Christmas may be the Big Kahuna of American holy days, but it wasn’t always so. It used to be a time of drunken rowdiness, when the poor would demand food and money from the rich. Little surprise, then, that the Puritans banned Christmas altogether. It wasn’t until the 1820s that the holiday was re-invented as the peaceful, family-oriented, consumeristic ritual we celebrate today. So in this episode, Brian, Peter, and Ed explore the fascinating history of the “holiday season” in America. Has Christmas grown more or less religious? How has the holiday evolved and changed here? To what extent was Hanukkah a reaction to Christmas? And how have American Jews shaped and reshaped their own wintertime rituals?
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This is a transcript from an earlier broadcast of this episode – there may be small differences between the transcript and the audio you hear.
[Hosts: Peter Onuf, Ed Ayers, and Brian Balogh]
Onuf: This is Back Story with us, the American Backstory hosts. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th century guy.
Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, 19th century guy.
Balogh: I’m Brian Balogh, 20th century history guy. In late December, 1914 a curious thing happened on the Western Front in Europe. World War One had broken out just a few months earlier, but in that short time tens of thousands of soldiers have been killed. Then, on December 24th, the shooting suddenly stopped. Here is how one British soldier described it in a letter to his family:
Voiceover: On Christmas Eve, the Germans entrenched opposite us to us began calling out to us: ‘cigarettes, pudding, and a happy Christmas.’ So two of our fellows climbed over the parapet of the trench and went towards the German trenches. Half way they were met by four Germans who said they would not shoot on Christmas day if we did not. They gave our fellows cigars and a bottle of wine and were given a cake and cigarettes. When they came back, I went out with some more of our fellows and we were met by about 30 Germans who seemed to be very nice fellows. All through the night we sang carols to them and they sang to us.
Ayers: In the larger scheme of course, that was a momentary blip. The fighting resumed after Christmas and would claims some 50 million lives before ending for good four years later. We mentioned the story here only because it seemed like an especially poignant illustration of the outside role that Christmas plays on the modern calendar. Sure it happened in Europe — beyond the purview of the Backstory hosts’ standard repertoire — but there’s no denying that Christmas has been the big deal of holidays on this side of the Atlantic too.
Onuf: And so today on our show, we’re going to explore the history of Christmas in America. Was it always such an important holiday? How did Christmas traditions develop and evolve? Do the holidays’ Christian connotation pose a challenge to the ideals of the founders that America should be a pluralistic society with no official religion? And what about the other wintertime holidays like Hanukkah and Kwanzaa? Would as many Americans be celebrating them if it weren’t for Christmas?
Balogh: We’ll begin at the end of the story. Christmas in the 21st Century.
Bill O’Reilly Tape: Back in the book segment tonight, we continue our reporting on which American stores are using Christmas in advertising this Christmas season, and which are not.
Balogh: We’ve mentioned war and we’ve mentioned Christmas, but in case you haven’t heard, there is a war being waged on Christmas. At least that’s what certain cable personalities have been saying. Until last year, John Gibson was one of those personalities. He hosted “The Big Story” on the Fox News Chanel and back in 2005, he published a book called: The War on Christmas: How the Liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is Worse than You Thought. It argued that every year, local governments and school boards issue bans on everything from Santa Clause to calling a Christmas tree a Christmas tree and that this flies in the face of Supreme Court rulings that holiday displays on government properties are constitutional so long as they don’t give special status to any one religion. I recently reached John Gibson on the phone in Texas where he now hosts a radio show for Fox News.
Gibson: I think the rules are pretty clear and yet when I went out and did a little bit of investigation about what was going on around the country what I found was that people in these local governments were just making things up. They were just sort of saying: “I think the rule ought to be ‘X’” and so they would do it without any consideration to what the courts had said.
Balogh: What’s the “promised land” for these folks? What are they fighting for?
Gibson: They’re trying not to get sued. They’re trying not to cause any controversy and so they start making up rules about what a religious symbol is and what can be displayed. Let’s say you work in the county administration office and you want to put a little Santa Clause on your desk or something. You might find a rule coming down: no Santa Clauses. It’s a religious symbol. Well it’s not.
Balogh: It just strikes me that what you just described is bureaucrats behaving like bureaucrats not warriors declaring war on Christmas.
Gibson: There is a lot of both. There are people who have decided: we’re going to change what Christmas is. We’re going to make it a much more ecumenical, all encompassing thing that just isn’t Christian. You could go to the ACLU website and you could see that the ACLU’s position is that Christians can celebrate Christmas in their churches and in their homes and from that one might deduce that the ACLU is chasing this holiday out of not just the public square, but out of the public view.
Balogh: That’s John Gibson, host of the John Gibson show on Fox News radio. Following our conversation, we did as he suggested and we went to the ACLU’s website. There we found a statement that read in part as follows: “Religious expression is a valued part of the first amendment rights guaranteed all citizens, but government should never be in the business of endorsing things like religious displays. Religion is best served when the government plays no role in promoting any particular holiday or any individual religious tradition. That job is best suited for individuals, families, and religious communities.” So Peter, Ed, whether or not you accept the notion that there is a “war” on Christmas, there certainly does seem to be a conflict here about how public Christmas should be.
Ayers: Well you know, it’s interesting to think: how does this fit into the flow of time and from a historical point of view, there is truth to both these points of view. For many centuries, Christmas was very a public, on the streets, in your face kind of thing, but Peter, did that public celebration really have much to do with Christ at all?
Onuf: Well Ed, not a word in the Bible says when Jesus was born. It wasn’t in fact until the 4th Century after His death that church officials finally decided that He was born on December 25th and that’s when Christians should celebrate. But why that date? Well, that date was already a date that people were celebrating. It’s the Winter Solstice, it’s Saturnalia, it’s when slaves and masters reverse positions, it’s a prominent part of pre-Christian cultures all over Europe. The Roman Catholic Church was essentially branding a much older holiday.
Onuf: Yes, trying to co opt all of that celebratory energy and direct it towards it’s own purposes, but here is the thing: this project of the church didn’t really work. There is an historian named Steve Nissenbaum who wrote about all of this is a book called: “The Battle for Christmas.” When I spoke to him recently, he explained that Europeans continued to celebrate Christmas much the same way that they had celebrated that much older wintertime festival even after they arrived in America.
Nissenbaum: It happened that Christmas took place during a season when there was, at least for males in an agricultural society, not a lot of work to be done. It was also a season when there was plenty of fresh food and fresh alcoholic drink. So it’s a season of excess. It’s a season of letting go. It’s a season of overdoing.
Onuf: That sounds a little bit like New Years Eve, doesn’t it?
Nissenbaum: Yeah. I think that what happened is that New Years Eve has essentially become the one place where ritual public misbehavior remains sanctioned. But if you can go back before 1800, it was the entire season, but this misbehavior didn’t just take random forms. It was highly ritualized and the ritual really took the form of what is often called social inversion. That is to say for this one ritual time of year, the high and the low turn the tables on each other. On this one occasion, and it’s an occasion that’s going to be fueled by alcohol, these people in the lower orders feel that they can act as if they’re the bosses and they can go around town entitled to bang on the doors of their betters, perhaps the people that they work for themselves and demand more alcohol, the best food that the Lord of the manner has to offer, even sometimes money. You can think of it as being sort of like Halloween, like a bad Halloween, because if these beggars didn’t get the drink or the food or whatever gift they demanded, they were liable to threaten or even to perform damage.
Onuf: The more you talk about this, the more un-American it sounds to me. After all, as my man Jefferson would have said: “All men are created equal.” You can’t have that kind of celebration or inversion in a world of equals. Can you?
Nissenbaum: Yeah, but one of the interesting things about this social inversion form of Christmas is that it was not demand for equality. It was in fact a reinforcement of the social order because the poor were not trying to eliminate distinctions of status. They were maintaining those distinctions of status, but they were inverting them.
Onuf: That’s historian Steve Nissenbaum, author of the 1997 book: “The Battle for Christmas.” In a few minutes, we’ll hear more from him about how Christmas turned from this bad Halloween into the season of comfort and joy we celebrate today.
Ayers: That’s a really interesting discussion Peter. It reminds me of a question we got on the website from Rhonda Newton, and here is what she wrote: “I have to wonder if my families’ tradition of a low-key Christmas focusing on church and family with gifts, but not as the focus, goes back to our New England Puritan roots leavened with some Quakers, Scotch Irish, and Presbyterians.” So Peter, my question is this: did everything Steve was talking about come to an end with the Puritans or did it take these other religions to kind of take some of the air out of Christmas?
Onuf: Well Ed, that’s a great question. The Puritans approach to Christmas was not low key it was no key. In fact, they actually banned it, made it illegal.
Balogh: They really were grouches weren’t they?
Onuf: Absolutely. The Puritans were hypersensitive to the idea of sacralizing days because they thought of the whole world as God’s work. Everything is sacred so the distinctions between holidays and everyday were strictly taboo. In fact, one of the whole reasons that the Puritans came to New England was to get away from the Saints Days that proliferated in the English calendar and that is every day of the year seemed to be a Saints Day so that they didn’t work at all. Remember Puritans work ethic.
Ayers: So they wanted to sacralize everything by desacralizing just a few days.
Balogh: So then tell me: Rhonda talks about church and family, as 20th Century guy, we think in those terms, how did church and family get back into that Christmas picture?
Onuf: Well I think by the 19th Century that Puritan spirit of hostility to Catholicism is what it comes down to and that all the ceremonies associated had given way to a more generous and catholic spirit and openness yet at the same time there was a new religiosity that had emerged in the Second Great Awakening in America in the early 19th Century where lots of people were turning to evangelical Christianity and they were taking Christianity seriously in a way that the mass of colonial Americans had never done. So you have both a more secular spirit and a more religious spirit converging and then creating a new calendar of semi-sacred holidays.
Balogh: And you know what’s so ironic is that work ethic which was pitted against singling out Christmas has come back as one of the major reasons to do Christmas…
Onuf: Isn’t that interesting. Nice point. Nice point.
Balogh: …we literally adjust our unemployment statistics these days to adjust for all the employment around hiring for the Christmas season.
Ayers: History is interesting isn’t it. The way it just folds back on itself.
Onuf: We keep wondering why we keep doing it, Ed, but there you go.
Balogh: Well, we’ve got to take a break. When we come back, I promise to find a way to work Hanukkah into this show.
Onuf: We’ll be back in a minute.
Onuf: This is Back Story, the show that turns to history to explain the world around us today. I’m Peter Onuf and I represent 18th Century America.
Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers, your guide to the 19th Century US of A.
Balogh: And I’m Brian Balogh representing the 20th Century.
Balogh: We’re talking today about the history of the so called holiday season. When we left off, our 18th Century guy, Peter was explaining that the Puritan’s not only didn’t celebrate Christmas, but actually made the holiday illegal which wasn’t too surprising considering that for centuries it had basically consisted of a multi-day bonanza of booze-fueled partying. But despite the Puritan’s best attempts, people continued celebrating Christmas the old fashioned way well into the 19th Century.
Ayers: And then in the 1820’s, something began to change. Newspapers started running Christmas themed ads for local merchants. This was a new development; buying gifts for people, after all, it wasn’t a part of the old Christmas and a lot of those ads featured a certain character who is also a new edition to the holiday, Saint Nicholas AKA Santa Clause, first popularized in American newspapers in the form of a poem.
Voiceover: Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse…
Ayers: A visit from Saint Nicholas was written in 1823 by Clement Clark Moore, a theology professor and a member of New York’s very upper crust. Now he owned a huge estate on New York’s West side. He was just the kind of guy likely to be visited by Christmas beggars demanding the masters’ best food and drink.
Voiceover: …When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter. I sprang from bed to see what was the matter.
Ayers: What was the matter of course was that there was a little old fat man on the lawn just the kind of guy who would have joined up with those traditional holiday beggars. Here is historian Stephen Nissenbaum again.
Nissenbaum: He is dressed in sooty fur. He is carrying what amounts to a beggars pack on his back. He looks like a Plebeian but this particular figure of Santa Clause doesn’t come to make demands, he comes to give gifts to the narrators kids.
Onuf: Now the character of Saint Nick wasn’t entirely new to American audiences. He had first appeared in a mock history of old New York written by Morris’ good friend, Washington Irving, but that Saint Nick was portrayed as he had appeared back in Holland as a Patrician Bishop. It was Clement Clark Moore’s defrocking of Santa that signaled the beginning of Christmas as we know it. Let’s return now to my conversation with Steve Nissenbaum, author of the battle for Christmas.
Nissenbaum: The simplest, really over simplest way to put the deeper change that caused the new Christmas to come about in the 1820’s was really rapid urbanization and the early stages of capitalism and what those two things coming together did was it took the traditional kind of begging rituals, the traditional trick or treat rituals which had gone on for centuries and it sort of intensified the tension that was involved in them because now, since we’re dealing with densely populated cities, the poor who go around in bands, are no longer poor people who were known personally to the rich people whose houses they banged the doors of. Now they’re in an anonymous (to use a fancy word) proto proletariat, I mean they’re in the process of being transformed from being traditional apprentices and clerks into what’s within a generation going to become an urban proletariat.
Onuf: To some extent you’re talking about changing conceptions of the social order from a notion of status and familiar position in the community to a more anonymous what we might call “class” like the dangerous classes. The streets are dangerous places.
Nissenbaum: The streets are becoming dangerous places.
Onuf: But meanwhile the other thing that’s happening in the house is that children are in effect stepping up and demanding gifts. Where did kids get off becoming kids in the way they are today?
Nissenbaum: Well here is one way to talk about that: those bands of roving beggars at Christmastime would have consisted of the poor, but also would have consisted rather promiscuously of young people, even sometimes young people from wealthy households. That essentially is going to risk subverting the social order in a rather profound way. So white people in New York, some very wealthy, conservative people in New York, started doing in the 18 teens and 1820’s was in fact to come up with a new kind of holiday that barracked the doors, if you like, against beggars from the outside and that then sanctioned giving gifts to your own children within the family, so what you’re simultaneously beginning to get is the fortress household, the fortress family and the whole new idea of children as people who should be deferred to. Previously in a sense had been servants within their own households.
Onuf: Dependents in the household.
Nissenbaum: Dependents in the household, but on Christmas day, given this very old tradition of inverting the social order and now limiting that inversion to the internal workings of the family itself, I think for many families, Christmas is the first moment when you begin to look at your children in a new way and look at them as objects affection and objects of sentiment and I think that the new Christmas that gets devised in the 1820’s is really part of that process by which the family that we know of today, the modern famkly, which we think of as being traditional family is itself being invented.
Onuf: Steve, I was to press you on gift giving because it’s so central to our modern understanding of Christmas and it seems to me gifts carry a heavy burden. They’re supposed to be deeply personal expressions of the love that cements family relations and yet, at the same time, to put it simply they are commodities. How have Americans, particularly in this kind of founding era of modern Christmas, how do they resolve the tension of commodity exchange, after all that’s the nasty business of the marketplace that’s suppose to be what we’re escaping when we turn towards the home and we’re the heartless world outside, we come into the warm, sentimental bosom of our family. So how do Americans deal with the commodity status of gifts?
Nissenbaum: Yeah. In a phrase, Santa Clause, from the very beginning that part of it got disguised to use the bluntest word by saying that Santa Clause brought these gifts. Also the fact that they’re wrapped. They’re gift wrapped so they’re somehow special. So it’s a combination of gift wrapping and Santa Clause, essentially takes them out of the marketplace. They magically appear. In fact, by 1840, you’re, in a very common way, beginning to get Santa Clause used by merchants to advertise his wares. You get adds in the newspapers saying this is Santa Clauses’ favorite haunt and buy these goods and that’s, of course, defeating the whole purpose. And one of the most fascinating things that I’ve found is that beginning in the 1830’s, a group of wealthy Bostonians for the most part decided that they needed a new ritual that would de-commercialized Christmas in a way that Santa had failed to do and that new ritual was the Christmas tree. They thought, mistakenly, that the Christmas tree was an old German ritual in which children actually gave gifts to their parents.
Onuf: Does that ever actually happen Steve?
Nissenbaum: It apparently happened in one family in one town in Northern Germany called Ratzeburg and it so happened that that family was being visited in the 1790’s by the future poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge essay that he published around 1810 and what happened is that the press started picking this up in the 1830’s after the Coleridge essay got reprinted. The fact that it was limited to his observation of a single household got lost.
Onuf: And who said individuals don’t matter in history? [laughs]
Nissenbaum: Individuals matter in history. Well of course Coleridge wanted to see something like that and Americans were ready for something like that so they decided that the Christmas tree was this pure completely uncommercial ritual that was common place in Germany which is was not.
Onuf: So in a way, folk rituals were juxtaposed to commercial practices when in fact they were part and parcel of the same thing.
Nissenbaum: They were. I mean I think that you can almost see the history of Christmas as an ongoing series of efforts to de-commercialize it and every effort to de-commercialize it and purify it then becomes appropriated or co-opted. It’s really almost inevitable.
Onuf: Well Steve, thanks so much. It’s been great talking to you.
Nissenbaum: You’re very welcome and thank you Peter so much for having me on the show.
Onuf: Stephen Nissenbaum is a professor of emeritus of history at the University of Massachusetts and the author of The Battle for Christmas published in 1997. You can find an extended version of our interview on our website, along with a downloadable MP3 of a fascinating conversation Steve and I had about Christmas in the slave South. It’s all at www.backstoryradio.org
Balogh: Alright. I’m impressed. You’ve exploded a lot of myths that I actually subscribe to, but I want to get personal now. When exactly did you stop believing in Santa Claus?
Ayers: I’m sure it was at school and some smarter kid told me and it was like so many other things I discovered about life. Oh really? I had no idea.
Balogh: Ed, you have to be careful what you listen to because I listen to all my Jewish friends and they told me over and over again the story of Hanukkah and it all turned on this great military victory by the Maccabees, we beat back the Assyrians, we reclaimed the temple and then the central miracle we found a drop of oil and we lit the candles with that knowing that the candles would soon burn out, but in fact they lasted for eight days and eight nights and to this very day we celebrate that by lighting the candles that victory and that miracle that God provided to us.
Ayers: That’s a powerful story.
Balogh: Well let me tell you how it ends. It ends in me discovering that that’s all a myth. Those candles came crashing down around my head. You know how the news was broken to me? In a You Tube video three days ago. How 21st Century. Yeah, I’m angling for that century. And the video was made by Laura Baum, a reformed rabbi in Cincinnati who founded an online congregation called www.ourjewishcommunity.org We found the rabbi’s number and gave her a call.
Balogh: I want to just jump right in here rabbi. I have bought hundreds, maybe even thousands of Hanukkah candles at full retail price and now I learn that maybe this whole drop of oil lasting eight days thing is like a complete fabrication?
Balogh: Now you’ve got to help me out here. Is there a place I can get my money back?
Baum: Yeah, essentially the original versions of Hanukkah story which are recorded in the book of Maccabee is don’t mention oil and don’t mention God at all. Hanukkah is a story about Jewish national power, a fractured community and essentially a military struggle and it was during a time of crisis in the period when the Rabbi’s feared that the Jews would rebel against Rome that they later decided to deemphasize the Jewish might and turn the story into one about a miracle of oil lasting for eight days.
Balogh: I see. For political reasons basically it was better to spin the story, if you will, as more pacifist, less militaristic story.
Baum: Exactly. If we could just step back and rely on a miracle then we’d all be fine – was sort of the Rabbinic period’s view of it, but it was for a very specific point. The temple had been destroyed. There were two failed rebellions, rabbis were now encouraging the Jew’s to essentially stop fighting and to turn inward. They didn’t want the Jews to rebel against Rome.
Balogh: Well I was wondering if you could take us through some of the other twists and turns of the Hanukkah story if there are any more twists and turns.
Baum: Sure. I think another one that comes to mind is in the late 19th Century in the United States when the civil war was over, anti-semitism was on the rise and Jewish revivalists at that point placed the emphasis of the Hanukkah story back on Jewish national strength and survival again and deemphasize the oil. They said: we need to some how capitalize on the American experience and make that a Jewish experience and meld those two together so they made it a story again about Jewish national strength which added some energy of course to help Hanukkah compete with the Christmas that was so popular in American culture.
Balogh: Could you be a little more specific about how that made it more American?
Baum: I think that it became more American at that point because it was really a story about resistance and going for what you wanted becoming a nation renewing a nation.
Balogh: I see, so harkening it back almost to the American Revolution.
Baum: Yeah. Yeah.
Balogh: I got it. Do you have kids of your own?
Balogh: Do you have nieces and nephews?
Balogh: I want to know what you tell them the story of Hanukkah is.
Baum: I think that it’s really important when we’re teaching children about religion to never tell them anything that we would have to un-teach them later. So I run the religious school here and we don’t share the oil story as a real story and then ten years later say to the kids: oh by the way, that wasn’t historically accurate. But I think with children it’s fine to teach the story of the oil and to say that some of the traditions that we have like lighting candles and eating potato pancakes and greasy jelly donuts, that those all connect to the myth of the oil, but we’re really careful to call it a myth and to explain that that’s why those traditions exist and then to teach that there are other historical reasons for the holiday and I think it’s a great learning opportunity to say: look at how this holiday changed and what’s our role going to be in the continuing evolution of the Jewish experience. How are we going to add our own spin on Hanukkah?
Balogh: And what would you say the essence of the real (not the mythical) Jewish experience is in regards to Hanukkah.
Baum: I think that Hanukkah is not a story that has only one message. I think it’s become a wonderful way for families and friends to celebrate. I think it’s a way for Jews to feel part of the American experience while their peers are, in many cases celebrating Christmas. But I think it’s more than that. I think that the messages from the first versions of the Hanukkah story which are recorded in second Maccabees are really stories that you believe in, doing the right thing, building a people, trying to find a common voice in a community, and also respecting individual voices. So I think that those are incredibly important messages of Hanukkah that we can continue to find value in.
Balogh: Thank you so much for joining us.
Baum: Thank you.
Balogh: Rabbi Laura Baum is based at the Beth Adom Temple Cincinnati, Ohio. She is also the founding Rabbi of www.ourjewishcommunity.org, an online congregation. We’ll link to her three minute explication of the Hanukkah story at www.backstoryradio.org
Ayers: I thought that was a very generous and helpful understanding of all that. Things are debunking outrage. Just sort of thinking there’s a reason these things exist and that’s good and we can continue sharing them with our children and our families. It doesn’t mean that you have to choose one over the other. It strikes me as a very capacious way of understanding.
Balogh: And frankly it makes me feel a lot better about a holiday we dropped from our own families celebration: Kwanzaa for a period there we celebrated Christmas, Hanukkah and Kwanzaa and you know, the people I hang out with, PhD’s in history, wise guys. This African historian said: “You know, Kwanzaa is just totally invented.” And it was hard to celebrate after that. If I had only met you guys earlier I would have known from the start that all three holidays were very much invented and simply evolved in relationship to other religious holidays not to mention the kind of culture that they were embedded in.
Onuf: We’ve been focusing on invention and the way holidays are created at specific moments in time and that things come together; cultural forces that lead to this celebration of a holiday, but we should also remember when we’re thinking about invention that these holidays, these celebrations work for people. They do something.
Ayers: Yeah. We don’t make holidays up for no reason and we act as if they own us when in fact they are us.
Balogh: It’s time for another short break. When we get back, we’ll go to the phones and offer a couple of lucky listeners our favorite gift; the gift of gab.
We’ll be back in a minute.
Onuf: This is Back Story, the show that explores the connections between America’s past and present. I’m Peter Onuf, 18th Century history guy.
Ayers: I’m Ed Ayers,19th Century history guy.
Balogh: I’m Brian Balogh, 20th Century history guy.
Onuf: Today on the show, we’re celebrating the holiday season by historicizing it and you thought professors didn’t know how to have good times! [laughs]
Balogh: We’re going to go to the phones now. We’ve been inviting your comments on todays topic on www.backstoryradio.org and our producers have invited a few of the folks who left comments there to join us on the line.
Onuf: We have Nathan on the line from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Nathan, welcome to Back Story.
Nathan: Thank you.
Onuf: Tell us what’s on your mind today.
Nathan: Technically Easter is the highest holiday in the Christian religion and yet the way it’s celebrated by comparison it seems like a minor holiday.
Onuf: That’s a tough one. My idea would be that we’re a very sentimental, self centered people. Individualism is a very big thing in our personal high-holy day calendar, our birthdays are way up there. I think the idea that Jesus had a birthday is both the macro version of our micro. We’ve got birthdays, he’s got a birthday. Now think about it. It’s the way the calendar of our lives intersects so meaningfully with a sacred calendar. Easter of course is very important. It’s a rebirth day you might say, right? Being born again is certainly centrally important in the evangelical tradition, but being born in the broader Christian tradition is way up there.
Ayers: Wow. What a good answer. I think there’s something to the sweetness of the story of the manger and the wise men and it’s a little more accessible to children than rebirth and resurrection and all of those sorts of thing and I think my answer is something to yours, Peter. A birthday is as close to a universal experience I guess as we have, that Jesus could be born in a manger. So I think it’s accessible that way as well.
Onuf: That’s a good point because even the most modest home can seem like a good place for the commemoration of this great birth that we’re celebrating right now.
Ayers : Yes, despite all of this about the language about the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, he is a little baby.
Onuf: It’s a family story.
Ayers: Yeah, exactly. Now there’s a danger in the way we’re talking which is to make it sound like it was all planned and of course it wasn’t. Not as if some people sat in a board room at Macy’s and thought how can we move a lot of merchandise by a holiday. But there was something about the 19th Century that made it seem like a good idea to take something that had been suppressed and even disapproved of by Puritan forbearer’s and turn it into something important.
Onuf: Right. And I think the key thing in what you’re saying is it’s the family taking a certain form in the 19th Century that makes this holiday resonate more than any other.
Ayers: Yes, makes it make sense.
Onuf: And I think it’s the convergence of both religious faith, because the 19th Century is a very Christian, pious century.
Balogh: I want to ask about faith and I’m doubly challenged now being Jewish and being 20th Century, but towards the end of the 19th Century, doesn’t God become a more friendly, Godlier God? Isn’t this part of what becomes a social gospel.
Onuf: Listen, I think what we’re talking about Brian, the domestication of and sentimentalization of Christmas with the central focus on the Christ child and on the birth. All of that I think mediates the awesomeness and awfulness of the Calvinist Christian God of Jonathan Edwards’ time.
Balogh: Right, but theologically the religion itself is kind of changing in the way it’s understood.
Onuf: Well I’m thinking in a Protestant culture you don’t have the benefit of the Virgin Mary to perform this mediatory role and I think in a way the sentimentalized Jesus performs that role in a Protestant culture.
Balogh: That’s very interesting.
Ayers: So Nathan, we’ve been suggesting the answers to your interesting question is that you want to know why the holiday takes on the significance it now has, you have to look at a crucial moment in our historical experience when the stars are in alignment and everything from the marketplace, commerce, Christianity to the notion of a mid Winter break.
Balogh: And Nathan, here is a hot tip: keep your eye on Porim. I think it’s moving up fast.
Onuf: Thanks a lot Nathan.
Nathan: Thank you.
Onuf: Next up on the line we’ve got David in Brooklyn, New York. David, welcome to BackStory.
David: Hello everybody.
Onuf: What do you have for us today David?
David: I really have like an economic question related to Christmas. It seems like the story we get from the government and the media (I don’t mean to make is sound conspiratorial) is that the economy might fail if these 30 days between Thanksgiving and Christmas don’t go well and I wonder for how long it’s been billed as a driving engine of the economy.
Balogh: David, I have one acronym for you: SPUG — the Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving and this is a progressive era society in the teens of the 20th Century and already, back then, they’re really worried about this commercialization. Now I’m not sure they viewed it as a maker or breaker of the economy the way we do today, but think of that: The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving.
Onuf: But it is true that a large portion of retail trade is over the extended holiday season.
Balogh: David, my dad owned a jewelry store. I worked in that jewelry story every Christmas season. He did half of his business during the Christmas/Hanukkah season.
David: I guess my question is: when did this become a civic duty to do this kind of thing? It’s our kind of like after 9/11, go shopping and that’s what we were left with.
Balogh: I’d say the roots of that David are in the 1930’s when even unions and certainly automobile manufacturers began to make the case to their workers: hey, you don’t just work at GM or Ford, you’re not just workers, your consumers as well. Now they use that to argue that government should provide various subsidies, particularly for health care to these kinds of workers, but it’s really the 30’s that economists and business leaders begin to talk about the responsibility of workers to also consume the products that they’re producing. It really takes off after WWII, but I would place the origins of it in the 1930’s.
David: Do you think that because of this kind of formulation from the 1930’s like actual good has come out of this for you and me?
Balogh: It depends on what you’re giving me for Hanukkah, David.
David: I mean has it actually helped create prosperity or is it just like a bunch of crap that we get?
Balogh: Both. It’s created prosperity by producing a lot of crap.
Onuf: ‘Has it made us happy?’ you might ask. Has it enriched our civic culture? I’d say there’s a profound tension in being enjoined to wasteful consumption. Of course they wouldn’t say it’s wasteful. Just consume, consume.
Ayers: I don’t know, if I get some more Isotoner gloves I’ll be pretty happy.
Onuf: OK, well this is going to show how deeply affected and infected we are with the consumer culture. We’re going to spend the rest of your call listing our things that we want. But we got what we wanted — a good call from you David and so thanks.
Ayers: Best holiday wishes to you.
Balogh: Thank you David.
David: Take care everybody. Bye bye.
Balogh: One day around Christmas in the mid 70’s, a teenager named Tyrone Jones was walking down the street in West Philadelphia when he saw a most unusual sight. A fat man in a Santa Clause costume. OK, fine, but the fat man was African American. Tyrone couldn’t believe his eyes. It had never crossed his mind that Santa could be black. Well, three decades later, the idea is about as ho hum and it could be for him and that’s because Tyrone who himself is African American is now the official Santa in residence at the Cheltenham Square Mall in North Philadelphia. I called up Tyrone and I asked him how he decided to don the red suit.
Tyrone: I love kids. I love children. I love them to death. Even where I live now they ask can I come out to play and I’m 50.
Balogh: You’re 50 years old.
Tyrone: I’m 50 years old and they’re nine and ten and asking: “Can I come out to play!” And I’ve got this white beard and I’m a big guy and everybody was saying I could be Santa Claus: “You’re Santa Claus.”
Balogh: So they actually told you that?
Tyrone: Yeah. They told me I’m Santa Claus. They told me I’m Santa.
Balogh: Now what are the reactions of the kids to you? You’re a black Santa. Is that something that you’re aware of? Is that something you’ve noticed or is it just like any other Santa?
Tyrone: I think kids see a red costume and a beard, “Santa!” I don’t think it’s so much a black and white at that time as little kids.
Balogh: How about the parents? Do you have reason to believe that some people go to Cheltenham Mall just because you are a black Santa and that’s somewhat unusual?
Tyrone: Right. Correct. Correct. I do believe that because one guy, even when it was time to go, I was almost out of my uniform and the girl knocks on the door and the guys said: “Can you please come out? I’ve been all over trying to find a black Santa. Please can you do this for me?” You know? And I did it. Whatever. So.
Balogh: When you try to make each kids experience special, is that something that has race connected with it? Do you feel particularly strongly towards a black kid or are you kind of color blind in that regard.
Tyrone: I’m color blind in that capacity. Kids are kids. At that age, kids are kids. They don’t know nothing about that and I’m not going to be the one that projects that image to them. I show them all the same love.
Balogh: I’m sure that you do, but that said, do you wish that there were more black Santas out there?
Tyrone: I wish there were more caring Santas. I wish there were more caring Santas.
Balogh: That’s really terrific. Well, look, what do you with a shy kid or the kid who is scared? Do you have certain techniques?
Tyrone: See, I’m not your traditional Santa, you know? I’m not your traditional Santa. I don’t just sit there and ask you what you want. I’m a dancing Santa. I love to dance.
Balogh: Dancing Santa! You really are an unusual Santa.
Tyrone: I will dance my heart out for you just to make you smile!
Balogh: That’s got to break the ice.
Tyrone: And once they see that I’ll point to my box and hit my music and do my Santa dances. Oh my god! It’s such a glorious time! It’s so exciting to see the kids face light up! It is so exciting!
Balogh: Mr. Jones, what is the most unusual request that you’ve gotten from a kid for a gift?
Tyrone: I wouldn’t say it’s unusual, but sometimes it really makes me sad when they say all they want for Christmas is their mommy and daddy to get back together.
Balogh: Aww, that’s very tough. Does that happen very often?
Tyrone: Sure. Sure.
Balogh: What do you tell them?
Tyrone: Well I say when Santa’s elves get out of line or one of the reindeer acts up, santa just prays and asks a higher power than Santa to try to make that happen. You know? So I just try to be uplifting.
Balogh: Of course you do, but that also sounds like good advice for those kids.
Tyrone: That’s the best I can come up with.
Balogh: That’s pretty good. I honestly don’t know how many kids listen to our show, but I’d like to give you a chance to give a shout out to all those kids who are gearing up for their visit to Santa. Do you have any advice for them?
Tyrone: Yes I do. Number one: always listen to Mommy and Daddy. Number two: try to stay in school and do the best you can and number three: eat those vegetables.
Tyrone: You need those vegetables and then Santa will definitely come and give you one of these great big “ho, ho, ho’s” for Christmas!
Balogh: Mr. Jones, that’s terrific, and the broccoli growers of America also appreciate it!
Balogh: I want to thank you for spending all this time and my kids are grown up and even though I’m a white guy, my kids are African American and I know that it may not make much difference to you, but I wish there had been a black Santa like you around when my kids were little. I would have taken them to see you. I really appreciate you spending the time with us.
Tyrone: Thank you very much for saying that. I’m glad to be there. It’s all about the kids.
Balogh: Now you eat your vegetables, all right?
Tyrone: [laughs] I’m going to feed the reindeer. Thank you. Bye bye.
Balogh: That’s Tyrone Jones. You can find him as his alter ego, Santa Claus, at the Cheltenham Square Mall in Philadelphia.
Ayers: You know, I’m almost tempted to drive to Cheltenham Square Mall just to meet him because it seems to me that he really embodies what’s best about all of these holiday traditions. That we find new ways now matter how history changes to celebrate the family tradition and each other.
Balogh: Yes and I think he really represents the way this country changes and the way – not that African Americans weren’t here, but the way that they are now engaged in main stream culture, especially consumer culture. You know we talked earlier about the influence of Germans coming over here. We talked about the ways in which Jews adapted to the rise of Christmas, that mega holiday, upgrading the quality of Hanukkah and this story about a black Santa Claus says a lot about both what it is to be an American and what it is to celebrate a holiday in America.
Onuf: Well Brian, it’s a way in which something that we take from our past, the idea of Santa Claus and it has a timeless past for us, can be changed. So that the changes that we as historians are discovering the past are actually a very hopeful preview of what we can be doing in the future. Love that Santa Claus. I’m going to go with Ed up there to Philadelphia.
Balogh: I’ll tell you what guys, I’m joining you on the BackStory bicycle built for three up to Philadelphia. That’s all the time we have for today’s show. Visit us online to continue the conversation. Leave us a comment and we’ll do our best to respond. We’re at www.backstoryradio.org Sign up for our free podcast there and friend us on FaceBook.
Onuf: It’s all on www.backstoryradio.org Thanks for listening and may your New Year be a good one.
Ayers: Back Story is produced by Tony Field with help from Catherine Moore. Jamal Milner mastered the show, Gaby Alter wrote our theme. Special thanks today to Paul Kershaw, and as always, special thanks to our executive producer Andrew Wyndham.
Ayers: Major support for Back Story is provided by the University of Richmond — offering a combination of the liberal arts with law, business, leadership studies and continuing education. More information at www.richmond.edu Major support also comes from the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation — committed to the idea that the future may learn from the past.
Balogh: Support also comes from the David A. Harrison fund for the Presidents initiatives at the University of Virginia, the National Endowment for the Humanities, James Madison’s Montpelier, Markus and Carol Weinstein, Trish and David Crowe, Carol Brown Epstein, and the W.L. Lyons Brown Junior Charitable Foundation, UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs, and an anonymous donor.
Credits: Peter Onuf is the Thomas Jefferson Memorial Foundation Professor of History at the University of Virginia. Brian Balogh is a Professor of History at the University of Virginia and UVA’s Miller Center of Public Affairs. Ed Ayers is President and Professor of History at the University of Richmond. BackStory was created by Andrew Wyndam for VFH Radio at the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.