Merry Christmas to All or Something Like It (I think) Turning to a 27-year-old book to think about why we give—and receive—at the end of the year.

The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving

By William B. Waits (1993, NYU Press) 267 pages including index, notes, and illustrations

Christmas is a strange holiday. These days I suspect that many Christians must be completely dispirited by it. There are the usual complaints of rampant commercialism, frenzies of consumption (less so this year because of COVID-19) and forced joviality and conviviality. The arrival of Christmas Day is hyped with the same intensity as the coming of the Super Bowl and produces the same letdown. For the Super Bowl, only interplanetary warfare could match the build-up, not a mere football game. Christmas is a bit like sex; reality is no match for the fantasy that precedes it. And so much expectation is being pegged to one particular day and one particular activity on that day, gift exchange. Peggy Lee was right when she sang, “Is that all there is?” As a child, after church service, I always felt empty and bored once the gifts were open, and absolutely put upon when it was time to visit relatives and my mother’s friends. When I first heard Elvis Presley’s recording of “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” as a teenager I thought, “Thank God, every day isn’t.” No wonder people get the holiday blues, as even Black blues singers would lament. As if this all were not bad enough, now it is the height of political insensitivity to wish someone “Merry Christmas,” for the world is too diverse for this vestige of colonialism or White (European) hegemony or Christian anti-Semitism or something like that. The PC crowd—the moral snobs of the current day—not trusting the sufficiency of one’s own conscience, have decided to be the psychic schoolyard bullies and take whatever spiritual lunch money you have in tribute to their rectitude. This is enough, to paraphrase Ralph Ellison, to give the holiday blues the blues.

All of this points to the inherent historical problems with Christmas itself. It is a religious celebration that has never quite accepted itself as religious. In aspiring to be something larger as a cultural event, Christmas fails Christians who may need it and want it only for themselves and disappoints non-Christians who want the social compulsion and ritual of something like it to mark the importance of the passing of the seasons from darkness to light. Some centuries ago the Church decided to impose a religious idea on a pagan end-of-the-year celebration—an overlay of, well, respectability for the revelry, rowdyism, gorging (remember during agrarian times, scarcity was common and meat-eating typically occurred for most at the end of the year when there was plenty of food), and sex (it was not uncommon, even during colonial times in America, for many babies to be born in September and October, which indicated that many young people celebrated the holiday season as one might expect they would, with some good ol’ premarital sex, as Stephen Nissenbaum noted in The Battle for Christmas.¹) These practices continued well after the Church established Christmas; even the practice of gift-giving predates the Church’s invention as during the solstice season the agrarian wealthy and the middle-class were expected to open their door and larder to the workers, or else have their property abused and their peace disrupted. The gifts were a tribute, an obligation, and in many ways Christmas gifts remain so now. In many ways, Christmas in its early centuries was not unlike a more raucous version of our Halloween. There was a great deal of mischief and role reversal, except on plantations worked by African slaves who, adopting the role of master for the day, may have been a bit recalcitrant about relinquishing the privilege after only twenty-four hours. It took a while for the birth of Christ to change this, and even that needed some man-made help. The Puritans opposed Christmas and, indeed, outlawed it in Massachusetts (1659-1681) and England (1644-1660) during the heyday of their power in the seventeenth century. But the Puritans ultimately lost the battle. The Jehovah’s Witnesses are among the most prominent Christian sects not to celebrate Christmas these days. The Seventh-Day Adventists in my Philly neighborhood also did not celebrate Christmas, but I knew some Jehovah’s Witnesses very well. One of my uncles was a Jehovah’s Witness. (His children, my cousins, did not celebrate Christmas one little bit, but they did not mind wrecking my Christmas toys when they visited in what they called “playing.” Maybe they were purging me of sin. At any rate, my sisters and I gave them our Christmas toys when we no longer wanted them, and the taint of religious folly and scriptural misreading was not so strong as to make them forbear the offer.) When I talk to my cousins now I am surprised how they remember playing with our Christmas toys with great fondness. They have their Christmas memories of a sort. In any case, the Witnesses pose no threat, as they are not interested in imposing their practice on those outside their circle, so enamored are they of the exclusive nature of their “elect” status. (If only the PC crowd were as private about the wondrous climax of their predestination.)

When I first heard Elvis Presley’s recording of “If Every Day Was Like Christmas” as a teenager I thought, “Thank God, every day isn’t.”

Here is the skeptic’s view: What Christmas is now is a kind of bad mash-up of the sacred, the commercial, the profane, and the absurd. Here is a holiday where, in a frenzy, masses of people tremendously overspend, driving up their debt, buying gifts they do not wish to be bothered buying for people who do not want them—they can buy the gifts for themselves, in most instances—and do not need them. All of this having something vaguely to do with the birth of what many believe to be the Messiah to an obscure Jewish teenage virgin who spent the night of delivery in a stable in some obscure Middle Eastern town. This is not free association exactly, connecting the dots between the birth of Christ and Christmas as it exists, but it is puzzling. But not entirely so. As William B. Waits points out in The Modern Christmas in America, “The sense of returning to the beginning during the Christmas celebration was strengthened by the use of infants—humans just beginning their lives—as major symbols in the holiday festivities.” (11) The birth of Christ represents the birth of a new dispensation, a new possibility; just as we use the image of a baby to symbolize a new year (and an old man at the end of it). Christ’s birth is celebrated near the solstice, nearly at the end of the year. Every new year represents a new possibility for us all.

I happen to believe that what purportedly happened in Bethlehem a couple of thousand years ago is true. But there is no reason anyone should take my word for it or, for that matter, the word of any other Christian, people’s track records for the accurate reportage of naturally occurring supernatural events not being especially trustworthy or even interesting. But the holiday persists, and perhaps the biggest reason it does is precisely because it is an occasion for giving gifts, an occasion for celebrating that we can give and receive gifts. “During the Christmas season,” writes Waits, “special attention was given to making sure that all celebrants were happy.” (12) The poor must have a Christmas feast and poor children must have toys. Shut-ins must be visited. Bosses must party with their employees and give them bonuses. There must be public displays of lights and decorations. It is the one festival dedicated, no matter how imperfectly, to the idea that everyone must be happy. (This is precisely the lesson that Scrooge learns in Charles Dickens’s 1843 story, A Christmas Carol, that at first he, bitter skeptic and homo economicus that he is, vehemently rejects. He learns that people need happiness, or the idea of it.) Narrowing the gaps between us for this one season is one way, perhaps the only way, to make everyone happy; for one season, it is the concern of everyone not that we all get more than we deserve but what we are entitled to.

In aspiring to be something larger as a cultural event, Christmas fails Christians who may need it and want it only for themselves and disappoints non-Christians who want the social compulsion and ritual of something like it to mark the importance of the passing of the seasons from darkness to light.

The Modern Christmas in America is an account of the evolution of Christmas in the United States between 1880 and 1940; these were the years of the formation of Christmas as we celebrate it today. The reader learns that before 1880 Christmas gifts were handmade. “Rapid industrialization and the dramatic expansion of the country’s transportation system” (17) changed all of that. The workforce became more urban and more likely to have wage jobs that did not offer the end-of-the-year downtime that agriculture did. Moreover, the vast increase in the availability of commercial goods made buying easier than making. By the turn of the twentieth century, mass consumer culture had arrived, and arts and crafts (making gifts at home) ceased to be a necessity but rather an anti-industrial identity.

Of course, now buyers were left to the terror of the abundance of the market and needed assistance to know what sort of gifts to buy for the people to whom they felt they needed to give gifts. Thus, advertising came to fill this role, as it continues to do today, as a guide to help purchasers buy the right items. Most of The Modern Christmas in America is about advertising and all the illustrations are reproductions of period ads. What should men buy their wives? What should wives buy their husbands? What should parents buy their children? What should you buy for a friend? A client? An acquaintance? Christmas gifts evolved from the 1880s to the 1930s, from gimcracks to household appliances (which helped to promote electricity) to luxury items like silverware for middle-class women; from suspenders and belts to watches to expensive overcoats and hats for middle-class men. As Waits points out perceptively, men bought household appliances for their wives to help them in their housework, but it was out of the question for women to buy any practical gifts to help their husbands in their work (e.g., adding machines, typewriters, tools). Children’s toys became increasingly complex between 1880 and 1940, mechanical items like electric train sets and miniature cars as well as bicycles and .22 rifles becoming the rage for boys by the 1920s. Girls were given dolls, clothes, and cosmetic items. There were also educational toys like chemistry sets. Christmas greeting cards, which started as luxury engraved items printed on expensive paper became, by the 1920s, a cheap, mass-market purchase that helped families stay in touch with acquaintances and friends for whom it was inappropriate to give a gift.

All of this shopping for gifts produced anxiety. Getting someone the right gift. Which people to get gifts for? And since gifts were not handmade anymore, the market transformed, for some, corrupted, the idea of giving by placing a monetary value on the gift. Gifts were judged by what they cost, not by the time and effort that went into making them. Every gift that was not charity felt like a property exchange because, of course, if you bought a gift for someone, that person was obliged to give one in return. One had to keep up one’s end of the exchange. In this context, Waits’s explanation of the rise of the Santa Claus myth is especially trenchant. “In large part, Santa was effective because, according to his myth, he did not use money and was not engaged in making a profit. In his North Pole shop, he and his elves handmade all of the items that he distributed around the world. He made no trips to the toy store to buy toys, nor even a trip to purchase raw materials. Santa’s motivation for his monumental undertaking was free of market considerations: Santa trying to turn a profit? His gargantuan giveaway was antithetical to pecuniary self-interest, and its only reward was the satisfaction of making recipients happy.” (25, italics mine)

In point of fact, adults need Santa Claus more than children do. Unfortunately, as Waits points out, the free market—the giant leviathan that can swallow anything whole—absorbs Santa Claus, and Santas began to appear in department stores, on street corners ringing bells for charities, and at parties. Santa sightings were far more prolific than Elvis impersonators. The market decided to make this anti-market character an image of the market. Capitalism does not resolve its contradictions, it co-opts them and displays them as an aesthetic for a profit. You have to admire grudgingly a system with that much chutzpah.

Here is the skeptic’s view: What Christmas is now is a kind of bad mash-up of the sacred, the commercial, the profane, and the absurd.

Waits’s account of banks starting Christmas Club accounts in the early twentieth century as a way for housewives not to have to ask their husbands for holiday shopping money, and a way to somehow purify the commercial and indulgent aspect of Christmas by saving money for it, reminded me of my mother. For years, she used Christmas Club accounts to buy gifts for her children and relatives. There was something so disciplined and dedicated about this that even as a boy I was a bit in awe of mother as she took me and my sisters to the bank every week as she made a deposit in the account. As my mother was a widow who had not remarried, so not having access or the support of a man’s income, and working a minimum wage job, it was impossible for her to get a credit card when I was a child. If she had not saved for Christmas, we would not have had one. It was very important to her that her children have a Christmas in much the same way it must have been important to her that her children have a childhood, as we currently understand what a childhood is. In fact, having a childhood—a time of innocence, freed from the concerns and issues of adult life—and having a Christmas as we understand it, as a time for indulging children—seemed inextricably bound in her mind, as I think it is in society generally. I do not always look back at my childhood Christmases with fondness. Sometimes I think about all the put-upon Black adults around me trying to make me happy and it almost makes me cry. Yesterdays can do that to you.

And so I come to my criticism of Waits’s book. Poor and working-class people are mentioned but the way they celebrated Christmas, how they negotiated the market, the stress they felt, and the satisfaction they experienced buying gifts are never dealt with. How working-class Black people like my family celebrated Christmas is not included. It made me wince a little, for after all we had Christmas too, and it may have meant more to us than to some other people who were better off; for giving and receiving gifts and being happy was the delight of the season we were desperate for. At the midnight mass at the little Black Episcopal church, where I served as one of the altar boys, we always sang, “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” and after the service, all the adults around me would wish each other a Merry Christmas and we children would be given boxes of peppermint candy and little Bibles for presents. We were taught to perform in nativity plays for the church during Advent and patted on the head for our efforts. We helped arrange the crèche in the sanctuary. My sisters would play Christmas carols on the church piano. It was the one time when children seemed special, I guess because of the Christ child or something like that.

The market decided to make this anti-market character an image of the market. Capitalism does not resolve its contradictions, it co-opts them and displays them as an aesthetic for a profit. You have to admire grudgingly a system with that much chutzpah.

We want to be happy at Christmas. Perhaps sometimes we are. But not always, not completely, and not for long. It is hard for human beings to be happy. In my Sunday School class as a boy, I remember the first time I was able to read the Adam-and-Eve story all by myself. I was depressed when I thought about it. “Geez, people aren’t satisfied even when God gives them everything.” Is there really any difference between having everything and having nothing? Or maybe we do not know the difference, truly, between everything and nothing. What I knew, even as a kid, is it is tough to be happy even when everyone is trying.

¹ Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas, (New York: Vintage Books, 1997), 22