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The lost history of Christmas nobody cares about anymore - but should

My kids like Christmas presents — and do not approve this message.
Family Christmas
Mike Kurtz / Getty Images

My kids do not approve this message. In fact, every year when I begin our annual tradition — trimming the tree accompanied not by Christmas music, but by my lecture on the holiday’s origins — I am met with groans and the occasional stocking thrown in my face. So in order to offset my kids’ annual misery, I’ve decided to deliver the lecture to all of you instead.

Every year when I begin our annual tradition — trimming the tree accompanied not by Christmas music, but by my lecture on the holiday’s origins — I am met with groans.

Last year the average American planned to spend almost $1,000 on family Christmas and holiday gifts and decorations, according to an annual survey by the National Retail Federation and Prosper Insights & Analytics. That’s an amount that has steadily increased since 2008. Wealthy or poorer, parents across the nation go to great lengths to ensure that their children experience what many think of as the Christmas spirit of giving.

While it’s true that this December holiday has for centuries revolved around gift-giving, loading kids up with presents actually undermines the true Christmas spirit. Instead, we should celebrate those on the bottom of the socioeconomic ladder, among them low-wage workers, some immigrants and refugees. And children should buy presents for their parents.

Before you assume this essay is written by the Grinch, let me explain. While Christmas today commemorates Jesus Christ’s birth, Christ likely wasn’t born in December. According to Stephen Nissenbaum’s “The Battle for Christmas,” Christmas traditions are a mash-up of celebrations from a variety of cultures and religions.

In third century Europe, as Christianity’s profile rose, church leaders wanted the masses to honor the nativity, but the Bible doesn’t mention Dec. 25 as Jesus’s birthdate. They chose it because December was already a European party month. It was the time of feasts, when cattle were slaughtered so they didn’t have to be fed during scarce winters. It was when Pagans celebrated the winter solstice, the coming of longer days. That included the Norse, who burned large logs to celebrate Yule, the birth of the sun god, and the Romans who observed Saturnalia, celebrating the Roman god of the harvest, by imbibing and feasting. Businesses temporarily shut down, so workers could partake in the fun. They were served meals and drinks by employers, or given time off.

The celebration of Jesus’s birthday replaced many of those non-Christian celebrations but took on some of their customs. Most importantly, it maintained the tradition of social inversion, making the less fortunate feel more fortunate — at least for a day. In other words, Christmas started as an upside-down day. That’s what the Christmas spirit is really about.

So what happened? In 19th-century America, Christmas transformed from an observance of social inversion to one of familial inversion. That’s because the feeding and watering of workers got out of hand. When Puritans took the reins in 17th-century England, there was so much Christmas drinking that they banned it when they came to power; across the pond, celebrating Christmas was illegal in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681.

In post-industrial America, things got worse. Bosses didn’t live among workers, or even necessarily know them. Drunken laborers turned into marauding gangs of strangers; the upper crust couldn’t manage crowd control.

And so Christmas as we know it today was rebranded as a family holiday. Seen-but-not-heard kids would be given gifts, and appointed the unlikely stars of that one day.

Seen-but-not-heard kids would be given gifts, and appointed the unlikely stars of that one day.

This new narrative was promoted in the press and propagated by writers like Washington Irving and Charles Dickens. In 1840, the German tradition of decorating evergreen trees was imported to England, then to the states courtesy of a widely publicized 1848 image of the royal family before their Christmas tree. Finally, in 1870, Christmas was declared a federal holiday. The full-on commercialism of Christmas soon followed, and manufactured goods began to replace handmade ones. The Santa Claus character we know today — a jolly fellow in a red suit, rather than the European saint who had no relation to Christmas or Jesus — was popularized in a 1931 Coca-Cola ad.

Today, in the age of snowplow parenting, when many parents want to protect kids from discomfort and sadness more than to help them navigate it, American middle-income couples will spend at least $233,610 to raise a child, according to U.S. government estimates. So, and here is the important part, children whose parents are lucky enough to make a living wage do not need more presents; every day is Christmas when everything you ever wanted is on Amazon, for very little, and arrives via next-day delivery. But the nonunionized laborers packing up those toys and delivering them? They could probably use a day when Jeff Bezos serves them a feast (not to mention good benefits and a living wage).

I see two possibilities for rebranding Christmas: keep it as a day of familial inversion, which means that children would buy their parents and extended family gifts, make us meals, sing us to sleep and acquiesce to our demands for creature comforts. Or return it to its original spirit, of social inversion, and make Christmas entirely about lifting up those most squeezed by the brutality of capitalism and income inequality.

What does that look like? That, I’m still figuring out. Maybe it means giving full-time, minimum wage workers who can’t afford housing a decent place to live. Maybe it means reparations. Maybe it means buying fewer items but ones that cost more, from local stores, or companies that pay their employees a living wage. Maybe it means resisting the clearance section of fast fashion stores, or online retailers’ deals-of-the-day. Maybe it just means listening to someone you’ve written off.

It’s not that Americans aren’t generous. We work in soup kitchens and donate to coat and food drives. We gave more than $421 billion to charity in 2018, with an average charitable tax deduction of almost $6,500 per household — about the same amount worth of toys as the average American kid gets in a lifetime. But I think it’s time that Christmas becomes a holiday about service, about laying eyes on the invisible, the oppressed and the struggling, and not about spending more than $1 trillion in holiday consumer purchases, much of that for people who are not in need. I hope someday we return to celebrating the true Christmas spirit.