In Search of Christmas
Imagine a purer, less commercial, more spiritual Christmas. But don't call it history
What many historians find most fascinating about the reinvention of Christmas is that its commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned the transformation in the first place. The "commercial forms" associated with Christmas and other holidays, says Schmidt of Princeton, "have become integral to their survival." The consumer culture "shapes our holidays," Schmidt says, "by taking in diverse, local traditions and creating relatively common ones." To turn Christmas into a purely religious celebration now might cheer those who want to "take back Christmas," he says. But such an observance "would lack the cultural resonance and impact of a holiday deeply rooted in the marketplace." If Christmas came to that, adds Restad, "we probably wouldn't keep it as a society."
Piety or profit. Yet there seems little danger of that happening. Christmas has far too powerful a grip on American culture: It is no more the church's sole possession today than it was in ancient Rome. But given its long history of controversy and the unremitting tension between piety and profit in its observance, the "battle for Christmas" is all but certain to persist.
No matter how people choose to keep it--in the quiet of their homes or churches, or in the noisy cathedrals of suburban shopping malls--the arrival of Christmas, says Restad, prods celebrants once again to "confront our ideals" and to "examine our relationships with our families, our communities and our faith." Adds Nissenbaum: Christmas rituals, whether old or new, sacred or secular, will serve as they always have to "transfigure our ordinary behavior" in ways that reveal "something of what we would like to be, what we once were or what we are becoming despite ourselves." As thoughts return to a Bethlehem manger, the search begins again. And, at least for a season, it seems "peace on Earth, goodwill toward men" might be possible after all.
On the weekend of December 7 and 8, U.S. News sent 10 photographers in search of Christmas in America.
POLL Many Americans think Christmas is too commercial: Forty-eight percent say the Santa Claus tradition and gift giving detract from the religious celebration. Forty-four percent of Americans think they spend too much money on gifts at Christmas; 48 percent say they spend just the right amount. The spiritual aspect of the holiday is important to many Americans: Eighty-two percent agree that "Christmas is a time of reflection for me."
U.S. News/Bozell poll of 1,003 adults conducted by KRC Research Nov. 6-10, 1996, with consulting by U.S. News pollsters Celinda Lake of Lake Research and Ed Goeas of the Tarrance Group. Margin of error: plus or minus 3.1 percent.