This has not been a great season for the Christmas tree. First there was the short-lived federal effort to add 15 cents to the price of a tree to support promotion of the industry -- a fee derided by opponents as a “Christmas tree tax.”
Then there was the decision by the governor of Rhode Island to display a “holiday tree” rather than a “Christmas tree.” And let’s not forget the usual warnings from firefighters about tree lights and dry needles.
True, the business of selling what is essentially a temporary decoration remains huge. Americans will spend about $3.4 billion on Christmas trees this year. But that figure remains below pre-recession levels. Worse, only $800 million will be spent on trees that are actually trees. The rest, alas, will go to the makers of plastic replicas.
By volume, real trees still outsell fake ones, but the trend favors the fakes. They are cheaper over the long run and save time: No more trips to the nursery or the garden shop or the tree farm, no more baling the tree and tying it atop the car, no more struggling to seat it properly in the base. Plastic trees are available fully decorated, and, as the jargon has it, “pre-lit,” thus enabling the buyer to save more time still. But the trend is in other ways enormously sad, the breaking of a sustaining ritual of the American tribe.
Among the fondest of my childhood memories are freezing Christmas Eve jaunts with my father, who often waited to buy the family tree until prices hit rock bottom. Once we were back home, Dad would string the lights as Mom played carols on the piano and my brothers and sisters and I waited impatiently to play our part in the ritual: hanging decorations on the boughs.
Gift of Sacrifice
My parents never spent much on gifts, but the gifts were never the point. The value of our holiday rituals derived from time they required, the sacrifice of other tasks in the communal activity of preparation. We were not a religious family. Church was no more a part of our Christmas celebration than it was of our weekly life. Our tradition was sustained by the hard yet ritualistic work of putting up the tree itself. As it turns out, my parents’ secular yet sacrificial approach to Christmas mirrored the holiday’s peculiar American history -- and helps show what the nation is losing as we rush to make Christmas as quick and easy as everything else.
The courts have generally regarded Christmas trees as secular rather than religious symbols, thus clearing the way for towns and cities (and the federal government) to erect their own. Although some people remain uneasy with these rulings, the judges basically have the matter right. Certainly the history is on their side.
Recently I came across an essay published in 1915, defending the public tree as having caused people to “feel together that glow of kindliness and good will which we call the Christmas spirit.” The writer lauded the tree’s symbol as “an idealistic, forward looking conception” that could only lead to better government. What’s striking about his argument is that it is addressing criticism of the municipal tree not from secularists but from Christians: During the tree’s first century on these shores, it was largely Protestants who opposed it.
The first large city to display a tree of its own was New York, 100 years ago -- in the face of severe criticism from churches. It was the retailers, not the religious, who demanded the tree. According to the historian Stephen Nissenbaum, whose excellent volume “The Battle for Christmas” is the definitive tale of the holiday’s travails in the U.S., it was the forces of commerce, not faith, that pressed to turn a day largely ignored by American churches into the widely celebrated holiday it has become.
A Forbidden Holiday
In the 18th and early 19th centuries, an America that was largely Protestant or secular dismissed the Christmas celebration as a decadent European tradition that had no proper home in the newly founded republic. Churches shut their doors on Christmas Day, and many Puritan communities forbade the holiday for its frivolity. (Some towns required by law that businesses remain open on Christmas.)
It was the rising retail trade that began to press for change. By the early 19th century, Nissenbaum says, stores had already adopted the image of Santa Claus in an effort to sell their goods. Even the iconic Christmas tale “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (now familiarly known as “The Night Before Christmas”) benefited mainly the retail trade.
For African-Americans the holiday possesses a particular historical resonance, for the Christmas season was the time when slaves were often allowed to travel, to visit relatives on other plantations, even, in some cases, to take time from their chores to earn a little money of their own. This tradition followed the European custom known as “misrule,” in which ordinary hierarchies were inverted at Christmas, with servants sometimes in charge of the household, children in charge of their parents (another reason Protestants hated the season).
Misrule, Nissenbaum tells us, worked to the advantage of retailers. In the early 19th century, it was not unusual for members of the working class to wander about in inebriated mobs on Christmas, singing outside the homes of the rich, refusing to go away until they were given food or gifts. The children wanted in on the fun. Parents, worried for the safety of their offspring, tried to make staying in on Christmas just as enjoyable by decorating their houses and exchanging presents.
Ironically, it was largely pressure from the working class, combined with the demands of commerce, which created the legal holiday. Workers got a day off, and retailers were able to sell gifts. Some few churches fought a rearguard action -- even today, there are Protestant houses of worship that hold no Christmas services -- but in the end, nearly all the recusants fell into line: Christmas had finally conquered American Christianity.
Trees for Atheists
Despite this history, there are people today who look at a Christmas tree and see a religious symbol -- but 200 years ago, few did. Today, the public holiday is secular and commercial. Less than 80 percent of Americans call themselves Christians, but well more than 90 percent celebrate Christmas, and substantial numbers of atheists, agnostics and members of other faiths put up trees.
Christmas, in short, has become the great American secular ritual. Scholars often describe ritual as the enemy of modernity, in part because those who engage in ritual are often unable to articulate precisely why they do what they do. Performing the ritual, we find ourselves grasped tightly by tradition and history rather than resisting their embrace. Here one must give the scholars their due: Had I not so enjoyed those Christmas Eve jaunts with my father, in search of the perfect cheap tree, I doubt that I would have been quite so determined to enlist my own children, pretty much from the time they could walk, in the same adventure.
I have not entirely followed Dad’s example -- we do not, for instance, wait until the last minute to find a tree -- but what matters is the communal experience, the expenditure of time in a shared preparation for the season. The plastic tree too often represents a Cliffs’ Notes version of Christmas spirit.
We live in the era of the quick and easy. Just as we want our political arguments small enough to fit on a bumper sticker or in a tweet, we seem to want to expend as little effort as possible on the demands of holiday ritual. Much of this change is inevitable, and curmudgeons like me are no doubt a dying breed. And an important part of American freedom is the freedom to transform and even overturn traditions that others may value. Still, I cherish the lesson of those Christmas Eve tree-hunts with my busy father: Only through sacrifice, especially the sacrifice of our precious time, is it possible to build the common spirit of generosity and goodwill that Christmas represents, and the world so desperately needs.
(Stephen L. Carter, a novelist, professor of law at Yale University and the author of “The Violence of Peace: America’s Wars in the Age of Obama,” is a Bloomberg View columnist. The opinions expressed are his own.)
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