Jesus may have been born in Bethlehem, but it was the City of New York that transformed the traditional day of his birth, December 25, into a national, and eventually global, holiday season.
The evolution of the Christian religious holiday of Jesus’ birth into a secular global holiday that embraces all religions, cultures and traditions is a unique example of the emergence of a global culture. Yet, today, the planet’s first global holiday is under siege from all sides and may not long endure.
The Need for a Unifying Secular Holiday
Compared to Spain, England, France, and Russia, the newly established United States of America in the late 18th century had no history, no national language, no national religions, no national identity, and no national culture.
Washington Irving, of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” and “Rip Van Winkle” fame, recognized the potential of the holiday as a force capable of uniting the northern and southern colonies, old family Knickerbockers and new Irish and German immigrants, upper and lower social classes, and rich and poor. He described how the celebration of Christmas in England bridged class and wealth and contributed to a stable and happy country. He stressed the holiday as one that not only transcended all social classes and could unite all New Yorkers and Americans, but transcended all religions as well.
Yet, as late as 1855, the growing Christmas holiday was still shunned by many churches as a pagan festival.
Nonetheless, during the Civil War, Christmas emerged as a secular symbol of American nationalism. In 1870, Congress declared Christmas a holiday for federal employees in Washington, DC, and in 1885 extended the holiday to all federal employees.
The growing American public school system in the 1880s and 1890s mobilized Santa and Christmas as a quasi-national holiday. Students were required to decorate the school Christmas tree, participate in pageants, bring gifts to exchange, and as homework describe their family celebrations. The celebration of Christmas, like speaking English, voting, and hard work, had become a test of assimilation, Americanization, and loyalty to their new nation.
By the turn of the 20th century Christmas had become part of American civil religion. Having lost its specifically Christian characteristics, Christmas joined Thanksgiving, Memorial Day and the Fourth of July as part of the “ceremonial calendar of American society.” They allowed Americans to express common sentiments, share their patriotic feelings, draw people together, emphasize their similarities and common heritage, and minimize their differences.
Engineering the “Holiday Season” from Thanksgiving to New Years’
When Thomas Edison presented his first string of electric Christmas tree lights in 1880, modern technology began lending a hand to the growing importance of Christmas to New York City and the nation. The ancient pagan Germanic Christmas tree could now safely be brought indoors, and Christmas became a popular middle class family celebration.
Of course all these indoor trees needed decorations. Into the season stepped F. W. Woolworth, who marketed glass ornaments at his growing national chain of stores from his corporate headquarters on New York’s Broadway, the tallest building in the world from 1913 to 1930. FAO Schwarz made New York City the toy capital of the nation. Adolph S. Ochs, a German-born Jew who bought The New York Times newspaper in 1896, began hosting outdoor displays at Times Square to welcome in the New Year; eventually the celebrated crystal ball drop highlighted the celebration. In short order, the Holiday Season extended from Christmas to New Year’s.
Macy’s department store extended the season even further when it held its first Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924. The last float features Santa Claus coming to town and announces the official beginning of the Christmas shopping season. With the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade at one end and the Times Square New Years’ ball drop at the end, the Holiday Season was now clearly delineated.
Shortly after Macy’s first parade, in the midst of the Great Depression in 1931, workers at the rising Rockefeller Center complex of buildings erected their first tree to celebrate the holiday. In 1933, Radio City Music Hall launched its Christmas Spectacular with the Rockettes, a show that today attracts a million visitors. Rivaling the Rockettes in popularity are the New York City Ballet’s holiday performances of Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker Suite at Lincoln Center, which started in 1954 and became a blockbuster annual tradition.
So overwhelming had the juggernaut of the Holiday Season become as it steamrolled across helpless immigrants, through ethnic New York City neighborhoods, and into Midwestern farms and villages, that none could stand in its path. As much as diehard parents, ministers, priests and rabbis railed against not only the pagan Christmas holiday itself but the rabid commercialization of it, nobody could resist the incessant and pitiful clamor of children for candy, cookies, cakes, Christmas trees, and most importantly, Christmas presents.
Inclusion of Non-Christian Holidays into the Holiday Season
Like a bulldozer, “The Holiday Season” roared through the city, the nation, and even the world, overcoming religious and cultural opposition, absorbing racial, ethnic and religious groups into the season, and adding holidays to the season like decorations on a Christmas tree.
Following the Second World War, Jews sought to add a traditional Jewish holiday to the season to counterbalance the Christian Christmas. Chanukah had been a minor holiday, but with the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948, a concerted effort was undertaken to rebrand Chanukah as a festival to compliment, or even rival, Christmas. A plethora of Chanukah celebrations and newly-invented traditions emphasized gift-giving to enhance the holiday in the eyes of children. The Brooklyn-based Chasidic movement, the Lubavitchers, took the lead in insisting, even demanding, that in whatever public location a Christmas tree was erected, a giant Menorah must also be put up. In places like New York City where there were large Jewish populations “Happy Holidays” all but replaced “Merry Christmas.”
African-Americans were likewise drawn into the Christmas craze and made their own unique contributions. In 1966, some in the Black Pride, Black Power and Black Separatist movements created the holiday of Kwanzaa as an alternative to Christmas. It drew on African traditions and ideals to fashion a week-long holiday from Christmas Day to New Years.
Like Chanukah that emerged from the shadows to become a major Jewish holiday in America, the ancient Nordic celebration of the Winter Solstice was reinvigorated after millenniums of suppression. Central to the festival was fire, whether a giant bonfire, a candle, or a crackling fire in a fireplace. Christians readily absorbed these fire displays into their new religion in the form of Advent Wreaths, Santa arriving through the chimney, and candles and electric lights on trees. The Winter Solstice officially joined the roster of New York City holiday celebrations in 1979 when the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine presented its first Winter Solstice celebration.
Muslims in New York City and possibly elsewhere in the country have slowly been coming aware of the cultural importance of the Holiday Season and have begun a search for a way to add a Muslim component. The Muslim Education and Converts Center of America on West 43rd Street in New York began sponsoring an open house during the season. Under the Arabic and English names of the center, the words “A House Full of Light” seeks to integrate Islam into the larger mid-winter theme of the winter absence of light.
Santa on his float in the first Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade in 1924.
Globalization of the Holiday Season
The New York Holiday Season has become a major instrument of Americanization of millions of immigrants and as well a weapon in the Americanization and Westernization of the planet. One often either celebrates or laments the rapid pace of global Americanization which includes the spread of the Holiday Season. In the 21st century it will no doubt penetrate to the most obscure corners of the planet and overcome all resistance to become the greatest celebration on Earth.
Time magazine of December 15, 2014 featured a section, “Roundup: World’s Most Festive Records,” that included three examples of the Holiday Season going global. First, readers learned that the largest ever gathering of Santa’s elves was held in Bangkok, Thailand, a Buddhist society, and featured 1,792 kids “wearing matching hats and pointy plastic ears.” Second, the largest Christmas stocking, measuring 168 ft. in length and 70 ft. in width, was erected in Tuscany, Italy, and was “stuffed with candy-filled balloons.” The third thrilling world Christmas record was at the Emirates Palace in Abu Dhabi where “The Priciest Christmas Tree” was adorned with jewelry valued at $11,026,900.
In China and throughout the many Chinatowns of the world, the traditional Chinese love of lanterns and lights have become a central feature of the season. As the Holiday Season approaches, giant, skyscraper-sized light displays cover major buildings according to a New York Times’ description of the recent season in Hong Kong. Often the traditional figure of Santa rides aback a dolphin rather than a sleigh with reindeer, but the message is the same. The light displays are modified to mark the blending of the New York Holiday Season with the Chinese New Year celebrations, making for one prolonged, almost two month holiday.
A similar phenomenon can be seen in India and Hindutowns around the world, such as Jackson Heights in Queens, New York City. The Hindu Festival of Diwali, also called the Festival of Lights, is celebrated according to the lunar calendar. Bright electric lights festooned across streets, in front of homes, and in stores have come to dominate the holiday. But even when the holiday falls well before the opening bell of the Holiday Season, the lights remain lit throughout the season.
The Anti-Holiday Season Backlash
Samuel P. Huntington argued in his 1996 book, The Clash of Civilization and the Remaking of the World Order, that the 21st century would be marked by the rise of global civilizations. Huntington also argued that while economic globalization will no doubt continue, these civilizations will set about elaborating their own political, cultural, linguistic, and religious cultures.
Recent events in the world have shown that “The Holiday Season” is on the hit list of these reemerging civilizations. The Holiday Season, and especially Christmas, has now become a global target.
The bloodiest battleground currently is the Islamic World, where along with Christianity and other non-Muslim minority religions, the Holiday Season is in the sights of Muslim reformers. In austere Saudi Arabia where non-Muslim religious activities are banned in public, religious police circulate looking for stores selling Christmas cards, florists displaying poinsettias, or images of Santa.
Chinese are also having second thoughts about Christmas. While welcoming Western markets, technology and profits, many Chinese feel that they are losing their culture in the process. A recent article in The New York Times reported that some “hardline traditionalists and Communist doctrinaires” described Christmas celebrations as a “tinsel-draped Trojan horse that aims to subvert traditional Chinese culture.”
In the newly independent former Soviet republic of Uzbekistan, President Islam Karimov banned Santa Claus from television, as well as the celebration of New Year’s Eve. In Venezuela, President Hugo Chavez banned Christmas trees and images of Santa Claus from government offices because he deemed them too American. In Israel, rabbis printed and distributed fliers condemning Christmas and called for a boycott of restaurants and hotels that sell or put up Christmas trees and other Christian symbols. In India, the Hindu Nationalist Party (BJP) has long advocated a rejection of “Westoxification.” The public and often festive celebration of Christmas and New Years’ are increasingly viewed as thinly veiled attempts to attract Hindu young people to Christian churches.
In the United States, the anti-Holiday Season backlash began in the 1960s, when groups of Catholics and Protestants launched a “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaign and media blitz. Non-denominational Christian organizations like the Christian Research Institute published articles and even how-to books encouraging Christian families and congregations to place Christ in the forefront of the holiday. They instruct readers to reject pagan Christmas trees and Santa Claus.
These campaigns would in fact overthrow the two centuries of careful social, intellectual, and religious engineering that created “The Holiday Season” that all Americans, and even the world, could celebrate. The non-religious “Holiday Season” would revert to Christmas, the day that celebrates the birth of Jesus the Messiah. In a city like New York, the Golden Gate of immigration, “Happy Holidays” would be replaced by a carefully chosen “Merry Christmas,” “Happy Chanukah,” or “Happy Kwanzaa.”
Rather than a holiday that unites people, it would become a series of religious holidays that divides them. In short, one of the greatest accomplishments of American social history would be undermined, if not totally destroyed.
Let me make a proposal. In 1989, UNESCO issued a Recommendation on the Safeguarding of Traditional Culture and Folklore that would work toward the protection of the human intangible cultural heritage. The elaborate and carefully crafted New York City “Holiday Season” is also an intangible cultural heritage deserving recognition.
Our New York City ancestors carefully passed the season onto their descendants, each ethnic, racial, and religious group adding to it, elements falling away, minor celebrations being transformed into major ones, groups attacking it with vehemence, but always surviving, growing, and spreading. In this sense, even with all its commercialization, the Holiday Season is without a doubt one of the greatest New York City contributions to the world’s cultural patrimony.♦
Adapted from “How New York City Invented the Holiday Season: The Rise and Fall of the World’s First Global Holiday,” Journal of Unification Studies, Vol. XVII, 2016. Dr. Brown’s previous article, “How New York City Invented the Holiday Season,” appeared on Applied Unificationism in Dec. 2014.
Dr. Ronald J. Brown is a professor of history, political science and ethnic studies at Touro College and teaches courses in world religion at Unification Theological Seminary. A docent at the New York Historical Society with degrees from Harvard Divinity School, Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and the University of Geneva, Switzerland, Brown is the author of A Religious History of Flushing, Queens; Into the Soul of African-American Harlem; and How New York Became the Empire City.
Thank you, Dr. Brown. Very interesting reading, with lots of historical details.
Personally, the over-commercialization of Christmas somewhat saddens me. In my childhood and youth I experienced it as a deeply religious celebration and to this day have difficulty relating to the dominance of commerce in today’s Christmas. But, of course, that’s just me.
I think that holidays, like religions and people, are ever evolving. What is the role of holidays like Christmas in modern society? The Holiday Season is a holiday that can unite all people. But, like you, I remember Christmas Midnight Mass as a Catholic altar boy and all the festivities of the season.
You offer an in-depth look at a subject never before encountered by this reader. Quite informative. Even if the “Christian” aspect of the holiday is on the decline and the commercialization obscene, it still offers moments for true heart to emerge and be celebrated. That “spirit” is yet to be fully trampled or dissed. You just can’t keep good people and a true desire for true love down.
I would love to turn the AU Blog’s articles into a book as well. See my forthcoming article in the Journal of Unification Studies for more information.
Thank you for your essay, Dr. Brown. Your citing Samuel Huntington is especially apt since a number of his predictions are playing out in the new century.
You mention the backlash against the cultural heritage of the Christian West. This is certainly true but it is also the case in certain parts of the world (Africa, Japan, Indonesia, China, e.g.) that there is little in the way of a “Christmas spirit” because the idea of a messiah sent by God to bring salvation to humankind is not part of the cultural patrimony of those cultures. It seems not so much a “backlash” as it is indifference. In the Orient, it is the Lunar New Year that prompts the spirit of gift-giving more than Christmas.
That said, beyond the commercialization issue, there is an ideological bent to much of the antagonism toward religion in general. Those who view all European culture as innately racist, chauvinist, and colonialist are making their disdain for anything religious well known. I recently saw a news article in which some are pushing for the term “holiday parties” to be expunged from social usage in favor of “end-of-the-year” parties. “Privileging” of any kind is viewed as de facto prejudice.
It is our credo as Unificationists to manifest the spirit of giving each and every day and if we could get UNESCO to cite that tradition as worthy of protection and endorsement we might actually on our way to a more humane world. Merry Christmas and Happy New Year!
To counter those who want to take the Christ out of Christmas and God and/or religion out of society, I think it best to stay with:
Merry Christmas and Happy Chanukah and Happy Kwanza to all!
This keeps religion in the season and respect for these major religious holidays. We are united in respecting these traditions, without suppressing our own.
The secular and religious will always clash (or differ); ultimately for the greater good, it is hoped, and an historical context, elusive at times — changing certainly, by degrees — remains something thinking, feeling people should ever seek.
That said, I love Christmas! And sometimes, well, I’m not even feeling all that Christian.
It is remarkable how both the religious narrative(s) as well as the secular ones have inspired so many and continue to do so.
Merry Christmas and Seasons Greetings of Giving and Light!
Imagine a world where fairy tales are the stuff of children, not our spiritual state. Where we understand who Jesus really was, as a man. Where we honor him properly by the lives we live, where the spirit of Christmas is the daily fare of humanity. Then, our inspiration will be fashioned on something truly real.