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'Christmas in the Crosshairs': It Wasn't Always Love and Peace on Earth

The centuries-old struggle for and against the very idea of Christmas is chronicled in this fascinating book.

Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday

Publisher: Oxford University Press
Length: 299 pages
Author: Gerry Bowler
Price: $29.95
Format: Hardcover
Publication date: 2016-10

In many ways, it seems the so-called “war on Christmas” is a modern invention, one born of the Moral Majority and Rightwing crusaders aiming to “put the Christ back in Christmas”. Given the rampant commercialization inherent within the holiday and the increased focus on the material elements and extreme commodification, it would be somewhat easy to believe that those extolling Jesus as being the reason for the season a sentiment long past.

The truth, however, is far more complicated than that as Gerry Bowler shows in his new book, The War on Christmas: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday. For hundreds of years, the religious and secular elements of the holiday have gone head-to-head, each casting blame on the other for the spiritual, sacred and moral corruption of Christmas both as an idea and as an observable holiday. So much, in fact, that it seems the battle has jumped from side to side in a seemingly alternating order during each generation, depending on whom it best suits at the time.

From early Christians chastising the pagans to those who argued in favor of the paganist traditions in the face of encroaching Christian dominance of the holiday, the idea of Christmas and what it should and shouldn’t be has long been a rallying call to those feeling dispossessed of their respective holiday traditions. Using this back-and-forth as the narrative basis, Bowler provides brief glimpses into the various historically documented movements for and against the Christmas season and each group’s respective justifications for feeling as such. It’s a fascinating glimpse into earlier cultures that manages to show just how little we as a society have changed in terms of our fanaticism and societal response in the face of change.

The early Christians were, somewhat surprisingly, the first to take an anti-Christmas stance. Admittedly, the Christmas season was then based more around the celebration of the new year, it was one steeped in traditional paganism that was seen as a direct threat to the spread of Christian ideals. "These constant condemnations of pagan practice," Bowler writes with regard to the early persecution at the hands of the so-called Council of Trullo in 692 made up of some 200 of the top heads of churches within the Byzantine Empire, "had to continue because of the obstinate attachment of people to traditional practices." In other words, in order for the newly-minted Christian agenda to be forwarded as these heads of the church saw fit, the pagan elements of Christmas celebrations needed to be snuffed out. In order to do so, the focus was forcibly moved from that of early paganism and the worship and celebration of the coming of the new calendar year to one of holy reverence to mark the arbitrarily assigned birthdate of the church's deity made flesh.

Somewhat ironically, the Middle Ages and pre-Renaissance era saw radical Protestantism denouncing the reverential elevation of any day other than the Sabbath heretical. This led to a dissuading of a religious-based celebration of the Christmas season and, instead, a return to the holiday's celebratory, drunken pagan roots. Of course when that became too out-of-hand, there was once again a movement to renounce the inherent paganism within the Christmas season to imbue it with the sense of holiness observed today.

Even now, there are stirrings within the radical Protestant community to try to abolish Christmas on the grounds that it is, "of pagan origin; ...of Catholic origin [failing to see the contradictory nature of this particular argument immediately following that of it being pagan in origin]; any non-biblical ceremony is idolatry; marking Christmas is not commanded in the Bible; we do not know the time of the Nativity; Christmastime behavior is unworthy; mirth is suspect; and so on." It's again an example of the argument of convenience with relation to a particular cause or movement.

Even secular groups are guilty of this, with the Civil Rights era giving rise to the notion of Black Christmas, something that eventually led to the establishment of Kwanzaa, a holiday that Bowler writes is, "a syncretic cultural invention that purported to transmit African values and symbols" in the face of a decidedly white Santa Claus and take on Christmas. Given its high profile and prominent Christian and commercialist ties, Christmas is an easy target for those looking to take down the former or the latter; as a symbol it is easily appropriated based on the wants and needs of a specific group. Tracing this back and forth as he does, Bowler's analysis tends to give the reader whiplash due to the radically alternating pros and cons for the Christmas season, all of which are rooted in some political, theological or social agenda.

Working his way roughly chronologically over the course of the sub-header’s 2,000 years and dividing the book into seven parts including "The Inventors", "The Revivers", "The Appropriators", and "The Privatizers" among others, Bowler lays the groundwork for each movement's pro- or anti-Christmas stance, sharing the varying concerns that range from the ritual celebration of the holiday to the actual day on which Jesus is purported to have been born. Taken as a whole, it’s a silly back and forth with each side relying on the end to justify the means. Whether it’s those early fanatical Christians who argued that there should be no other holy day than the Sabbath to those who used the pagan-derived Winter Solstice celebration as a fine time around which to establish the Christmas holiday -- this despite evidence of Jesus having been born in the spring rather than middle of winter -- Christmas has been an unending source of contention.

What’s most surprising is just how much the idea of Christmas as being a time of togetherness, love and peace on earth is a modernist invention. Prior to the mid-1800s, Christmas alternated between a bacchanalian free-for-all and the most revered of holy days in all the calendar year. Through a group East Coast intellectuals, the modern concept of Christmas was not only created, but fed to the American people to the point where it became ingrained not only in American culture, but managed to spread throughout the world, largely wiping out the disparate cultural traditions, many of which existed for hundreds, if not thousands, of years.

With regard to the New York intellectuals, their aim was to tame the holiday and move it from its riotous image centered around, "the tavern and street to the kitchen and family fireplace, from adult conviviality to the expectant child." This helped further cement the contemporary idea of Santa Claus as a benevolent, non-denominational bringer of gifts. Not only this, but it afforded parents the, "notion of an all-seeing supernatural figure who could reward or withhold favors... [which proved] a wonderful aid to child rearing." By taking the bacchanalian aspects of the holiday out of the picture, the Christmas holiday was repositioned not as one designed for drunken celebration, but familial reverence built around false ideals and notions of how both families and their children should behave.

Bowler spends ample time going over the evolution of Santa Claus, from his saintly roots through his slightly terrifying Scandinavian and Eastern European incarnations complete with demonic sidekicks and anti-Clauses. It’s a fascinating, albeit cursory, history lesson that could fill a number of books (and has). Given the melting pot treatment Christmas has been afforded, Bowler’s parsing of the individual traditions and their culture of origin helps to paint a broader, more nuanced picture of just why certain groups have historically reacted as they have either in favor of or opposition to the Christmas season.

The trouble with Christmas in the Crosshairs lies in Bowler’s attempt to cram so much historical context and information into the briefest of cultural explorations. Because of this, it can often become rather difficult to differentiate between cultures and who is on the side of whom throughout history. Getting to the gist of the book’s thesis, Bowler alludes to the fact that Christmas is largely appropriated by whomever it best suits at that particular time in history. Has the season become to pious and sanctified? We must return Christmas to its pagan roots! Too secularized? Christmas is the holiest of holy seasons and must be treated as such! There’s something of a whiplash effect that transpires as the reader is thrown back and forth between those for and against.

Regardless, it’s a fascinating historical exploration that spends as much time in our modern era with the rebels and radicals who have sought to co-opt Christmas for their own political, ideological and theological agendas as much as it does our ancient ancestors. In this, Bowler makes abundantly clear that no matter where we are as a society or how advanced we think we’ve become, the more things change, the more they stay the same. As history is prone to repeating itself, we will no doubt continue to see the argument for and against Christmas continue as long as there is a human around to debate the issue. In the meantime, we can all, to paraphrase Dickens’ A Christmas Carol, keep Christmas in our own way.


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