Christmas in America is an exuberant display of human ingenuity, capitalist productivity, and the enjoyment of life.
In fact, Christmas as we celebrate it today is a 19th-century American invention. The freedom and prosperity of post-Civil War America created the happiest nation in history. The result was the desire to celebrate, to revel in the goods and pleasures of life on earth. Christmas (which was not a federal holiday until 1870) became the leading American outlet for this feeling. The holiday was inherently a festival of earthly renewal.
Historically, people have always celebrated the winter solstice as the time when the days begin to lengthen, indicating the earth's return to life. Ancient Romans feasted and reveled during the festival of Saturnalia. By the fourth century, they were worshipping the god of the sun on December 25.
Then came the major developments of 19th-century capitalism: industrialization, urbanization, the triumph of science -- all of it leading to easy transportation, efficient mail delivery, the widespread publishing of books and magazines, new inventions making life comfortable and exciting, and the rise of entrepreneurs who understood that the way to make a profit was to produce something good and sell it to a mass market.
For the first time, the giving of gifts became a major feature of Christmas. Thanks to capitalism, there was enough wealth to make gifts possible, a great productive apparatus to advertise them and make them available cheaply, and a country so content that men wanted to reach out to their friends and express their enjoyment of life. The whole country took with glee to giving gifts on an unprecedented scale.
All the best customs of Christmas, from carols to trees to spectacular decorations, have their root in ancient ideas and practices. These customs were greatly amplified by American culture, as the product of reason, science, business, worldliness, and the pursuit of happiness.
Thursday, December 24, 2009
Have a guiltlessly commercial Merry Christmas!