Essays of a Camden Native

Christmas controversy throughout history

By Paul Putnam | Dec 22, 2012

I remember my mother telling of Christmas in the early 20th century when she was a child on Little Deer Isle. They had no tree at home, but the children looked forward to getting a present on the tree at church. She and her brothers hung their stockings for Santa, but all he left was popcorn, nuts, and fruit, which they enjoyed in the morning while waiting for the older folks to get up. It seems that the Puritan tradition we enjoy so much at Thanksgiving was not so exciting at Christmas time.

Actually, the celebration of Christmas has been a point of controversy in Christianity almost from the very beginning, and in some circles it still is. Since the authors of the Bible didn’t find it important to provide the details concerning such things, the exact date of Jesus’ birth is not known. Some stories suggest it may have been during lambing season in February. It seems that the church did little to celebrate the birth in the early years. However, the winter solstice has long been observed and celebrated by people of all backgrounds, and their traditions and observances have gradually found their way into the Christian tradition.

The Norman Conquest in England brought traditions from France and Europe, and by the 17th century Christmas had become a major festival. One report shows Henry III in 1252 slaying 600 oxen along with salmon pies and roasted peacocks, served with wassailing, feasting, singing, dancing and other festivities. It was a day of great feasting and merriment, especially for those of noble birth and wealth.

Periodically some group of reformers comes along, and in an attempt to purify the faith, those and other traditions are purged. In such an effort, John Knox banned Christmas in Scotland in 1562, and the Parliament in England passed an act forbidding Christmas in 1644. The Puritan revolt was a response to what they considered a lack of respect and reverence, and the pendulum swung from excessive festivity to excessive paucity. With Oliver Cromwell as Lord Protector, the Puritans declared Christmas was “an extreme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.”

While public opinion and pressure soon restored Christmas to the religious calendar, my mother’s experience shows that any type of festivity was still a bit suspect, and too much merriment was frowned upon well into the 20th century. The cute little children’s poem, "The Night Before Christmas," published in the middle of the 19th century gradually caught the public’s imagination and merged traditional stories of Father Christmas and St. Nicholas into a “Jolly Old Elf.”

Although my Bible doesn’t mention any elves being around in Jesus’ time, Santa and his elves seem to be well received in today’s Christmas celebrations via St. Nicholas. During my childhood, in the 1930s, Coca Cola brought the modern version of St. Nicholas to fulfillment by picturing him as a jolly old elf in a red suit with a twinkle in his eye as he drank an ice cold Coke. The commercialization of Christmas was in full swing. I doubt if there is any suspicion among today’s children that good old St. Nick might leave coal in their stocking instead of presents if they are not especially good.

Many still rebel over that commercialization in various degrees. Some present day Christian sects still refuse to celebrate the day as anything but a religious observance, and others maintain Dec. 25 is only a dressed up pagan holiday that corrupts the meaning of Christ’s birth.

I have come down on both sides of that issue in my spiritual life. For many years while our children were still at home, Helen and I chose not to celebrate Christmas. We saw the objections already mentioned plus the many who had no reason to be merry at Christmas because of personal tragedies or financial difficulties and we saw the almost abusive commercialization of the occasion that caused financial hardship to many as they sought happiness in extravagance while completely missing the message of the Gospel.

But once again the Spirit of the Season has prevailed, and we enter into the holiday with gifts and good cheer, looking forward to a festive occasion with our family, but I still have a little trouble with this Jolly Old Elf thing. I’m not sure elves are part of the heavenly host.

As you can tell, I still struggle with some of these thoughts about Christmas, but one obvious lesson we get from history is that any attempt to suppress the happiness and good spirit of this season is soon overcome by the yearning of the human spirit to overcome darkness with light. Whether we call it the winter solstice, the rebirth of the sun god, Hanukah, or the birth of Jesus, the human spirit in its darkest hour will call out for an enlightenment that will not be denied any more than we can keep spring from following winter. And when we see the evidence of it we will rejoice.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!

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