Both holy day and holiday, it reminds us where we came from, and what we need to be to survive.
Two big things can be said about Christmas in America.
It’s an inextricable holy day and holiday. For Christians, it’s immediately tied to their faith and belief in the birth of Jesus Christ. For those of other faiths or none whatsoever, Christmas is just one day—a national holiday established by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870—during the holiday season.
Christmas was named a national holiday by President Ulysses S. Grant in 1870.
To the second point, whether believer or nonbeliever, Christmas has become a cultural phenomenon.
Beyond the economic impact of the season of sales and deals, Christmas is traditionally a symbol of gratitude and the ritual of gift-giving. After all, like Jesus, we are born naked and own nothing other than what’s given us: our lives, food, warmth, comfort, safety and, most importantly, love. Families gather and acknowledge their gratitude for what has been given to them.
That extends beyond families and into the community of the unknown and unfortunate. Here the gift-giving follows the principle of “it’s better to give than to receive.” Americans are a generous people and wish to better the conditions of children, the elderly, the disabled and homeless. It’s all part of the cultural roots of America and the spirit of Christmas.
Too often forgotten, America is the birth-child of Western civilization, of which a Judeo-Christian culture had become one of its principle constituents. The history here is informative. The exact birth date of Christ has never been determined. But in AD 350, Pope Julius I established Dec. 25 as the day of celebration.
At roughly the same time, there was a bishop by the name of Nicholas in Myra, a seaport located in south central Turkey, now an archaeological ruin. He was known for his charity, kindness and care for others. Hence, he was identified as a saint. In America, he would morph into Santa Claus.
Due to differences in Christian beliefs about the role of saints, Christmas in America was not a holiday—never mind a holy day—between 1659 and 1681. In Boston, it was banned and a fine was imposed on anyone celebrating it.
The Dutch, however, brought in Saint Nicholas—Sinterklaas in Dutch—when they founded and occupied New Amsterdam (now New York City) between 1624 and 1664. Nicholas had patron status in the Netherlands, like St. George in England and Joan of Arc in France. Out of this dominant Dutch population and their descendants emerged a new version of Sinterklaas. Translated into English, it becomes Saint Claus. Like Beth in Elizabeth, Claus stands for Nicholas.
In 1823, a New York poet, Clement Moore, wrote America’s most memorable Christmas poem. The first four lines read as follows:
‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there…
By 1881, Sinterklaas had become what the cartoonist, Thomas Nast, characterized as “Merry Old Santa Claus,” jolly indeed and seeming to consume too much cheer. The cartoon signified a shift in American culture from giving and gratitude to getting and taking. A fault of our own day.
Cultural dynamics matter. Societies can only survive if their members can live together with a certain amount of collective gratitude. Gratitude is the recognition that my well-being is also a gift of others. We wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for our parents. We wouldn’t survive unless taken care of; nor educated unless taught; nor hired unless recommended; nor helped except for relatives, friends and neighbors; nor free to live freely without the gift of our nation. The simple fact of life is that no one can thrive without others in their lives.
Christmas is that twofold ritual of faith and culture, of holy day and holiday. Gratitude is its virtue. If that is the cultural virtue we wish, then it needs to be daily nurtured, as if every day were Christmas. When it isn’t, virtue rots on the vine. Humans need these reminders lest we destroy humanity itself. Our fundamental national holidays — Memorial Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas — are reminders of what we, as a nation, need to be about.
The simple fact of life is that no one can thrive without others in their lives.
Christmas is special because it’s a unique blend of the sacred and the secular. It gives us a depth of understanding, a recognition of who we are and of why we’re here. It offers hope for our future. Let us all be grateful for Christmas in America.