Christmas is not what it used to be. And it's probably in our best interests that it is not.
I'm not advocating getting back to some pure Christmas celebration that was uncorrupted by secularism and crass commercialism. There was never such an unspoiled Christmas, at least not as observed in North America.
During the American Colonial period, the Puritans suppressed Christmas as "ungodly." In Massachusetts, it was a criminal offense to celebrate Christmas from 1659-1681. The Puritans considered Christmas a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer, which may not sound much different from today.
Stephen Nissenbaum, in his Pulitzer Prize-nominated study The Battle for Christmas, reminds us that in early New England, Christmas was not observed as a religious holiday, but was more like a December Mardi Gras. Christmas celebrations were a shocking display of raucous partying, drinking, rioting, cross-dressing, sexual carousing and mocking authority. On Christmas, the poor practiced a form of temporary social inversion, which allowed the release of some social steam from the boiling pot of economic inequity. The poorer class aggressively invaded the homes of the wealthy, demanding gifts ("Give us some figgy pudding! We won't go until we get some!").
Compared to how Christmas was celebrated in early America, the commercialization of Christmas could be considered an improvement. We probably would not want the Ghost of Christmas Past to take us to visit a pre-19th-century Christmas. Fortunately, Christmas is not what it used to be.
Christmas as we know it today took shape in the 19th century to counter the existing carnival atmosphere of Christmas. When some politically conservative, wealthy New York businessmen known as the Knickerbockers invented Santa Claus, they transformed Christmas from a class-based day of public debauchery and social reversal to a domestic, child-based celebration. As a Christmas icon, Santa resembled a benevolent plebian. He spoke to the fears of the wealthy, who often woke on Christmas Day to the clatter of the poor drinking, rioting and seeking gifts.
The "re-invention" of Christmas as a domestic holiday for children served as a form of social control. It kept Christmas "off the streets," while soothing the consciences and supporting the interests of the wealthy, who could give gifts to their own children rather than the raucous poor. Family gift exchanges expressed domestic intimacy, even as they caused people to buy into consumerism. Old Kris Kringle was employed to sell Christmas stuff. In Christmas mythology, gifts came from Santa, homemade in his shop. This "magically" removed Christmas presents from the realm of commerce, profit and the factory production of the Industrial Revolution. At the same time, the purchase of gifts supported those same commercial interests. Santa was a smokescreen for the support of industrialized commerce. Christmas as we know it in North America has always been wrapped with the ribbon of commercialism.
However, the consumerism promoted by 19th-century businessmen is minor compared to today's orgy of Christmas consumption. Today Christmas is such a part of our economic system that Wall Street monitors the season as an indicator of the nation's economic viability.
"Christmas has become too commercial," we cry, not realizing Christmas was commercial from the beginning. Bewailing the commercialism of Christmas is nothing new, either. In 1850, not long after the "invention" of Christmas, Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote a lament that reflected a common sentiment: "There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got." Yet I doubt Stowe or her contemporaries desired to go back to the ghosts, or should I say the "unruly poor," of Christmases past. Neither, I suspect, would most of those who share in the greatest wealth and power of the world today really be comforted by getting back to that original Christmas long ago.
I'm talking about the first Christmas, a Christmas that those on the top of the world (and I don't mean the North Pole) are always trying to re-invent. An unwed mother announces an upside-down kingdom, with the powerful brought down and the lowly lifted up, the hungry filled with good things and the rich sent away empty. The most powerful empire seeks to control the world for its own political and economic interests. A refugee family flees violence in the Middle East. Poor, marginalized shepherds eke out a living. Heaven sings of "peace on earth," while earthly powers blast out violence and suppression. A vulnerable baby is born in a makeshift home. Good news is announced to the poor. Christmas is and is not what it used to be.