The national debate Americans have with themselves every year over the Christmas observance should not be surprising, because debate is what Americans do. Debate is engineered into the way we make our laws, into the way we administer justice and to some extent into the competitive way we conduct business.
But the debate over Christmas is certainly ironic, given its religious message of “peace on Earth.” But it is also ironic because of the manner in which our contemporary secular observance began.
The modern American Christmas is traced to the years after the U.S. Civil War, when 19th century scholars and civic leaders initiated the transformation of a relatively restrained Christian feast of the Nativity into something more grand and gaudy, all with the goal of national unity. The idea was to have a national holiday that cut across a variety of cultures and traditions, allowing Americans to observe it in whatever way they wanted. Commercial enterprises took it from there.
Those efforts have turned out to be incredibly successful. Surveys show that 96 percent of Americans celebrate the holiday known as Christmas in some manner. If there is a day of the year when the entire country is all but shut down, it is Dec. 25, and that holds true regardless of people’s faith.
For many Americans, Christmas remains a religious occasion — a time for the babe in a manger, worship and praise. For others, it’s purely secular — a time for Santa Claus, parties and gifts. For most, though,, it’s a time for a combination of the two. And the mix of a variety of religious customs and commercial enterprise, plus the addition of non-religious celebrations like Kwanzaa, can be unnerving and contradictory for some. But in a land of immigrants, this situation is uniquely American.
The sacred Christmas is as old as the Gospels that document the first celebration. The secular Christmas was fostered by authors like Clement Moore and “The Night Before Christmas” or Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol.” Even though each claims the same name, they are separate events — at least in the way we observe them.
However you choose to celebrate, the annual observance is drawing closer. So it is time for all Americans to join in the spirit of the holiday, wish each other a genuine “Merry Christmas,” and with the Dickens character Tiny Tim proclaim, “God bless us, everyone!”