Christmas

A couple days ago, I was interviewed by a local reporter who was doing a story about how Americans celebrate Christmas. As she described the story to me, it sounded like she was moving in the vein of “Is commercialism overtaking the religious meaning of the season?” I gave her a condensed version of the history of Christmas presented by Leigh Schmidt in Consumer Rites. The interview left me with some lingering questions of my own:

1. Christmas as lived religion. Initially the reporter wanted to know if I could provide insight into how American families celebrate Christmas now. I told her I was only in a position to pass along some historical perspective. But her question would make for interesting research. In what ways do contemporary Americans incorporate religious elements into their Christmas celebrations, particularly in the home? It would be an interesting window into “lived religion.”

2. “De-ethnicized” Christmas customs. I just finished teaching a class in American religious history that had ethnicity and immigration as major themes. Perhaps for that reason, as I was rereading Schmidt in preparation for talking with the reporter, I was struck by the fact that now widely conventional American Christmas customs were borrowed from the Dutch (Santa Claus) and the Germans (Christmas trees). I’d be interested in knowing more about how self-conscious Americans were at first about the “ethnic” quality of these customs. And by what process were these customs de-ethnicized? It looks to me like what happened would be analogous to Americans today widely adopting the custom of the posadas, in the process ceasing to think of it as a specifically Mexican Christmas custom, just as Americans no longer think of Santa Claus as a Dutch Christmas custom.

3. Christmas and American Catholics. As I was explaining to the reporter how Protestants from Calvinist backgrounds gradually lost their suspicion of Christmas as a “Catholic” holiday, she asked me how 19th-century Catholics in the U.S. celebrated Christmas. I had no idea–Schmidt’s focus is on Protestants–but it is an intriguing question. At what point did Catholics embrace the emerging aesthetic of an “American” Christmas? I would imagine that different ethnic immigrant groups embraced it on different timelines, as part of the assimilation process.

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