The Etiology of Christmas

December 23, 1993|By GEORGE F. WILL

WASHINGTON. — Washington -- The invention of modern Christmas got a boost 150 years ago from a book that begins with three unfestive words: ''Marley was dead.'' In 1843 Charles Dickens, that volcano of Victorian sentimentality, erupted with ''A Christmas Carol.'' Christmas was making a comeback.

When Oliver Cromwell was Lord Protector he protected England from Christmas which, Puritans said, was ''an extraeme forgetfulnesse of Christ, by giving liberty to carnall and sensual delights.'' Of course to Puritans a fruitcake was a dangerous delight.

Christmas in Merrie England had become a rollicking good time after the Norman Conquest imported French flair. By 1252 Henry III was slaying 600 oxen to go with the salmon pies and roasted peacocks. By the 1640s Cromwell was not amused.

Besides, the second syllable of ''Christmas'' suggested a popish plot. So the House of Commons sat on Christmas days and sheriffs were sent forth to require merchants to open for business. Pro- and anti-Christmas factions rioted.

The Puritans were bullies but were not wrong when they said that Christmas observations in December had their origins in pagan festivals of the winter solstice, and no one knew in what season Christ was born. Some say that if shepherds really were tending their flocks in the fields that night, it must not have been winter, when sheep in Palestine were penned at night. Some early Christians in Egypt fixed Christ's birth at May 20, and dates were suggested in every month before December 25 became the consensus choice.

That choice coincided with some rival religions' celebrations of the rebirth of the sun, symbolized by candles and by what would come to be called yule logs. Pagans had traditionally decked their halls with boughs of holly, evergreens and mistletoe to symbolize winter's inability to prevent the renewal of life. In one of life's nice caroms, Christmas trees, a German tradition, may have been introduced to America during the Revolutionary War by Hessian mercenaries of the sort that George Washington routed from Trenton after crossing the Delaware on Christmas night, 1776.

The Puritans brought to New England a Cromwellian detestation of Christmas, the celebration of which was made a crime in Massachusetts in 1659. That edict was repealed in 1681, but in 1686 the governor needed two soldiers to escort him to #i Christmas services. In 1706 a Boston mob smashed the windows in a church holding Christmas services. New Yorkers, dissolute even then, and Southerners, always sensualists, celebrated Christmas from the 17th century on, but as late as 1874 Henry Ward Beecher, America's most prominent preacher, said, ''To me, Christmas is a foreign day.''

The birth of Christmas in its modern form, as a festival of sentiment and material comforts, was made possible by the cooling of religious passions. In 1823 the Troy (N.Y.) Sentinel published anonymously Clement Clark Moore's decidedly secular poem beginning, '' 'Twas the night before Christmas . . .'' Forty years later Thomas Nast, the illustrator and political cartoonist who gave us the Democratic donkey and Republican elephant, popularized the modern image of Santa Claus, a jolly one-man shopping mall.

It was not until 1885 that all federal workers were given Christmas Day off. President Chester Arthur, an otherwise sound fellow, signed that law. Franklin Roosevelt discerned Christmas' potential as a counter-cyclical program and moved Thanksgiving from the last Thursday to the third Thursday in November in order to get Christmas shopping humming sooner.

Dickens, who did so much to define the modern Christmas, did so with virtually no reference to religion. He was just 31 in 1843, still tormented by memories of youthful privation -- his father in debtors' prison, himself toiling in a blacking factory -- and intensely interested in child labor and the conditions of the poor. ''A Christmas Carol,'' written in haste and rapturously received by the rapidly expanding reading public, epitomized the Dickens whom Orwell was to describe as ''generously angry.''

Orwell distilled Dickens' doctrine into 10 words: ''If men would behave decently, the world would be decent.'' On the eve of a revolutionary era in Europe -- 1848 was just five years away -- Dickens said that a change of hearts was the key to changing society.

Scrooge did not need to be trundled in a tumbrel to a guillotine or even have his property expropriated. A few ghosts and a winsome child named Tim would suffice for a conversion experience. In the end Scrooge was still a capitalist, but a prince of a guy.

Karl Marx, who in 1849 settled in London not far from Dickens, ardently admired Dickens' depiction of social ills. But if Marx understood the writer's message, he must have gagged. Count that among the good that Christmas has done.

George F. Will is a syndicated columnist.

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