To frame the discussion over how much of Christmas’ religious aspects should flow into everything from individual holiday greetings to what activities government should fund, it would be easy to say the debate is not over the divinity of Jesus of Nazareth, how large a role Santa Claus has come to play and how much it all means to the fourth-quarter economy.
But in fact it is about all of those things, because Christmas, the extended celebration that it has become in this country, has grown to include it all and more. For many it will always be first and last an expression of the Christian faith. For others it is an expression derived from other sources as well.
To learn of Christmas’ history, we consulted that decades-old arbiter the Information Please online almanac and other sources. Some things we found:
• Until the fourth century, Christians did not celebrate Jesus’ birth because of disagreements over when it had occurred. For centuries before, civilizations from Babylon to Egypt to Rome held major feasts from Dec. 21 to 25 marking the lengthening of the days, among other beliefs. And so, some scholars believe, Christians chose to celebrate Jesus’ birth on Dec. 25 to more easily convert pagans. By the time of the Reformation in the 16th century, some Christian denominations held festive Christmases while others insisted on solemn rites.
• Santa’s origins were in St. Nicholas, a fourth-century bishop of Asia minor who gave gifts to children. But he has grown well beyond Catholicism alone, as has the original name for Christmas, “Christ’s Mass,” for the service on that day. The Santa whom we know derives in part from the drawings of 19th-century cartoonist Thomas Nast and from the 20th-century Coca-Cola ads that first put him in a red suit.
• Before World War II, Christmas in America was largely celebrated much more simply than since. But with the postwar economic recovery, retailers began to market Christmas gifts more aggressively, leading to today’s more extravagant giving.
The stores, the public sphere and each of us offer and receive many expressions of good will this season, which has its genesis in a rich, varied history in which Christianity looms large. Yet it also has other roots.
This nation is big enough for both individual faith and collective inclusiveness. It is expressed in the Bill of Rights and in the wishes of good cheer we give and receive every December.