Christmas as a Holiday, Part 2

| Andrew P. Torrez

We left a lot of things unresolved in our last post discussing the history of Christmas as a holiday here in the United States – although we did delve into the ancient significance of December 25 and the winter solstice, as well as the practice of decorating evergreen trees, which led here to the lighting of the National Christmas Tree on the Ellipse just outside the White House.

But of course there’s more!  Read on….

A National Holiday

How did Christmas become a national holiday?  My colleague Bill Schreiner has a terrific post on how we got our holidays; you should go read it.  But did you know that Christmas wasn’t declared a federal holiday in the United States until June 26, 1870?

Why did it take nearly a century?  Well, long before today’s so-called secular “war on Christmas,” it was other Christians – specifically, Puritans led by Oliver Cromwell – who declared a literal war on Christmas, banning the practice as “pagan” in 1645.  (The Oliver Cromwell Association seeks to absolve Cromwell of the charge of having personally banned Christmas, laying the blame instead on the “broader Godly or parliamentary party,” although they note that, as Lord Protector, Cromwell “supported the enforcement of the existing [anti-Christmas] measures” until his death in 1658.)

The Pilgrims – English Separatists whose beliefs were contrary to the official Church of England – were, as the History Channel tells us, “even more orthodox in their Puritan beliefs than Cromwell,” and brought their hostility to Christmas with them to early America.  As a result, the celebration of Christmas was banned in Boston until 1681, and “[a]nyone exhibiting the Christmas spirit was fined five shillings!”

Although the laws banning Christmas would ultimately be relaxed, Christmas continued to be largely shunned throughout the U.S. for another century and a half.  During this time, the Industrial Revolution took hold and tensions between the wealthy and poorer classes intensified.  Now, if you’re a child of the 80s (like me), the words “Christmas riot” probably bring back memories of crazed parents literally fighting over Cabbage Patch Kids dolls.  In the 1800s, those words were meant somewhat more literally; they referred to periodic gang uprisings among the unemployed which often took place in December.  Indeed, the first ever police force was instituted by the city of New York in response to a Christmas riot in 1828.

Against this backdrop of class tension, the author Washington Irving was revising his (largely fictional) A History of New York, and, well, let’s let Wikipedia tell the story:

One of Irving's most lasting contributions to American culture is in the way Americans perceive and celebrate Christmas.  In his 1812 revisions to A History of New York, Irving inserted a dream sequence featuring St. Nicholas soaring over treetops in a flying wagon—a creation others would later dress up as Santa Claus. In his five Christmas stories in The Sketch Book, Irving portrayed an idealized celebration of old-fashioned Christmas customs at a quaint English manor, that depicted harmonious warm-hearted English Christmas festivities he experienced while staying in Aston Hall, Birmingham, England, that had largely been abandoned.  He used text from The Vindication of Christmas of old English Christmas traditions, he had transcribed into his journal as a format for his stories.  The book contributed to the revival and reinterpretation of the Christmas holiday in the United States.  Charles Dickens later credited Irving as an influence on his own Christmas writings, including the classic A Christmas Carol.

Irving’s and Dickens’s accounts of Christmas urge reconciliation between the upper and lower classes; where Ebeneezer Scrooge and Bob Cratchit come together across class lines and celebrate the spirit of the holidays together.  The History Channel helpfully reminds us that “Irving’s book, however, was not based on any holiday celebration he had attended—in fact, many historians say that Irving’s account actually 'invented' tradition by implying that it described the true customs of the season.”

Fictitious or not, this view of Christmas as a time for reconciliation and coming together spread across the country after the Civil War, until it evolved into the celebration many enjoy today.  (We have, of course, only scratched the surface of these seminal evolutionary points, such as Francis P. Church’s “Yes, Virginia” editorial, first published in 1897.)

Mistletoe

Wikipedia tells us that the earliest documented case of kissing under the mistletoe branch dates back to 16th century England, and notes that the custom was “apparently very popular at the time.”  (I bet it was!)

But where did that tradition come from?

As it turns out, Mistletoe is the Scandinavian plant of peace.  According to Norse mythology (the Prose Edda, the sun god Baldur – whom we learned about last time – woke after a nightmare, certain of his own death.

To console him, his mother, the goddess Frigga made every object on earth swear a vow not to hurt Baldur, to which they agreed.  Frigga, however, either forgot to ask the mistletoe plant, or considered it too nonthreatening to bother.  (Accounts differ.)  Baldur, enjoying his newfound invulnerability, inaugurated a new sport whereby other gods would hurl objects at him and all would enjoy a good chuckle as the objects would bounce off harmlessly.

You probably see where this is headed.

The trickster god Loki (yes, the inspiration for that Loki) fashioned a spear tipped with mistletoe and gave it to Baldur’s blind brother, Hoor.  Hoor threw the spear, and Baldur was killed, and -- with the death of the sun god -- the world experienced winter for the first time.

Afterwards, Frigga declared the mistletoe a sacred plant – it wasn’t the plant’s fault, after all – and so began the custom whereby enemies could declare a truce (and “warring” spouses could kiss and make up) under the mistletoe.

The kissing part continues to this day, even if we've forgotten to throw things at the sun.