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Patt Morrison Asks: Bruce Forbes, Christmas historian, on our many reasons for the season

Patt Morrison Asks: Bruce Forbes, Christmas historian, on our many reasons for the season
In 2011, the city of Santa Monica doled out spots at its Palisades Park holiday display to atheist groups, touching off protests from Christians about a "war on Christmas." (Los Angeles Times)

"Santa Baby" is a Christmas song. So is "O Little Town of Bethlehem" — or more accurately, a Christmas carol. Somehow, we have gotten used to hearing "war" and "Christmas" in the same sentence. But a Methodist minister who wrote a book all about the real Christmas — in point of fact, our many Christmases — thinks there's a path to a peace treaty for all parties. Here is your Christmas gift from Bruce Forbes, who also heads the philosophy and religious studies department at Morningside College in Iowa: the real history of the commercial, cultural and spiritual holiday that has given us both "O Holy Night" and "ho ho ho."

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In the introduction to your book "Christmas: a Candid History," you say, I love Christmas, and Christmas drives me crazy. Why is that?

I should say, whenever I speak to audiences, everyone nods their head immediately, so they all must have an immediate association. I'm thinking of, on one hand, for many of us, including me, it's a favorite season of the year, with everything from decorations to good spirit to family time and religious meaning. And yet there's so many reasons that people, well not just people, me – I get frustrated. It's way too hectic, you almost have to recover from this holiday, and commercialization and all kinds of arguments these days.

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And now I'm nodding my head!

We all understand, don't we?

How did we get to this point?

One of the biggest surprises for me as I studied the history of this is that if we're assuming there was some pure spiritual holiday at the beginning, and then that things have complicated it more recently, that's a false narrative. There never was a pure, spiritual holiday.  Early Christians focused almost totally on the death and resurrection of Christ and the hope that he would come again immediately. For the earliest Christians, it was all about Easter.

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We don't know exactly, but the earliest documents we have indicating that Christians were celebrating the birth of Jesus on Dec. 25 come from the 300s. And we don't know exactly why they started it then, but there were three major midwinter parties going on in the Roman Empire at that time.

Would that have been a very canny decision by whoever led the early Christian church to say, as long as people are celebrating, we're going to put ours in there and maybe it's going to squeeze out the other ones.?

I think that's one of the good guesses. There's another possibility, maybe it's the total opposite: maybe they thought all that partying was much too wild and if they baptized it with Christian meaning, it would get more under control.

So we really have reverse-engineered Christmas?

Yes, various traditions have been added over time. I think our default assumption is the way we do it now is the way people have always done it. A lot of these traditions have come along, along the way, and almost immediately they seem old. What some scholars call an "invented tradition." They say, well, we've done this forever, which really means for the last 30 years.

In the Western world, in the Christian Western world, how was Christmas marked for a thousand, 1,500 years?

It was mainly an adult activity and it would be a midnight Mass — which, by the way, is how we get the term "Christmas." It really means "Christ's Mass." And partying, maybe in the neighborhood tavern or in the home. That is Christmas for a long, long time.

The family-centered Christmas is really something that's fairly recent. We talk about the Victorian Christmas — we're talking about the 1800s, when that kind of Christmas we know now arose.

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There were people who were Christians and believers who thought it was terrible to celebrate Christmas.

The poor Puritans have a bad reputation in terms of being killjoys and not allowing anyone to be happy. I think that's not fair. Puritanism starts in England, when the Church of England breaks off from the Catholic Church. It still maintained many Catholic features and Puritans were Calvinists who felt, now that we've done these changes, we should get rid of a lot of those other things that are Catholic additions that are not really Christian.

And in the Puritan revolution in England, they sometimes even had town criers going around on Christmas Eve saying, "No Christmas"! No Christmas!" That carried over into the United States with almost all of the English-speaking denominations from England who were not Church of England.

You probably by now roll your eyes when you hear the phrase "the war on Christmas."

Yes, I do. First of all, it's because I think a lot of it is built on this assumption that everyone always celebrated Christmas and somebody recently — whoever it is you don't like — they're to blame because they wrecked it. And I just don't think that's the case.

The idea that even the alternate phrases like "happy holidays "or "season's greetings" — those are not new phrases. Those we can trace back a long, long way. The problem with the "war on Christmas," in addition is that yes, it's true that we are more and more aware that we are a diverse nation and everyone doesn't celebrate Christmas.

I just think we build too much into the precise words that people use. I've been saying to folks, listen, I send out Christmas cards and they often say season's greetings because I'm always late! I want to cover the holidays, between Christmas and New Year's, so I'm not late — it's a season's greetings card! It's not because I'm anti-Christian. There are are so many reasons that people celebrate this holiday in different ways, and it's ironic — no, it's tragic that it's become an occasion for people to be angry at each other.

Take us further into Christmas as a cultural holiday.

In the 1800s, in England and America, people all seemed to join together and get on the Christmas train, you might say. And it was for several reasons. One is the popularity of Dickens' "A Christmas Carol." The second was Queen Victoria and Prince Albert.

Prince Albert brought the Christmas tree over from Germany.

Right, it's a German tradition. He brings it into England, then it comes to America. So the Victorian example and Dickens and "A Christmas Carol," and then on top of that, a long, interesting story of how St. Nicholas in the United States, through about six stages, morphs into Santa Claus.

All of those helped to create what I would call a cultural Christmas. But I think the decisive turn was there in the 19th century, when it became this cultural, family-centered Christmas that could but did not necessarily have to have religion. Big surprise: Think about "A Christmas Carol." Does that tell you the story of Jesus in a manger? There is very little religion there. What it does become is a holiday that's about family and about generosity, and I think Christians can embrace that fully, [also] non-Christians or people who are just kind of on the edge.

In the 20th century, Coca-Cola, Bing Crosby and maybe to some extent FDR changed a lot about Christmas.

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All of those! Some people say, oh, Coca-Cola invented Santa Claus, which is not really true. There are six stages, and gradually St. Nicholas changes from a bishop to a jolly person who gives presents. And Coca-Cola is kind of the last in those stages where because of their advertising. For almost 30 years, we have this image of Santa Claus that is now frozen in our heads.

Bing Crosby — what we're talking about is "White Christmas," which is of course a song written by a Jewish person — Irving Berlin. But it's also part of that cultural celebration of the holidays.

What FDR did is change the date of Thanksgiving because the tradition prior to him was Thanksgiving would happen on the last Thursday of November.  His first year in office the last day of November was the last Thursday, which meant that that Christmas shopping season — which by that time was already starting right after Thanksgiving — was going to be shortened. So business interests came to FDR and said, Please, could you move Thanksgiving up one week earlier so we could have a longer Christmas shopping season? He said no. But a few years later the same thing happened again and then he did move it forward.  Eventually, after a few years, Congress stepped in and decided Thanksgiving would be the fourth Thursday, not the last Thursday, which is kind of a compromise.

This season, there is a black Santa at the Mall of America, and some people are going crazy at that, saying  Santa should be white.

If you start with St. Nicholas, and St. Nicholas starts to morph into Santa — the earlier Santas were everything under the sun. In fact, the famous poem "The Night Before Christmas" does not describe the Santa that that you and I picture now. This doesn't deal with the issue of race, but it's everything else. Do you know that in that poem, he's an elf? The first time that poem was ever published with an illustration, it's the strangest little character — he looks like a scruffy leprechaun. He looks nothing like the Coca-Cola Santa.

To say Santa Claus is white or black or whatever — he's not necessarily full-sized! In other cases he was tall and thin. He was all different colors. So what's the standard where I say, OK, Santa Claus should be this?

How would you come up with a solution, that so many people seem to be obsessed with and creating in their own minds the "problem" of Christmas?

I just wish that we'd all relax. If we understood the early roots of winter holidays, we all need something pleasant to help us — especially if you live in areas where I do, where you really have winter — cope with winter. So let's enjoy the lights and enjoy the decorations and if there are religious meanings there, as there are for me, to enjoy those. But why make it a contest or make sure that someone's attacking me? It seems to me that this is the time that almost everyone wants to be a time of good spirit and generosity. It is something that we can all embrace.

I think in addition it's a problem for many of us in that it seems out of control. You can't say you come out of this period of time refreshed and renewed. Most of us are exhausted and we need to recover from the holiday. So the second problem, which maybe we should discuss as much, is, how could it be more refreshing and more meaningful? My quick answer to that is, when the season approaches, we shouldn't go on autopilot and say, OK, here it is, now I've got to do all these things.

We should make choices. Way before Thanksgiving, if this is a family venture, why doesn't the family sit down and make a list of all the things they do for Christmas and say, which of these things do we really like and which ones don't we, and they're a hassle? The family decides beforehand, instead of just going on autopilot as you enter the season.

Is there a particular Christmas song that you can't abide, that makes you switch off the radio when you hear it, and a particular Christmas movie you just think is out of bounds?

You know, I don't have a hate list on this. Some I like more than others — not sure any drives me crazy. I can tell you a favorite movie and interestingly, even though I'm a minister, it's not necessarily a Christian one: It's "Miracle on 34th Street," the black and white one. I love it.

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