at the Yield signs. The put more money in the plate at church. They think about other people. They sing in the car. They watch old movies together. They visit relatives. They bring cookies to work.

That being the case, I wouldn’t mind starting Christmas right after Labor Day. That would be four months of summer followed by four months of Christmas followed by four months of ski season. A very good year. A calendar for the modern American.

Very light on the mumming, of course.