Yes! To Christmas and all its tinsel

© By Revd Rex A E Hunt (2000)
Originally published in
Ministry. Journal for Continuing Education 11, 1&2, 32-35.


Pete Seeger, the popular 1960s American folk singer, is reported to have asked in one of his songs why we could not have Christmas the whole year round.

So too the famous Scottish/American preacher, Peter Marshall (Marshall 1955).  And I still have in my ‘Christmas sermon’ file a copy of a sermon by American Unitarian Universalist minister, Edwin Lane, reprinted in 1980, titled “Christmas all year” which suggests the Christmas spirit is too precious “to be confined to one season of the year” (Lane 1980:6).

One who has responded negatively to this suggestion, theologian Harvey Cox, says: “...we know we can’t.  Part of the appeal of Christmas comes because it does occur only once a year” (Cox 1969:23).

The modern festival called Christmas is a celebration of story, myth, customs and ritual ‘in progress’.  Since its inception it has been debated, ignored, celebrated, banned, but more importantly, continually reshaped.  A study of its history suggests this festival has always been a weaving together of popular culture and religion within each environment where it is acknowledged and celebrated.  Contemporary celebrations include media, in an intentional way, to this weaving process, resulting in “new stories based on old themes” which have “simplified further the complex issues of Christmas materialism and Christmas spirit” (Restad 1995:164).


As a Christian event, the so-called "Feast of the Nativity of our Lord" rather than “Christmas” didn’t make the church calendar of feasts until well into the 4th century and then as a result of a series of mixed motives, including the take-over of a number of rival so-called ‘pagan’ festivals such as the Norse ceremonies for Odin, the birth of the Persian god Mithra and the Roman Saturnalia (Miller 1993:10; Morris 1992:4)(Boer 2000:41-42).  Such a ‘take-over’ seems to be the pattern of Christianity.  “Expansionist religions like Christianity,” writes Australian theologian Roland Boer, “work by taking over and appropriating the symbols and practices of a whole range of non-Christian belief systems” .

And John Golby agrees:

“...the policy of the early Christian church when faced with pagan or other religious activities had always been the political astute one of attempting to transform these activities and give them Christian significance rather than abolishing them and perhaps causing discontent...  So midwinter became a Christian festival and some of the elements of the pagan ceremonies were now incorporated into Christian ones” (Golby 1981:14).

However, Clement Miles also suggests another, and I believe a very important reason: the pre Christian folk festivals were essentially life affirming.  “They said ‘yes’ to life” while the Christianity of that time - essentially a religion of the monks - “was pessimistic as regards this earth, and valued it only as a place of discipline for the life to come”, which meant it was a religion of saying ‘no’ to the world (Miles 1912/76:25-26).

Popular tradition won out.

It wasn’t until the mid 1800s that much of what we in Australia identify as ‘Christmas’ was really celebrated.  And this came about as the result of the influence of several issues, primarily in England and America, including changes in technology, the development of a cheap commercial postal system and at least three offerings from within popular culture:     
     (i) an imaginative poem written by an protestant American minister of religion for his three daughters, called 'A visit from St. Nicholas’;
     (ii) some art sketches inspired by that poem, along with a series of commercial advertisements for a soft drink manufacturer, and
     (iii) a Christmas morality story published in England by Charles Dickens originally called
A Christmas Carol, in prose, being a ghost story of Christmas.

The Poem
The literary focus on the Santa Claus fore-runner was shaped by a lay professor of religious studies at General Theological Seminary, Clement Clarke Moore (1779-1863) in his unpublished 1822 poem, 'A visit from St. Nicholas', or as it is more commonly known, 'T'was the night before Christmas...' A fore-runner, as Moore’s poem never mentions Santa Claus but instead has as its main character a “jolly old elf” with a beard “as white as snow” and dressed “all in fur, from his head to his foot” (Quoted from Philip 1991:22-28).

While debate raged for several years as to whether Moore was indeed the author of the poem - both John Pintard and Washington Irving had written articles and poems about St Nicholas before Moore’s attempt - this appears to have been settled when “Moore let his name appear with his verse in The New-York Book of Poetry, an 1837 anthology” (Charles & Taylor 1997:11), and again later in 1844 in a book entitled Poems by Clement C. Moore, LL.D (Restad 1995:50).  Moore apparently meant to only entertain his family as he wrote the poem for his three children, Margaret, Charity, and Mary.  But he “wove a subtle reinterpretation of the gift bringer into a memorable vignette that balanced magic with reality” (Restad 1995:49) that the poem touched the imagination of many people.

The Sketches
An artistic development in the depiction of Santa Claus came with German immigrant Thomas Nast's drawings, which appeared in the New York Harper's Weekly between 1863 and 1886 (Belk 1993:79).  However, while Nast’s vision of Santa begun the process, his vision did not become the Santa archetype.

The present-day Santa Claus is recognised due to a distinctive red and white costume worn by ‘men’ during the pre Christmas period.  Prior to 1930s the costume might be in green, purple, pale blue, blue-black, brown, or red, even a multi-coloured figure, smoking a clay pipe with a glass of wine in his hand (Morris 1992:42).  Later, during the 1930s, the American soft drink manufacturer Coca Cola Company, who had adopted Santa Claus “as a salesman for the idea that ‘thirst knows no season’ and... that winter-time is as good a time as summer for drinking Coca-Cola” (Mooney 1997:5) employed artist Haddon Hubbard Sundblom (1899-1976) to paint a redesigned Santa Claus for their popular outdoor billboard advertising campaigns.

“Worldwide”, writes Coca Cola archivist Philip Mooney, “the public embraced what they saw, and Haddon Sundbloom’s vision became everybody’s vision.  What started as an advertising campaign soon became a tradition” (Mooney 1997:5).

The Story
According to Carl Seaburg, it is claimed that Charles Dickens, “after hearing the minister of the Little Portland Street [Unitarian] chapel in London preach a Christmas sermon” (Seaburg 1983:xii)(Restad 1995), was inspired to write his ‘A Christmas Carol’. Others claim Dickens had just returned from his first trip to America, and needed money.  He “quickly dreamed up a Christmas story... and dashed it off just in time for a London paper to serialize it in mid-December” (Restad 1995:136).

While both accounts are not mutually exclusive of each other, Dickens’ story had a deep impact on its readers with 15,000 copies of the book sold in its first year (6,000 in the first day), and nine London theatres staging dramatised versions of the story in 1844 alone (Golby 1981:17).  A similar situation happened in America when the book was released there.

However, while it is called a ‘carol’, Dickens “shows no evidence he knew what a carol was; but he had the feeling for wassail on a bolder scale than any folk-singer” (Nettel 1960:106).  He understood well that the better-off had a duty to help their dependants with gifts at Christmas time, “that indeed was the basis of his creed” (Nettel 1960:106).  So he was making a social comment on the greed and industrialised poverty of his day which made celebration difficult for most people.  But he was also recalling his own childhood Christmases, where “a really good Christmas should always be white” (Morris 1992:18).

With these popular ‘reinventions’ - the story, the sketches, the poem - Christmas became a global festival heavily laced with sentimentality.  Offering a short history in summary of Christmas, William Sansom describes this “mid-winter festival” as comprising:
   (i)  the enclosed nature of a monkish church was removed, allowing a fusion of pagan and Christian customs which worked well until the Middle Ages.  “After this came a gradual strengthening of the Christian legend as the Church richened and flowered” (Sansom 1968:53);
   (ii)  the Reformation and Puritan measures refined and strengthened Christian spirituality and attempted to do away “with the trumpery of old and meaningless heathen traditions” (Sansom 1968:53);
   (iii)   followed by a partial recovery of traditions largely forgotten during a period of repression, and
   (iv)  a great revival in the 19th Century “as emotion was roused for a golden past which brought a huge sentimentality gradually up to a level of true sentiment; a sentiment of charity and of goodwill which today too many too easily feel has been spoiled by commercialism” (Sansom 1968:53).

Over a period of time various traditions were incorporated into the festival from around the world: Germany - evergreen tree (1840s and 1850s); Holland - filling stockings; England - Christmas cards (1843) and carols (1871); Sweden - family focus; United States of America - Santa Claus; Australia - mass public/open air carols events (1930s).  While there is still some debate about how well these traditions have been woven together, much anecdotal evidence points to the feeling that ‘this’ hybrid festival is the real Christmas.

Writing back in 1912 Clement Miles describes the Christmas festival as being shaped by two distinct streams or feelings: the ‘carol spirit’ and the ‘mystical spirit’.  The former being the “simple, human joyousness, the tender and graceful imagination” (Miles 1912/76:155) gathered around the “folk-tune, the secular song adapted to a sacred theme - such is the carol”.  The latter being the ‘religious’ feeling which is associated with the “tender, weak, helpless, yet all-potential babe, that has given the Church’s festival its strongest hold” (Miles 1912/76:156).

The development of these two streams is, I believe, the basis for the at times bitter debate which seems to go on  between ‘church’ and ‘culture’, usually initiated by evangelical Christians.  Daniel Miller goes further. He suggests this controversy is more focused: whether or not “the most powerful of all forces, that of commerce and extravagant spending”, has overturned and destroyed the spirit of Christmas celebrated by Dickens (Miller 1993:4).  Tensions remain between market rationality and romantic sentiment.

Christmas is a global and hybrid celebration, which weaves together religion-media-culture, creating a legitimacy of its own, and independent of the church’s definition of spirituality.  While some religious critics believe there is a ‘problem’ with the modern Christmas - a problem called commercialisation - Richard Frazier, himself a critic, concludes that is not to blame.  Neither “are we helped by simply trying to ‘put Christ back into Christmas’” (Frazier 1992:70).  The problem is, there is no longer any ‘surprise’. Both the church and the business world encourage us to ‘celebrate’ but “their messages are rehashed and blatant.  There can be no surprise, for there is no subtlety...” (Frazier 1992:72).  Producers and directors of the Christmas television spectacle called ‘Carols by Candlelight’ know that, and each year their efforts are judged by larger audiences accordingly.

So while some clergy argue about the ‘problem of Christmas’ few lay people want to lose the Dickens sentimentalism.  At several Christmas storytelling workshops I have conducted over the past 25 years, including many with church groups, their religious piety is to the fore.  Literalist slogans such as “put Christ back into Christmas” or “Jesus is the reason for the season” - both often equally commercialised through the production and sale of such items as tee-shirts, bumper stickers and printed balloons - and pious religious debate such as “where in the Bible is the word ‘Christmas’?” and “there is no biblical connection whatsoever between Santa Claus and the birth of Jesus”, continue.  And this is deemed acceptable behaviour when one considers what has nurtured and shaped evangelical Christians.  “The Bible was their ‘only rule of faith and practice’”, writes Victor and Edith Turner (Turner & Turner 1982:215).  But, when I also attempted to ‘unwrap’ the many customs and traditions which make up Christmas today, they are often shocked and insist it would not be the same without them.  Most Australians still seem to want the tinsel!

Origins of ‘Christmas’
Within the history of Christianity the decision to celebrate the festival called Christmas on 25 December was not taken until around the years 354 – 360CE, first in Rome, some years later in Antioch and the East.  Opinions differ as to why and how this occurred:
   (i) adoption of competing non-Christian cultic beliefs and activities;
   (ii) political and theological arguments within the early Christian church, and
   (iii) the establishment of organised liturgical feasts.

Old sermons from the first centuries of the Christian church seem to indicate the pagan customs associated with the rites of sun worship co-existed with the Christian faith “sometimes to the great consternation of bishops” (Lathrop 1982:247).  Edward Carpenter (1920/1996) suggests the more general question of religious origins has about it three ‘connecting’ main lines:
   (i)  connecting religious rites and observance with the movements of the Sun and the planets;
   (ii) connecting religion with the changes of the seasons on the earth and the growth of vegetation and food; and
   (iii) connecting religion with mankind’s own body and the force of sex residing in it.

And Clement Miles points out that decrees from many church Councils from the 4th Century to the 11th, “abound in condemnations of pagan practices at the turn of the year” (Miles 1912/76:35).  He comments:
“It is in these customs, and in secular mirth and revelry... that we must seek for the expression of early lay feeling about Christmas. It was a feast of material good things, a time for the fulfilment of traditional heathen usages, rather than a joyous celebration of the Saviour’s birth”(Miles 1912/76:35).

While Christmas seemed to have a core concern different from its pre Christian precursors, the work of several scholars show it is still less ‘pure’ than many conservative evangelical Christians today would have us believe.  Such Christians see syncretism as being dangerous and undermining of Christian faith and identity.  For them syncretism is irresponsible as it seeks to legitimise a way of combining different religious heritages.  They argue as if Christian identity in general and Christmas in particular, is unchangeable and a piece of property which the church owns.

Susan Roll (Roll 1995) for example, challenges these assumptions.  She suggests that in spite of all the attempts to establish evidence for the origins of Christmas, we appear to be left with an impressive list of “ironies, interspersed with spurious texts, ambiguous evidence, lengthy speculation, trivial dead-ended issues, and a mounting pile of reasonable-sounding good guesses” (Roll 1995:223).  Roll concludes:
“ matter how vehemently preachers, writers and theologians as well as ordinary earnest Christians might decry the fact, Christmas is firmly established in its sociocultural environment, in terms of that environment”  (Roll 1995:269).

While it seems there will always be people for whom Christmas is a pious devotion rather than a festival or carnival, “such people were always in the minority.  It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize(Nissenbaum 1996:8).


The contemporary Christmas might be a media-religion-culture syncretism, or, to quote Catholic theologian John Shea, a “mighty mess of experience, tradition, Bible and imagination”(Shea 1993:15)(Shea 1993:15), but it also is, as Shea points out, “more fun to contribute to the mess than to try to straighten it out” .  Maybe, just maybe the church should consider adopting such a strategy as suggested by Shea - contributing to the mess rather than trying to straighten it out - in its efforts to find new ways of making connection with the present culture in which it finds itself.

And it could do this by engaging the mind imagining rather than just engaging the mind thinking, encouraging a “zest for novel ideas of larger generality” (Loomer 1987:51) that rises out of the power of storytelling - in words and image.

On such a strategy, Shea is keen to advise:
“The role of the church is to facilitate the spiritual life, to show the way into the love of God, neighbor, and earth that is the center of Christian faith...  We do not have to see these traditions as rivals and eliminate them until only the simple birth of Jesus Christ remains... most should be treated generously as attempts to extend the Spirit of Christmas...  The purpose of the customs, colors, and legends of Christmas is to make available its essential Spirit” (Shea 1992:33,35).

I agree.

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