So a couple weeks ago, I took Corey to a department store. Of course, we walked toward the toy section. And upon seeing signs of Christmas, what exactly I cannot recall, Corey says, “What!? Christmas stuff already. It isn’t Halloween yet.” I am sure he learned this from me, but it was funny hearing him say it, and so expressively.
Who hasn’t said this? Add in the yearly anthem of resistance, which we all can bet on hearing soon – that of Keep Christ in Christmas – and we have a couple examples of unconscious Christmas traditions, traditions that tap into negativity amid the positivity of the season.
However, when you look at these two traditional complaints we all either say or hear, they are built on a misconception. Both the “Christmas stuff already?” and “Keep Christ in Christmas” conceits imply that there is something novel, something newly wrong that we need to resist, some traditions we need to preserve. Yet looking at the history of such things, we would see that these traditions of resistance to change are nothing new. They are in fact traditions of keeping tradition.
Let me sketch out the history a bit.
People have been saying Christmas is starting too early – what has been deemed “Christmas creep – for decades. A couple Charlie Brown specials make this clear. The TV special A Charlie Brown Thanksgiving from 1973 has a scene in it where Sally goes shopping for a turkey tree for Thanksgiving but can only find Christmas stuff. A year later, It’s the Easter Beagle, Charlie Brown, has the Peanuts characters going shopping for Easter in the middle of April and seeing Christmas displays.
In a non-fiction based example, in a St. Petersburg Florida newspaper from September 25, 1968, there was a caption for a photo of a Christmas display reads:
“Earlier every year. It used to be the day after Thanksgiving, then the day after Halloweed, and now it’s shortly after Labor Day that the Christmas season starts showing up in St. Petersburg stores. Several already have put up Yule displays, urging shoppers to get the jump on each other.”
As far back as 1912, there were retailers selling the idea of shopping early. The Montreal newspaper Daily Telegraph had an ad on Oct. 28, 1912 that read: “This may SEEM a little premature to you—but it really is NOT… not many days left in which to do your Christmas buying."
A brilliant article in the webzine Slate discusses how Christmas Creep goes all the way back the Victorian age. Author Paul Collins says, “The problem, then as now, was not the idea of shopping before Thanksgiving—that barrier had already toppled—but the more heated question of pushing past another holiday and into the precincts of Halloween. Sioux City, Iowa, merchants were berated in 1901 for revving up Christmas sales in mid-October, and that same season saw the Philadelphia Inquirer sighing the annual complaint that "Gift buying has begun in earnest—seems to get earlier every year."
For a time, there was a genuine reason for the season’s Christmas Creep in those days, the early 1900’s. As an article in Slate lays out, increasing the days of Christmas shopping meant less abuse of child labor in that frenetic, and fearsome final week of Christmas shopping. Progressive giant Florence Kelly, co-founder of the NAACP, and Labor Unions actually pushed for shopping to be evenly spread in a longer shopping season so that final week didn’t see children working long, exhaustive hours selling, manufacturing, or bike-delivering gifts. Collins writes, “Early shopping was part of Kelley's crusades for child labor laws and an eight-hour workday, because the last few weeks before Christmas were exactly when overtime and seasonal child labor were most abused.”
During times of war, more time for Christmas shopping assured that soldiers got their gifts by the big day. This is where we get the Christmas in July adage. Buy in July and get it to the boys overseas in time.
The added benefit was to the retailers. They had more evenly spread books and a longer shopping season, which meant better and more consistent sales.
So there is nothing new under the sun when it comes to the quip, “Christmas comes earlier each and every year.”
That said, is Christmas coming early such a bad thing? First of all, having worked retail for many years and experiencing many a Christmas season, more time for people to shop means lesser stress for clerks working in those last days before Christmas.
But more importantly is the spiritual import. I am also reminded of that Christmas tune, made famous by the Charlie Brown special, Merry Christmas, Charlie Brown. “Christmastime is here, happiness and cheer, Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.”
Yes, the retailing involved in a longer Christmas season may be a problem. However, a longer Christmas season itself, one whose spirit last through the year, that would be a good thing, as the song suggests.
A spirit of Christmas not just early but perennially – what would that look like?
Well, first of all we must ask -- the spirit of Christmas, what is it? It is the spirit of Joy to the World, a joy that results from Hope-realized, hope for love and forgiveness and liberation.
Luke 4:18 makes it clear what the spirit of Christmas is. Here Jesus says, “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim liberty to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.”
The Spirit of Christmas is the jubilee brought forth by a baby’s birth, a jubilee marked by a new way for the poor, freedom for those celled in and kept down, sight for those who’ve never seen.
So when you see and want to complain about Christmas coming too early, see it as a reminder that we need the Spirit of Christmas all the time, we need the Spirit that offers us poor souls good news amid the bad, that shows a way out of no way, an insight into light instead of darkness.
Now we come to that other annual anthem of resistance – Keep Christ in Christmas. It is another thing we hear every year. Of course, it presumes that Christ was always in Christmas. But Christmas, as I talked about last year, wasn’t a universally celebrated Christian holiday until several centuries after Christ was born. And in America, with its Protestant-heavy history, Christmas was seen as too pagan and too Catholic and resisted as a central celebration. Some of our Pilgrim and Puritan forbearers might say, Christmas, the Christ-mass, amounts to a War on Christ, a humble yet divine figure who in his simplicity is used to save us. It was the push of city merchants that led to Christmas becoming central and what it is today – retailer’s necessity.
Nonetheless, the plea to keep in Christmas has not abated. And it too is not new.
Here is a few examples that show how old the Keep Christ in Christmas tradition is. These come from the Dictionary of Christianese:
1921 The Walther League Messenger (Milwaukee, Wisconsin): “Keep Christ in Christmas” A public library in one of our larger cities is exhibiting a collection of books recommended for children. Among the Christmas books not one brings the real Christmas message of the new-born Savior.
1937 The Lutheran Witness: They Keep Christ in Christmas-Greetings! Each card carries a Scripture-text in keeping with the sacred Christmas season, plus friendly sentiments that every Christian will delight in sending and receiving.
1941 Report of Cases Decided in the Court of Appeals of the State of New York: The defendants, on December 22, 1939, operated a truck on Seventh avenue in the city of New York bearing large signs with the words printed thereon, “Keep Christ in Christmas” and “Buy Christian for Christmas.”
So the so-called war on Christmas has been going almost a hundred years. If you count the early Protestant American Christians resisting the too-pagan and too-Catholic holiday of Christ-mass, it has been going since the beginning of the country.
To bring in another religious cliché that actually holds a lot of meaning, what I find myself asking is “what would Jesus do?” What would Jesus say about the loud demands that we keep Christ in Christmas?
Well, I think Jesus would say as he said to Peter in John 21, you say you love me, well, if you love me, feed my sheep. I also think of Jesus speaking to a rich man wanting to follow him. If you want to follow me, Jesus said, sell your possessions and give the money to the poor. And I think of Jesus in his Sermon on the Mount where he says if you feel persecuted, bless those who persecute you. And if someone is using your name, using the name of Christ, but not really your disciple, well, if they are doing good, don’t stop them. We just talked about this a few weeks ago when we talked about snippets of tolerance. Remember the passage in Mark where John comes to Jesus and says people are healing people in the name of Christ but are not part of us. And Jesus said don’t stop. If they are doing good, they are with us, not against us.
In other words, don’t complain about people we see as ignoring the Christ in Christmas but look at the effect of what they are doing with this day we call Christmas. If they are using simply to sell stuff and get stuff, and being mean and nasty along the way, then point to the greed and selfishness involved and how it contradicts the spirit of Christmas. But if they are honoring the Spirit of Christmas if not completely the letter of Christmas, which is the story about Jesus’ birth and the beginning of the Christian religion, if they are honoring the spirit of giving and selflessness, then there is no conflict or war there.
The Spirit of Christmas crosses these boundaries we make, boundaries of religion and letters of religious laws. The Spirit of Christmas is saving love and we honor it by seeking to love one another as Christ loved others.
I close with a meme maybe you’ve seen on the internet or Facebook. It really gets to the heart of what I am trying to say. It comes from author Steve Maraboli in his book Unapologetically You: Reflections on Life and the Human Experience. His quote along with the words from the song Christmastime is Here, say it all:
“Want to keep Christ in Christmas? Feed the hungry, clothe the naked, forgive the guilty, welcome the unwanted, care for the ill, love your enemies, and do unto others as you would have done unto you.”
“Oh, that we could always see such spirit through the year.”