One year, I turned my cynicism into activism and decided to organize an “I Hate Christmas” club. Another time, I made a “Stop Santa” button and wore it before the holidays. I must confess that I began to fear for my life every time I walked into a store. I’ve never received so many dirty looks or been treated like such a criminal. One cashier in particular became very agitated and yelled at the top of her voice, “What do you mean you want to stop Santa!” Maybe I went a bit too far that time.
As I grow older, I am beginning to cope with Christmas in a less confrontational and more intellectual fashion. To find out when this tradition began, I have read a number
of books and confess that it’s truly a fascinating story.
There are marked similarities between Christmas and the pre-Christian Roman feast to the god Saturn, held on Dec. 17. The Saturnalia was like a Mardi Gras, with lots of drinking and eating. It was followed by the New Year’s, or Kalend, festival, in which houses were “decorated with lights and greenery, and people exchanged gifts.” As described by the Greek philosopher Libanius in the fourth century: “The impulse to spend seizes everyone. He who the whole year through has taken pleasure in saving and piling up his pence becomes suddenly extravagant. A stream of presents pours itself out on all sides.” The Roman emperor Caligula, much to the disgust of his subjects, required them to give him presents; he waited on the porch of his palace to receive them.
These traditions are chronicled by British historian Clement Miles, who studied extensively how pre-Christian winter solstice festivals and mythology were metamorphosed into what we now call Christmas in his book “Christmas in Ritual and Tradition, Christian and Pagan,” first published in 1912.
Stephen Nissenbaum, another historian, provides an account of the development of Christmas in New England in his book “The Battle for Christmas.” He writes how the Puritans, to stop Mardi Gras-type revelry, banned Christmas celebrations in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681.
The way we now celebrate Christmas was the creation of a few upper-class New Yorkers, in the middle of the 19th century. At that time, Christmas celebrations gave license to rowdy lower-class revelers to drink and sing in the streets, and to invade wealthy people’s homes. This too, followed the Saturnalia tradition. According to Lucian of Samosata, during the Saturnalia, “All men shall be equal, slave and free, rich and poor, one with another.” The rich and the poor were expected to exchange presents in ancient times, and the rich were to serve the slaves. This tradition, however, had become so unpopular and dangerous for the wealthy by the 19th century, that landed gentry, including Washington Irving and Clement Moore, conspired to create a more tranquil and domestic tradition, celebrating Christmas inside homes to protect themselves and their families.
Christmas is the one time of the year when our socioeconomic class differences become most apparent. Children, regardless of their economic background, are watching the same TV commercials and want the same expensive toys. It is difficult for parents of limited means to see their children wanting the expensive toys advertised on TV as the
“most popular of the season” while knowing they can’t give them to their kids. .
I have always considered Christmas to be a class act, but until my reading, I wasn’t aware of how right I had been. From now on I can just say, “I follow the Puritan tradition,” and maybe that will get me out of being called a Scrooge.