The New York Times had an interesting piece today by Adam Goodheart that touched on the origins of Christmas in America. You might be surprised to find that in 19th century America, the holiday had little religious significance compared to today:
Culturally, Christmas in 1860 was also at a strange transition point. In many parts of America, it was still celebrated as a riotous old pagan Saturnalia: working-class revelers known as “callithumpians” paraded through the streets in drag or blackface (sometimes both), firing off guns and starting street brawls, defying annual attempts by the city fathers to ban Christmas, as it were.
But commercialized, mass-market Yule was already coming into its own. An article in the New York Herald analyzed Christmas retail trends much as a newspaper today might do. (Candy sales were up compared to the previous December, while jewelry sales were down: consumers, anxious about the political news, were economizing on gifts.)
American Christmases in the mid-19th century do not seem to have had much religious significance – neither for the callithumpians, nor the proto-shopaholics, nor anyone else. Many, if not most, Protestant churches did not even have Christmas services, though some staged holiday parties, pageants, and “entertainments.” The New-York Tribune remarked in 1860 that only gradually was the festival starting to become as widely observed as more important national celebrations like the Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Day.
These very interesting historical facts seem to run counter to the overbearing fundamentalists who scold most Americans for having fun on Christmas. It seems, like in every other aspect of life, the uptight fundies are factually wrong and have unnecessarily politicized this holiday.
So, have a great time this Christmas and don’t let self-righteous hypocrites use guilt to ruin your holiday. Eat, drink, and be merry — like Christmas was meant to be. Like it was in the good old days.