Thursday, December 22, 2016

Inventing Traditions

I think I've previously mentioned one of my favorite seasonal books, THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS, by Stephen Nissenbaum. The "Battle" refers to the replacement of the REAL "old-fashioned Christmas" by what we now think of as the "traditional" holiday, a process that occurred in the nineteenth century. Christmas in prior centuries would have looked to us like a blend of Halloween, Thanksgiving, Mardi Gras, and New Year's Eve. (Even in the mid-1800s, a major part of the Christmas celebration in the American South consisted of excessive drinking and making lots of noise, mainly by shooting off guns.) The transformation to the domestic holiday we cherish didn't come about through natural evolution but as a result of deliberate choices. The concept of St. Nicholas bearing gifts, although derived from one strand in Dutch culture, was not only popularized but effectively invented, as far as America was concerned, by the literary circle to which Clement Moore and Washington Irving belonged. The Christmas tree seems to have originally been, not a universal German custom, but the practice of one region in Bavaria. When it spread to England and North America, within one generation people were saying, "Of course we always have a Christmas tree," as if this "tradition" had existed from time immemorial.

The habit of giving gifts to children replaced the old practice of the upper classes bestowing bounty on their servants and poorer neighbors and giving treats to groups that performed wassail songs door to door. The "old-fashioned Christmas" of earlier eras was thus deliberately transformed into the domestic Christmas we're familiar with. Furthermore, worries about children becoming greedy for presents and anxiety over what to give to friends and relatives who already "had everything" sprang up almost immediately. Manufacturers and merchants were quick to produce and sell items designed especially as Christmas gifts. The family-centered celebration and the commercialized Christmas lamented by Charlie Brown grew up together. C. S. Lewis thought the "commercial racket" was a recent development in his own lifetime (as he discusses in the essay "What Christmas Means to Me" in GOD IN THE DOCK), but he was mistaken. As Nissenbaum's book points out, people in every generation have tended to conceive of the "real old-fashioned Christmas" as something that has just recently died out, in their parents' day or at most their grandparents'. In fact, the image of a pure, "authentic" holiday that existed in some past era is a myth.

So at Thanksgiving we sing "Over the River and Through the Woods," even though most of our grandmothers, like Charlie Brown's, live in condos rather than on farms. We sing, "I'm Dreaming of a White Christmas," even if we grew up in one of the many parts of the country where it seldom snows (if at all) until January. Families have their personal traditions, of course. Some don't set up the tree until Christmas Eve, a custom that baffles me, because they go to all that trouble and then have only a week or a little more to enjoy the result. Of COURSE you are supposed to set up the tree as soon as practicable after Thanksgiving, and you open presents on Christmas morning. NOT on Christmas Eve—what a scandalous breach of propriety. :) During our sons' childhoods, our tradition included watching Christmas specials on TV, something my parents couldn't have done as children. Earlier in the twentieth century, visiting the department store Santa Claus began to grow into a tradition for many people. At nearby Sandy Point State Park, there's an annual lavish display called "Lights on the Bay," and driving to view that is probably a traditional part of many families' holiday season.

Consider "classic" carols and seasonal songs. How long does a song have to remain popular to enter the category of "classics" or holiday standards? Some now beloved and well-established songs have become standards in my lifetime, notably "Do You Hear What I Hear?" and "Little Drummer Boy," which I don't remember hearing in childhood.

Some Jewish families, as a concession to the dominant culture, set up a "Hanukkah bush" in their houses during December, a custom that's local to North America and dates back at the earliest to the late 1800s. Does this count as a "tradition"?

How long does a custom have to exist before becoming legitimately "traditional"? Mother's Day became a national holiday in 1914, thanks to a campaign by one woman, Anna Jarvis. Kwanzaa was created in 1966 by an African American professor. The U.S. official Grandparents' Day has existed only since 1978 (and I'm not sure how much it has caught on other than with greeting card companies—I've never taken any notice of it, since I maintain that its purpose is already covered by Mother's Day and Father's Day).

Whether "invented" or not—and all celebratory practices were invented by somebody once upon a time—"traditions" are basically whatever people cherish as such.

Merry Christmas, happy Hanukkah, and festive Yuletide to all!

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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