Americans spend some $3 trillion a year on Christmas shopping and celebration. Almost 20 percent of all industry sales in the entire country come from holiday shopping. Some 12 percent of Americans start Christmas shopping in September, and many stores this year will open on Thanksgiving Day to give Christmas shoppers a head start on their buying. If there’s really a war going on, Christmas is winning. There is no war on Christmas…here and/or now, but there has been and there is.
If there’s one thing that typifies the celebration of Christmas, it’s indulgence. Christmas has long been the time to break out the good booze and gorge yourself on sweet desserts made with expensive imported spices, to say nothing of the gift-giving. You know who didn’t like all of those things. Oliver Cromwell. When he and his Puritan forces took over England in 1645, they vowed to do away with decadence and went full Alan Rickman Sheriff of Nottingham and cancelled Christmas. Shops were to stay open on Dec 25 and soldiers patrolled the streets with orders to seize and food they found being prepared for a Christmas feast. It would take no less than restoring a king to his throne, in this case Charles II, to get it back.
The Puritans weren’t exclusive to England, and a bunch of them though the unspoiled beauty of the New World could really use some severe self-denial. The Puritans we refer to as pilgrims, and about whom many myths were dispelled in our recent Thanksgiving episode, were even more orthodox in their Puritanism than Cromwell. Bonus fact: that parallels the split between Amish and Mennonites; the Amish broke off because the Mennonites were not strict enough. Since they were among the first Europeans to establish themselves in what would become America, celebrating Christmas was not a thing. It wasn’t simply that they didn’t celebrate themselves. They didn’t want anyone to celebrate the holiday they dubbed “Foolstide.” As in England, shops and schools were expected to be open, though interestingly churches were to be closed on Christmas, one of two days a year when even the laziest Christians can be bothered to turn up.
It was more than the frivolity and gluttony that they minded. They viewed it as not properly Christian. Puritans followed the Bible very strictly. If something wasn’t in the Bible, like taking any days of rest other than Sunday, it may as well have come straight from the devil. This would include resting on the day that Jesus was born, but since the Bible doesn’t specify which day that is anyway, no big loss. As historian Stephen Nissenbaum explains, “Puritans were fond of saying that if God had intended for the anniversary of the Nativity to be observed, He would surely have given some indication as to when that anniversary occurred.” [Zack] The date of December 25 wasn’t officially the mass of Christ until the 4th century, when Pope Julius I subsumed the Roman festival of Saturnalia into a Christian celebration, which gave us some of our most enduring traditions, like holly and candles. Puritans were also not keen on the papacy, so they didn’t care if it was “official.”
For 22 years, from 1659 to 1681, the celebration of Christmas was actually outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay colony. The law went into effect one year after Britains had their Christmas restored by, well, The Restoration. The law stated that in order to prevent “disorders … to the great dishonor of God and offense of others,” anyone found celebrating the holiday “either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way,” would be fined a hefty five shillings. On Christmas Day, 1621, Plymouth Governor William Bradford noticed some people playing an old equivalent of baseball and ordered them all back to their work. Now would be an appropriate time, if I may make an aside, and I may, because it’s my show, to remind people that religious freedom is when you say “That’s against my religion, I can’t do it.” But religious freedom does not means “That’s against my religion, *you can’t do it.” Even after the ban was repealed in 1681, staunch Puritans still fought against Christmas celebration for decades. In 1686, the newly appointed governor of the Dominion of New England, closed shops on Christmas Day and sponsored a holiday service. This was unpopular enough with enough people that soldiers had to accompany the governor to the church.
Those sorts of protests of Christmas would continue, but their focus would shift from celebrating at all to the way in which it was celebrated, and what a way it was. We aren’t talking about a family sing-song and three helpings of pie. Colonial celebrations of Christmas looked more like Mardi Gras mashed with Halloween, if both took place during spring break. Drunken revelers would take to the streets, sometimes wearing scary masks, singing boisterously and demanding food, drink, and money, under threat of violence. Add in the ancient pagan roots of those practices and we see that the Puritans had quite a lot to get their noses out of joint about. Boston minister Cotton Mather preached to his congregation, more than thirty years after the law’s repeal, “[T]he Feast of Christ’s Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty … by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling.” [David] Oh wait, those are meant to be bad things.
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, and since celebrating Christmas had come over from England, it began to peter out, too. It wasn’t even declared a federal holiday until after the civil war, in 1870. It was around that time that Americans re-invented Christmas, and changed it from a raucous pagan carnival holiday into a family-centered day of nostalgia. Nostalgia used to be considered a mental illness, but that’s a story for another day. So why the shift? The early 19th century was a period of class conflict, high unemployment was high, and rioting by the lower classes that tended to come to a head around Christmas. One such Christmas riot in 1828 moved the New York city council to institute the city’s first police force in response. This motivated certain members of the upper class to change the way people viewed Christmas, literary figures like Washington Irving, the man who helped codify out until-recently unchallenged view of Christopher Columbus. In 1819, Irving wrote The Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon, gent., a series of stories about the celebration of Christmas in an English manor house, wherein a rich person invites the poor into his home and the two classes of people get along swimmingly and celebrated with “ancient customs.” As nice as that is, it’s worth noting that the details of the book’s revelries doesn’t seem to parallel any celebration Irving actually attended and seems to have been completely imagined.
If you’re thinking to yourself, “Thank goodness that’s all in the past and everybody can celebrate Christmas,” let me stop you right there. Around the world, celebrating Christmas runs the gamut from deeply entrenched cultural identity, through fring activity observed by a minority, to actual crime. In Brunei, for example, anyone celebrating Christmas faces a fine of up to $20k, five years in prison, or both. The law, enacted in 2014, arose from concerns that celebrating Christmas “excessively and openly” could lead the Muslim population astray. The punishment for celebrating Christmas is a fine of US$20,000 or up to five years in prison, or both. Officials from the Ministry of Religious Affairs reportedly visit local businesses to check for Christmas decorations. Christians are allowed to celebrate in private, but they have to give local authorities notice. Saudi Arabia is famously anti-Christmas. Muslims are not allowed to greet non-Muslims on their non-Muslim holy days. According to Saudi scholar Sheikh Mohammed Al-Oraifi, “If they celebrate the birth of God’s son and you greet them… it means you endorse their faith.” The government of Somalia has declared that Christmas is not relevant to the principles of Islam, and argues that Christmas parties give terrorists an excuse to attack. Feels like we’re reaching a bit with that one, but okay. Tajikistan bans Christmas trees, gift giving in schools, fireworks, festive meals, and raising money during the holiday season. They also ban Father Frost, but we’ll come to him in a bit.
Christmas comes under fire both nationally and locally in China, in line with President Xi Jinping’s efforts to exclude western influences and ‘encourage’ people to be “models of adherence to Chinese traditional culture.” This is a bummer for the 44 million Christians in the country, which sounds like a lot of people, but if we zoom out, we see that Christians only account for less than 5% of the population. Despite that, Christmas has been catching on as a general time for parties, shopping, and food, particularly among the emergent middle class. The Chinese have even invented their own Christmas tradition: eating apples on Christmas Eve, which is said to bring good luck. (The words “apple” and “Christmas Eve” are pronounced similarly in Chinese.)
At the same time, the atheistic Chinese Communist Party has taken a hard-line stance on most religions. The government has demolished Christian churches, evicted congregations that meet in people’s homes and detained outspoken pastors and bishops. At least four cities and one county have ordered Christmas decorations banned. Officials in Hengyang in Hunan province, posted on their official social media account that anyone caught holding Christmas sales or celebrations that blocked the streets would be punished. Communist Party members are asked to set an example by boycotting Christmas. College students protested the holiday, wearing traditional clothing and carrying signs asking people to “resist Christmas.” In 2017, grade schoolers in the Shaanxi province swore under the national flag say no to Western festivals. Start with myself. Pass down traditions. Celebrate Chinese festivals.” In Langfang, a city of four million southeast of Beijing, government employees must report public Christmas displays and celebrations to their up line and vendors selling Christmas goods are to be “cleared out.” Similarly to Somalia, part of their justification for this is supposedly for the safety of celebrants, citing tragedies like a New Years celebration in Shangai in 2014 where a crowd of 300k people trampled 36 to death.
If we’re talking about anti-Christmas rules with strict control over the people, we can’t leave out North Korea, which has outlawed the celebrating of Christmas entirely. South Korea seems to have an opinion about that, seeing as how they permitted a giant Christmas tree to be illuminated within site of the world’s most heavily-guarded border. This was in 2014, coincidentally the same year as the film The Interview, which supposedly precipitated the hacking of Sony Pictures, one of the biggest cyber-intrusions to date. Before I go further into the story, I do want to mention that this is another one of those times where lots of articles were written when the action was incipient, then it seems like the world media lost interest and no one reported on the outcome. The structure of the tree is a 65-foot-tall tower that was first set up in 1971. The tannenbaum’ed tower was repeatedly condemned by the North, who called it a “provocative display of psychological warfare.” While The North has no authority over what happens in the South, they do have lots of missiles and bombs and such, and threatened to shells the tower. The tower had been taken down earlier that year, citing supposed structure safety, and North Korea warned of a “catastrophic impact” if a similar structure was ever rebuilt. According to the state-run news, “The tower is not a tool for religious events but a symbol of manic attempts to raise cross-border tension and provoke armed conflicts.” [Paul]
North Korea’s record of bah-humbuggery goes back decades, objecting to Christmas trees at the border as early as the 1960s. The New York Times reported in 1964 said Pyongyang had also complained about American troops throwing snowballs at North Korean soldiers around the demilitarized zone, which sounds funnier than it is smart. North Korea is one of only a few examples where an alternative holiday is offered, the celebration of the birth of glorious leader’s grandmother, Kim Jong-suk. Jong-suk, who we know to actually have been born on Christmas Eve in 1919, was an anti-Japanese guerrilla and Communist activist, wife of North Korea’s first dictator, Kim Il Sung. Called the “Sacred Mother of the Revolution,” many pay homage to her by visiting her tomb and collectively glossing over the mysterious circumstances of her death.
Officially, North Korea is an atheist country, and so much as carrying a Bible can result in imprisonment or even death. Considering North Korea has a “three generations of punishment” rule, which could see your children and future grandchildren also imprisoned for your crime, it’s nothing to sneeze at. According to North Korean teaching, Kim Il Sung, and his son, Kim Jong Il, are god kings and any other religious beliefs or symbols that suggest otherwise are suppressed. One man who escaped the regime told Business Insider, “There is no Christmas in North Korea. I did not know what it was. Christmas is Jesus Christ’s birthday but North Korea is obviously a communist country so people do not know who Jesus Christ is. They do not know who God is. The Kim family is their god.” Strangely, evergreen trees festooned with lights and baubles can be found in Pyongyang, but they stay up year round and most people who see them are completely oblivious to their meaning.
NK wasn’t the only country to both outlaw Christmas and try to supplant it with another holiday. Cast your mind back to a time before there even was a North and South Korea, to the Russian Revolution. The end of tsarist monarchy also brought about the mission to rid the recently-formed Soviet Union of all religious behavior. Christmas, in their eyes, was bourgeois and superstitious. The state prohibited people from selling Christmas trees. The Soviets declared the 25th *and 26th of December to be “Days of Industrialization.” This meant that everyone had to go to work all day to celebrate national industrialization. Anyone who missed work on those days could expect to be punished. Schools instituted anti-religion classes and infused anti-religious sentiment into all courses taught in Soviet schools. There were even festivals, organized by the League of Militant Atheists, specifically to denigrate religious holidays. From 1923 to 1924 and then again from 1929 to 1930 the “Komsomol Christmases” and Easters were basically holiday celebrations of atheism. These weren’t your regular block parties or village fetes. According to one historian, “The marchers included students, members of women’s organisations and working class youth, with horsemen following behind holding anti-religious banners. These were followed by trucks bearing clowns mocking God, a figure of God embracing a naked woman, and mock priests and rabbis chanting indecent versions of religious liturgies and standing in ridiculous poses. This parade culminated in images of Buddha, Christ, Mohammed and Osiris being burned on the bonfire.” [Adam] Well, you can’t say they didn’t apply themselves.
The 1920’s were marked by several anti-religious campaigns. Soldiers stormed churches and seized their assets, like Vikingrs at Lindisfarne. Ostensibly, the stolen goods were to be sold to by supplies from abroad as the USSR sank into famine. Houses of worship were converted into bath houses, granaries, and “museums of atheism.” During the first five years of Soviet power, Bolsheviks executed more than 1,200 Russian Orthodox priests, 28 bishops, and an untold number of rabbis, many of whom had been sent to Solovki Camp of Special Purpose, the first Russian concentration camp. It’s estimated that the state murdered 12-20 million Christians in its various anti-religious campaigns across the 70 years of Soviet rule. Where there had been 30K Orthodox churches in 1929, by 1940, only 11 years later, there were fewer than 500 remaining. In 1932, Stalin issued the “Five Year Plan of Atheism,” which called for “not a single house of prayer shall remain in the territory of the USSR, and the very concept of God must be banished from the Soviet Union as a survival of the Middle Ages and an instrument for the oppression of the working masses.” [Bill]
Okay, this is getting pretty heavy. I mean, I want people to know how foolish it is to claim there’s a war on Christmas just because you saw a store display that said Happy Holidays, but there’s a limit to everything. Let’s take a quick break for some strange Christmas laws I found along the way. Louisiana adopted a law in 1837 that made it illegal to collect debts and bills on Christmas Day. If your debt would have come due on Christmas Day, you would have an extra day to pay it. Arkansas passed a similar law in 1838, but your debt was due one day earlier. In Mexico and Costa Rico, Christmas bonuses aren’t a perk; they’re the law! “Aguinaldo” must be paid by December 20, and companies that cheap out face a fine of as much as 315 times the legal daily minimum wage. In New York City, there is a law against natural Christmas trees in retail stores. In Philadelphia, you can’t have natural trees in high-rise buildings and any multi-family dwelling. In both cases, the reason is fire safety. Since 2011, all Christmas trees are taxed 15¢ at the wholesale level to fund a marketing program to improve the image of Christmas trees, like “The Incredible Edible Egg” campaign. In Michigan, be sure you hold onto the receipt — it’s illegal to transport a Christmas tree without having proof of the sale of the same…The article didn’t mention why, but I assume it’s to curtail pine poaching, or people cutting down trees that don’t belong to them. In Nebraska in 2018, an elementary school principal banned candy canes in the school because “historically, the shape [of the candy cane] is a ‘J’ for Jesus.” Yes, it definitely didn’t have a curve in it so you can hang it on a tree. If you want a reason to ban sticks of minty sugar in school, ban them because every child I’ve ever known has sucked their candy cane into a shiv. Don’t go overboard with your Christmas lights in NJ and a number of other places, or you might be fined for “light trespass.” And don’t leave the lights up too long, either. In San Diego, you have until February 2 or you get fined $250. In Maine, fines may be levied any time after January 15. We always took ours down on January 6, the 12th day of Christmas.
Okay, back to Russia. Traditions die hard and people moved the things they couldn’t give up from the now outlawed Christmas to New Year’s Day, which they already had off from work. Christmas trees even became New Year’s trees. 1937 saw the debut of Grandfather Frost, or Ded Moroz, a sort of reengineered Father Christmas with more eastern European sensibilities. He still had the white beard and long coat, but the coat was now blue. He still delivered presents, only on New Years eve instead of Christmas eve. Grandfather Frost actually calls upon legends even older than Christianity, to a Slavic wizard or possibly a snow demon, though “demon” wasn’t pejorative originally. Another important difference from Father Christmas was his companion, Snegurochka, the snow maiden, his granddaughter and helper. Snegurochka is the only female sidekick of a Santa Claus analog. [[plug patreon and stl]]
Christmas became a public holiday again after the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, but the New Year’s tradition remained. Today, New Year’s remains a night in which most people stay home with their families.
Sometimes something bigger than a law, bigger even than a government, curtails Christmas. Something like a world war or a global economic collapse. Remember when we talked about wartime rationing in episode 104, Making Do? If not, I’ll set the scene for you. Britain imported a great deal of its food, so the Germans sent U-boats to take out the Merchant Navy. Rationing was introduced in January 1940, restricting bacon, butter and sugar. At first. By 1942, meat, milk, cheese, eggs, cooking fats and other foods were rationed. People were encouraged to grow or raise as much food as possible. Like many of us, they had to make do with less, while not going out socially and spending long evenings hunkered down at home, except they were in blackout conditions and periodically getting bombed, plus they had to worry about their fathers, husbands, and sons dying in foreign fields. They might have to spend Christmas in an air raid shelter, surrounded by strangers. Their children were also with strangers, being among the 100k children put on trains out of London for the relative safety of the countryside, a part of WWII that doesn’t get told enough. Sort of puts Covid quarantine in perspective, don’t you think?
Blackout meant there were no Christmas lights on shops or homes, but inside was another story. Of course, you had to get creative. In 1941, to conserve paper, the Ministry of Supply decreed that ‘no retailer shall provide any paper for the packing or wrapping of goods excepting food stuffs or articles which the shopkeeper has agreed to deliver’. Wrapping paper was right out, but there was always newspaper, which found itself reborn as paper chains and snowflakes. You might only have a branch of pine, rather than a whole tree, and shout-out to my upstairs neighbor in my last apartment who ripped down a branch from the park across the street. You could zhuzh up your branch with this helpful tip from the Ministry of Food: ‘A Christmassy sparkle is easy to add to sprigs of holly or evergreen for use on puddings. Dip your greenery in a strong solution of Epsom salts. When dry it will be beautifully frosted.’
Homemade gifts were the order of the day, because they could be made cheaply and were usually something the recipient needed. An old sweater with a hole, or one that had simply been outgrown, could be unravelled to provide wool to knit new scarves, hats and gloves, an especially good gift with heating fuel being scarce too. Jam made from fruit grown in the family’s allotment became a sweet treat to top the coarse but filling National Loaf, plus it provided vitamin c. Last thing you need in a warzone is scurvy. If you had the money to buy a present, you could give a war bond and do your bit for Britain. The most popular present for Christmas 1940 was apparently soap. Like nearly every other consumable that we’re used to seeing aisles and aisles of, soap was rationed and thin on the group, about one bar’s worth per month. Stop and think about how many bars of soap, or bottles of liquid equivalent, are in your house right now.
Listening to the wireless radio helped to pass the evening. Singing carols and popular songs like ‘White Christmas’ and ‘I’ll be Home for Christmas’ was an important morale booster. The wartime solidified the British Christmas tradition of panto, which you can hear more about in the episode Panto to Python – a history of British Comedy, from back in November 2018, back before I properly numbered the episodes. Speaking of sing-songs and panto, after the wrapping paper settles on Christmas day, check your podcast app for a special cross-over bonus episode with Michael from Genuine ChitChat and his girlfriend Megan, as we compare and contrast Christmas in the UK and US and hold each other personally accountable for things like Hallmark movies and eggnog. The BBC also broadcast a special Christmas Day radio programme. From 1939 onwards this featured a Christmas speech by King George VI, an annual ritual that made the jump to TV and the transition to Queen Elizabeth.
Rationing posed a challenge when it came to Christmas dinner. We’re talking about a period where you used liquid paraffin in place of vegetable oil and you get one egg, per person, per week. And you only get an ounce of cheese! I eat an ounce of cheese while standing in front of the open fridge, deciding if I want to eat some cheese. The government increased tea and sugar rations and clever homemakers saved ingredients weeks, or months, in advance. You couldn’t get your hands on a turkey, but you might be able to barter with a neighbor who raised rabbits or you could keep a few chickens. People also participated in pig shares, where they would go in together to buy a pig and pay to have it fattened, then split the meat, after the government took its half for the soldiers, of course. Or put some bricks of Spam together and pretend it’s a whole ham. Carrots from the allotment could sweeten Christmas pudding and breadcrumbs could make it stretch to feed more people. As the war progressed, much of the Christmas dinner was subbed out with mock substitutes, like ‘mock’ goose, i.e. potatoes, and ‘mock’ whipped cream, which was primarily margarine. Fruit bowls were right off, fruit was so scarce. In fact, an orange in your stocking, today used as a threat to naughty children like lumps of coal, was an incredible treat. Instead of fruit bowls, people were encouraged to make displays of veggies. The Ministry commented that ‘vegetables have such jolly colors.’
It wasn’t all rosy, of course. Factory workers were vital for the war effort, so they only got Christmas day off and had to be back at work on Boxing Day even though 26th December had been a public holiday in Britain since 1871.