Humbug Revisited: A Brief History of Christmas

It’s coming on Christmas
They’re cutting down trees
They’re putting up reindeer
And singing songs of joy and peace
Oh I wish I had a river I could skate away on
– Joni Mitchell

I can’t get the name of Walter Vance out of my mind.  He was the 61 year old pharmacist, with a history of heart problems, who collapsed in a West Virginia Target store shortly after midnight on Black Friday.  Witnesses told MSNBC that many shoppers ignored Vance and walked around or even stepped over him as he lay on the floor.

When NPR held a call-in show to ask about listeners’s Black Friday shopping experience, one caller reported that a woman had grabbed an item out of her cart, saying, “It isn’t yours until you’ve paid for it.”  The incident mirrors a scene in a commercial that ran incessantly in the days leading up to the event.

Sales receipts were no guarantee of safety either – just ask the shooting victims in several parking lot robberies.

Exhausted after an all-night shift, one Target employee drove her car into a canal.

All of these reports emerged after the infamous pepper spray story that had the media wagging its head – the very same media that helped whip crowds into a feeding frenzy during the previous days

None of this is new.  Christmas has always been the church’s most problematic holiday.  The Hallmark version we know today was in part, carefully crafted by early 19th century merchants, in a manner not different in essence, from the effort to persuade millions of seemingly sensible people to spend Thanksgiving night in big-box stores.

Santa Claus by Thomas Nast, 1865. Would you want this guy roaming around your home late at night?

The Bible does not give a date for the birth of Jesus.  Apparently, birthdays were not a big issue back then.  Origen of Alexandria, a 3d century theologian, wrote that “only sinners like Herod and Pharaoh celebrate their birthdays.”  December 25 was not fixed as the date of Christmas until the 4th century, and the nativity was largely ignored until the 9th century reign of Charlemagne.

Through the early middle ages, Christmas was overshadowed by Epiphany, which commemorates the visit of the Magi.  It was not until the high middle ages that Christmas emerged as a popular feast day.  “Feast” is an understatement.  In 1377, Richard II’s guests consumed 28 oxen and 300 sheep.  Caroling became popular then, though chroniclers complained of lewd lyrics.  The same writers blamed pagan holidays like Saturnalia and Yule for the “drunkenness, promiscuity, and gambling,” of the celebrations.

In 1645, in an effort to rid England of decadence, Oliver Cromwell and his Puritans banished Christmas in England.  The Pilgrims on the Mayflower were even stricter.  From 1659-1681, Christmas was outlawed in Boston.  English customs were shunned after the revolution, and Christmas did not become an official American holiday until 1870.

We can read on that, “The early 19th century was a period of class conflict and turmoil. During this time, unemployment was high and gang rioting by the disenchanted classes often occurred during the Christmas season.”  The New York City police force was organized in 1828 in response to a Christmas Riot. continues:   “This catalyzed certain members of the upper classes to begin to change the way Christmas was celebrated in America.”  

In the absence of television, one thing 19th century chambers of commerce used to push their version of Christmas was Washington Irving’s, The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, a series of stories of life in an English manor house.  “The sketches feature a squire who invited the peasants into his home for the holiday. In contrast to the problems faced in American society, the two groups mingled effortlessly.”  Historians now claim the book does not describe any actual customs, but ones that Irving wished for and thus invented.  

Even more important to the evolution of Christmas was Charles Dickens’s, A Christmas Carol, with its strong message that celebrating this holiday can make you a better person.  Dickens’s book meshed with the Victorian emphasis on family , as well as a new appreciation of children.

Referring to the 19th century upswing of Christmas popularity, says: “Although most families quickly bought into the idea that they were celebrating Christmas how it had been done for centuries, Americans had really re-invented a holiday to fill the cultural needs of a growing nation.”

The optimism of “a growing nation” that we see in historical prints and Christmas cards seems as quaint these days as the cards themselves.  For a sense of the collective mindset this year, I look at this photo of students at the Charles W. Howard Santa School in Midland, MI.  This year the Santas are learning to gently lower children’s holiday expectations.

Photo by Fabrizio Constantini, New York Times

I wonder what Santa said to the boy who showed up with a multi-page spreadsheet, cross referencing all the toys he wanted to different stores and prices. (What was he doing on Santa’s lap to begin with)?


Even a little research reveals that there is no “right” way to celebrate Christmas.  This holiday has been re-invented numerous times.  If individuals and families opt out of what no longer works and try to create saner traditions, no one will ever miss them.  I’ll go ahead and lead off with a clip from my favorite Christmas movie of all time, in the scene that inspired this post, and leads me to wonder if the pre-repentant Scrooge isn’t due for re-evaluation.

Meanwhile, Be Careful Out There, and in case you were wondering, I’m off to see the new Muppet Movie today.  I’ll soon be back with a report.

8 thoughts on “Humbug Revisited: A Brief History of Christmas

  1. Thanks for the history lesson. I learned a lot of interesting things from this post. I can see I have holiday work to do. I’ve never seen the Muppet Christmas Movie, but it looks pretty good. And I love Michael Caine. My favorite version of A Christmas Carol is Scrooge with Albert Finney. I used to show it to my students, who would moan and groan at having to watch a musical. But they were all humming “Thank You Very Much” as they went out the door. My all-time favorite Christmas movie … hmmm, probably Lethal Weapon. 😉


  2. The stories that you shared talking about the horrors of Black Friday remind me of many of the reasons that I’ve grown to really dislike Christmas over the years. Even if the holiday was contrived as a way to get people to play nice, that idea is at least one I can agree with. Anymore it is nothing more than a commercial event where people spend way too much money (in many cases money that families really can’t afford to spend).


    • I was lucky enough to have some nice Christmas’s as a kid, that evoked both a sense of spiritual wonder and family feeling. There were some nice holidays as an adult too. No coincidence, I’m sure, that some of them were during our first years of marriage when we didn’t have a lot of money – we did things like make ornaments out of bread dough, and the first year, we had a 3′ high, inflated alligator under the tree. I don’t remember where he came from, but he was a decoration and we didn’t have very many, so….

      Over the last few years, I found myself just closing off from the season, and occasionally thinking there was something wrong with me – like, “You’re just getting old and cynical.”

      This is the first year it’s hit me like a ton of bricks – no the institution of Christmas is out of control. So many people doing things that cannot possibly bring them the peace and happiness that they seek. Very very sad.


  3. Thanks for this article – I found it really interesting (I even borrowed one of the photos for something else). There’s much excitement about all things Dickensy and Christmassy at the moment because of Dickens’ 200 birthday next year. Here’s a post I wrote on a similar theme:


    • Thanks for the fascinating article. I look forward to following some of those links, and the info is so pertinent to the season that I’ll pass on your link to readers here.

      Interesting to see Dickens charged with promoting consumerism, though that does not ring true to me. No way he could have imagined what the holiday would look like 150+ years later.

      Great post and blog – thanks.


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