Christmas through the ages Holiday season: Bells, bows, anticipation now mark the season of hope and good will.

December 25, 1996

AS STEPHEN NISSENBAUM has reminded us in a new book, "The Battle for Christmas," the holiday Americans celebrate today looks vastly different from Christmas in early America. In fact, the Puritans suppressed Christmas celebrations, pointing out that the holiday was essentially a pagan festival covered with a veneer of Christianity. Not until the 4th century did the church officially choose Dec. 25 as the date for marking Christ's birth.

The Puritans objected to the lack of any biblical basis for proclaiming that a baby named Jesus was born on Dec. 25. But sobriety was also part of their concern.

The Christmas celebrations they had known in England had gotten out of hand, turning into a time of post-harvest gluttony, drunkenness and unbridled revelry for a society more accustomed to relentless labor and often plagued by periods of scarcity. As Hugh Latimer, a 16th century Anglican bishop, noted, "Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides."

But not even the best of intentions could surpress Christmas for long. Its themes -- anticipation, hope rewarded, giving and gratitude --are too contagious, especially when such a cause for rejoicing falls in the bleakest days of the year. If American revelers eventually seized the day back from the Puritans, enterprising members of the country's emerging mercantile class began to shape the customs that domesticated Christmas in the early 19th century.

From jolly old St. Nick to the reindeer and elves and the presents mysteriously appearing under the tree, this movement succeeded in transforming Christmas. From a time of revel, especially for those on the margins of society, it became a time for families to focus on each other, especially the children among them. Today, we grumble about the commercialism of Christmas and the stress of preparing for the big day. Despite our complaints, each year we find ourselves caught up again in the contagion of the season.

Bells, baubles, mysteries, anticipation -- all this is captured in the awestruck eyes of a child gazing at the lights of a Christmas tree. We can be grateful that the holiday as we know it now is a far tamer celebration than our distant ancestors observed. And we can remember that what matters is that amid the tinsel and glitter we pause to cherish the child-like wonder in all of us -- a place in our heart, however small, that feeds on hope, that eagerly receives and happily gives, and that, most of all, knows ++ how to see a star and rejoice.

Pub Date: 12/25/96

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