So here we are, counting down to the big day of December 25, the most wonderful consumer holiday of them all.
As I performed a little historical research, I discovered that gift-giving was actually illegal in many New England states, as the Puritan colonies found Christmas to be a contemptuous holiday and not one sanctioned by the Bible.
The Puritans argued that the selection of the date was an early Christian hijacking of a Roman festival, and to celebrate a December Christmas was to defile oneself by paying homage to a pagan custom. James Howard Barnett notes in The American Christmas (1984) that the Puritan view prevailed in New England for almost two centuries.
That's right. Christmas was banned and illegal until the 1850s in places like Massachusetts and Connecticut. Laws banning Christmas were repealed in 1861, but even so, many Puritan denominations refused to celebrate and acknowledge the day.
After the American Civil War, Christmas became a federal holiday (1870) as President Grant attempted to reconcile North and South. The day became a high point in the American calendar.
By 1912, commercialism of Christmas had taken a firm hold, so much so that a group of women in New York created The Society for the Prevention of Useless Giving (SPUGS). The group at one point had about 6,000 members and was formed mainly to keep working girls from giving their bosses presents in exchange for work favors.
Then World War I came along and everyone's mind turned to more serious things, and buying presents sort of melded itself into the consciousness of everyone, even those who don't celebrate for religious regions.
Heck, even Bill Maher, who calls himself America's Number One Atheist, says he says, "Merry Christmas." I don't know if he exchanges gifts, but I bet he does.
Which brings me to the question - what is Christmas, really? It has its roots in paganism, certainly. The Puritans likely were correct about that. My guess is it is a mixed-up mess of celebrations, beginning with the celebration of the winter solstice (the longest night of the year) and ending with Christianity's usurpation of the holiday to make the celebrations more in keeping with the patriarchal biblical tradition.
Both Christians and Pagans associate the holiday with the (re)birth of something central to their religion. So it really doesn't matter if you think Christmas trees are pagan - or not.
Christmas for me is a time of stress, reflection, saying hello to friends I know and everyone I meet, baking, creating, and trying to keep myself and everyone else happy. I like giving gifts, and I am not too proud to say I don't mind receiving them, either. It is particularly gratifying to receive something thoughtful.
I try to give thoughtful presents but am not always successful. As I age, it becomes harder to buy for people like my brother, who has or simply purchases everything he wants. Or my mother-in-law, who at 84 really doesn't need much of anything at all (though we bought her a new computer after hers crashed earlier in the month, so that took care of itself!). Friends, too, become more difficult to buy for, especially if you don't see them as often as you once did. Thank goodness for those who collect things, and for books. You can always give someone a book or an addition to a collection.
Since I don't get around as well as I once did, gift-buying has become more difficult in some ways. Online shopping helps, but one can only spend so much time looking at photos and hoping that the thing you purchase comes as advertised. I like to look and feel the texture of things, and you simply can't do that through a computer or smartphone screen.
I do think the holiday focuses too much on consumerism. The advertisements to buy and purchase are strong, the Christmas commercials sappy and they make you long for something you will likely never have, that "wonderful" holiday where everyone exclaims over the ham and raises a toast to the most wonderful time of the year (thanks Kroger). Cold weather runs people indoors where we can exchange not only gifts but colds and flu.
The holiday charmed me as a child, and as an adult it aggravates me as much as I appreciate it, but mostly, I try to appreciate it. I try to appreciate the fact that I am remembered, that I remember, and that we are able to purchase presents for others. I make donations to charities and am happy to do it. Not everyone can.
As this holiday weekend stretches long - four days for some - I hope that for a few moments you take the time to think about what Christmas really means to you. Regardless of your religion or your reason to celebrate, ask yourself this: are you being true to your inner self with things that you do? Have you thought about the holiday and its implications to you, or are you simply rolling along with the world?
These are questions only you can answer. They are questions I shall ponder greatly this weekend, to see what I need to change for next year.
Merry Christmas to you, however you celebrate. May you be blessed.