Title: The Trouble With Christmas
Author: Tom Flynn
Publisher: Prometheus Books
• Clearly written with a great deal of information
• Challenges sacred cows usually left alone
• Extensive footnotes
• No index
• Explanation of the origins of a wide variety of Christian traditions
• Argues that teaching kids to believe in Santa Claus can be harmful
• Describes why the privileged position of Christmas should ultimately end
The social, political and cultural pressures involved with Christmas are enormous - and they operate even on those who are already inclined to celebrate it. The result is that Christmas becomes invested with so many expectations and hopes that it simply cannot live up to them, leading in the end to disappointment and depression.
Instead of a backlash against the holiday industry and the holiday itself, however, we get a backlash against critics and skeptics. They are saddled with labels like Scrooge and Grinch and treated like they have some sort of psychological disorder - why else would they dare to criticize such a revered American tradition? This is what makes a book like Flynn's so important; he lays out his case about Christmas clearly and thoughtfully, forcing others to engage the issues on the field of ideas rather than polemic.
The first part of Flynn's book relates the history of Christmas and Christmas traditions. Other books do the same, but the information is not redundant here. One aspect of Flynn's argument that Christmas should not be so dominant in American culture is the fact that so much of isn't really very old or "traditional" to begin with. This doesn't mean that the celebration of Christmas is recent, however.
Many people are simply unaware of the fact that, in the English speaking world, Christmas was very nearly killed off by Protestant "fundamentalists" - Puritans who objected to Christmas so much that, wherever they held power, they passed laws banning it. Even after they lost power, they had succeeded in getting people out of the habit of celebrating, effectively breaking the tradition of Christmas.
The result is that the Christmas we know today is a recreation - even the oldest elements have been reworked and rethought in order to serve modern purposes:
By the early nineteenth century old Christmas lay dying in the English-speaking world. By mid-century, it had died. The authentic English Christmas of boar's head and plum pudding, of mistletoe and caroling, of boy bishops and Father Christmas - the Christmas Anglo-Americans had always striven, however inaccurately, to celebrate - gave a little groan and flatlined. Had social and cultural development followed slightly different paths, today's average American might not even know what Christmas was.
Who cause this revival? Flynn is able to identify six people who are principally responsible for the recreation of modern Christmas: Washington Irving, Charles Dickens, Queen Victoria, Clement C. Moore, Thomas Nast, and Francis Church. All played a role in the creation of a false nostalgia for Christmas "traditions," but Dickens is most responsible for getting large numbers to start celebrating and developing the idea that there is something wrong with not celebrating:
The story of Scrooge became famous for its apparent power to persuade noncelebrators to jump on the Christmas bandwagon. Contemporary accounts abound in which stolid Victorians whose families had not kept Christmas in generations sent for their first holiday turkey after reading "A Christmas Carol." ...Dickens singlehandedly reversed New Englanders' disapproval of the holiday. On Christmas Eve 1867 Dickens read "A Christmas Carol aloud in Boston. Correspondence survives from a Vermont factory owner whose factory had always been open on Christmas. Attending that reading and hearing Dickens had melted the Vermonter's heart; he ordered that his factory close that Christmas and every Christmas thereafter.
An obvious question here is: so what? What does it matter if Christmas as we know it isn't very old and amounts to a manufactured tradition? It matters because, despite its deep pagan roots and long-standing process of secularization, Christmas is arguably a Christian holiday. Christians may choose to celebrate it, but why should anyone else? Why must others accommodate themselves to Christianity?
Jews have accommodated - so much so that they have perverted one of their own holidays in response, twisting Hannukha until it has become a warped mirror of the Christian Christmas, complete with a "Hanukkah Bush." Nonbelievers have also accommodated, unable to give it up and unable to fully walk away. Even many of those who do give up Christmas have latched on to Winter Solstice as a surrogate Christmas; would you believe that there are Solstice Shrubs?
Jews and nonbelievers are those Flynn calls the Old Outsiders - the oldest coherent groups of non-Christians in America. There are also the New Outsiders - Buddhists, Hindus, Sikhs, etc. - but they all possess traditions which they don't want to pervert to mirror Christmas and which allow them to refrain from celebrating Christmas itself.
More importantly, they aren't willing to let a Christian tradition retain a position of privilege over their own traditions and holidays. Their presence is forcing schools and communities around the nation to gradually rethink the manner in which the Christmas holiday season is observed and acknowledged; some schools have stopped referencing Christmas at all, much to the consternation of conservative Christians.
The more religiously diverse a society is, the harder it is for a holiday of just one religion to maintain a status of dominance. This is developing context for American Christmas and either Christmas itself will decline in importance, or it will be changed to the point where it's no longer recognizably Christian.