LONDON (ABP) – As churches alter or cancel worship services this weekend because Christmas this year falls on Sunday, a Baptist theologian in the United Kingdom says the way the holiday is celebrated is relatively new.
Stephen Holmes, an ordained Baptist minister and lecturer at St Andrew's University in Scotland, says the idea of Christmas as a “celebration of domesticity” is an invention of the Victorian Era.
Writing for Theos, a public theology think tank based in London, Holmes says before the 19th century British period marked by peace, prosperity and national confidence during Queen Victoria’s reign, Christmas was in many places largely ignored.
Holmes says the invention – or reinvention – of Christmas as a family-centered holiday is attributed to British novelist Charles Dickens, who published A Christmas Carol in December 1843. Scrooge’s attitude toward the plight of employee Bob Cratchit’s family, transformed by the visit of three ghosts, became “a parable of how properly to celebrate Christmas” in a time when industrialization was increasing the gap between the wealthy and the working class.
Prince Albert’s introduction of the tradition of a Christmas tree in 1841, Holmes says, was “enormously significant” in shaping the holiday celebration. Competing legends grew up around the origins of Albert’s tree, but all “reached back in time to what Christmas, and what society, had once been, a Romantic vision of a timeless rural idyll that industrialization and urbanization had destroyed.”
In the United States, he says hints of the transformation are found in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1822 poem, “Twas the night before Christmas,” a central part of the American holiday read by many families on Christmas Eve. Before then, he says “out on the lawn there arose such a clatter” would have evoked images of riotous and probably drunken youth gangs roaming the streets and demanding gifts from hard-working citizens.
Holmes’ article, "The Politics of Christmas," explores that history as a way to explain why today people don’t “do politics” at Christmas. By “universal, if unspoken, consent,” he notes that partisan debate shuts down and news media usually ready to fuel controversy switch to musical items or feel-good human-interest stories.
“For one day, at least, our political machine closes down,” he observes. There is nothing wrong with that, he says, but it seems odd given that the stories in the Bible of what Christmas is supposed to be about “offer a picture of the world in which politics affects the domestic life of ordinary families at every turn.”
“It is a government census that forces Mary and Joseph to travel to Bethlehem, and that causes such overcrowding in the town that she is forced to use a stable as an antenatal suite,” he writes. “Despite the sanitized images on Christmas cards, it does not take very much thought to realize that a stable is not the most hygienic setting for a birth, and so we can add healthcare provision to the list of themes referenced.”
“Herod is a dictator afraid of his position, and so orders his troops to commit an act of barbarous brutality in an attempt to eradicate a perceived threat. The family is homeless when Jesus is born; their flight into Egypt turns them into asylum seekers. It seems almost certain (given what we know of marriage customs of the day) that Mary was 14, perhaps 15, and, of course, as the story is told, Joseph is not her child’s father: Government bureaucracy; healthcare provision; brutal dictatorship; homelessness; asylum seekers; a single teenage mother — with this story in view, it might seem that we simply have to do politics at Christmas!”
It’s a different picture, Holmes says, than the one portrayed by Dickens. “The transformed Scrooge is more generous, but no more political,” he says. “He gives gifts to those in need, but does not begin to imagine challenging the system that keeps them needy.”
Bob Allen is managing editor of Associated Baptist Press.