Christmas has been evolving for centuries

In preparation for Christmas, I read Stephen Nissenbaum's 1998 "The Battle for Christmas," a thorough exploration of this season.

The book's title will be deceiving, because it has nothing to do with the recent sacred-vs.-secular Christmas quarrels. Nissenbaum explores the myriad ways that Christmas has evolved in our nation. It turns out we've been jockeying for more than 300 years over what this holiday means.

In Colonial America our faith-filled ancestors banned Christmas altogether, outlawing it in some colonies. Until the 1760s, one could not even find an almanac that would print the word "Christmas" on the date Dec. 25.

This opposition was because Christmas had become a drunken spectacle where gangs of poor young men roamed the streets, making merry and engaging in acts of petty rowdyism, vaguely like today's New Year's Eve. It was customary and permissible for these gangs to knock on doors of strangers to demand gifts. ("So give us some figgy pudding....")

Our nation's first "battle" for Christmas was the movement to domesticate the holiday, a battle that Nissenbaum suggests involved merchants, the middle and upper classes and the church.

Merchants began linking Christmas and the purchase of manufactured gifts as early as the 1830s as society began to stress family celebrations in front of a tree and with Santa visiting every home. In case you think that your complaining will reverse the commercialism of this holiday, according to Nissenbaum that complaint first emerged in the 1830s. Complain if you must, but don't expect results.

Nissenbaum so thoroughly explores Clement Moore's "'Twas the Night before Christmas" that one learns why Saint Nick touches the side of his nose and why his pipe is a short one. Nissenbaum contends that the ascendance of Santa Claus, the emergence of the Christmas tree and even the giving of gifts contribute to this gradual process of making Christmas a less revolutionary, more predictable holiday. He explores Dickens and Scrooge, Christmas parties for poor children and even the complicated master-slave relationship at Christmas leading up to and immediately following the Civil War.

If you prefer to maintain that Christmas was a pure season of private devotion and public worship until Sears, Roebuck, Wal-Mart and the Supreme Court got involved, don't read this book. Ditto if you enjoy lamenting that "They've taken Christmas away from us," Nissenbaum might say that a pure, simple Christmas never existed. Rather it has evolved since the first day the Colonists set foot on our shore, an evolution showing no sign of abating.

Nissenbaum's scholarly, heavily footnoted book is enlightening and readable. But his analysis of Christmas reminds me of a scientist who thoroughly explains the rainbow but never grasps its beauty. And so as this season continues to evolve, I'll enjoy my Christmas tree, sing both "White Christmas" and "Joy to the World," and be grateful again for the mystery of Bethlehem, which properly understood, is the most revolutionary act of history.

Contact columnist minister Creede Hinshaw at Wesley Monumental United Methodist Church in Savannah at creede@wesleymonumental.org.