Christmas was not always the extravagant gift for the children we know today | Arts & Culture
There is a special, even magical, connection between children and the “most wonderful time of the year”. Their enthusiasm, their conviction, the joy they bring to others are all imbued with the spirit of Christmas. Take the lyrics to classic songs like “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like Christmas,” “White Christmas” or even the aptly titled “Christmas Is for Children” from country music legend Glen Campbell. cultural offers that cement the relationship between children and Christmas. But it was not always so, even if the feast celebrates the birth of the baby Jesus. How the children got there in the middle of Christmas has a lot to tell us about the hopes and needs of the modern adults who put them there.
Until the end of the 18th century, Christmas was a boisterous affair, rooted in the pre-Christian midwinter vacations and the Roman Saturnalia. You will find more drunkenness, debauchery, and raucous drinking this time of year, especially from young men and underclasses, than “silent night, holy night.” For example, in the early forms of wassailing (the precursor to neighborhood Christmas carols), the poor could enter the homes of the rich, demanding the best food and drink in return for their goodwill. (Once you know that, you’ll never hear “Now bring us fig pudding” the same way!)
But the watered hustle and bustle of the season, along with its pagan roots, was so threatening to religious and political authorities that Christmas was discouraged and even banned in the 17th and 18th centuries. (These bans included Parliamentarians from mid-17th-century England and Puritans from American New England in the 1620s, the “pilgrims” of Thanksgiving glory.) Extinguish. So how did it transform from a period of disorder and mischief into the domestic, socially manageable and economically profitable season we know today? This is where children come in.
Until the end of the 18th century, the Western world viewed children as bearers of natural sins that needed to be disciplined towards good. But as romantic ideals of childhood innocence took hold, children (especially, white children) became regarded as the precious and innocent keepers of the enchantment we recognize today, understood as deserving of protection and living a distinct phase of life.
It was also the time when Christmas began to transform from a way that churches and governments found more acceptable, into a family-centered holiday. We can see this in the peaceful, child-focused Christmas carols that emerged in the 19th century, like “Silent Night”, “What Child is This?” “And” Away in a Manger “. But all the previous energy and excesses of the season haven’t just gone away. Instead, when they once brought together rich and poor, dominant and dependent according to old feudal power organizations, the new traditions shifted the focus of Christmas bounty from the local underclass to its own children.
Meanwhile, the newly accepted ‘magic’ of childhood meant that a child-centered Christmas could echo the old feast’s upside-down logic while also serving the industrializing new economy. . By putting one’s own children at the center of the holidays, the seasonal reversal becomes less about social power (the poor making demands of the rich) and more about allowing adults to take a childish break from rationalism, cynicism and l daily savings for the rest of the year.
Social anthropologist Adam Kuper describes how modern Christmas “builds an alternate reality,” starting with reorganized social relationships at work as the holidays approach (think office parties, secret Santa Claus, toy drives and more again) and culminating in a complete change to the festive house, made sacred with ornate halls, indulgent treats and loved ones reunited. During this season, adults can psychologically share the enchanted spaces we now associate with childhood and bring the fruits of that experience back into the grind of everyday life when it begins again after the New Year.
This temporary opportunity for adults to immerse themselves in the non-modern pleasures of enchantment, nostalgia for the past, and unproductive pleasures is why it is so important that children participate fully in the magic of Christmas. Western understanding of childhood today expects young people to hold open spaces of magical potential for adults through their literature, media and beliefs. This shared assumption is evident in the explosion of children’s fantasy in medieval-looking worlds over the past century, which was the focus of my recent book, Re-enchanted (where I’m talking about Narnia, Middle-earth, Harry Potter and more). Christmas or Yule appear in many of these modern fairy tales and sometimes even play a central role – think of Santa Claus giving weapons to the Pevensie children in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe-use the holidays as a bridge between the other magical worlds of fiction and our season of real-world possibilities.
Beyond storytelling, we also literally encourage kids to believe in magic at Christmas. One of the most emblematic expressions is an 1897 editorial in New York Sun titled “Is There a Santa Claus?” In it, publisher Francis Pharcellus Church responds to a letter from 8-year-old Virgina O’Hanlon with the now famous phrase “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus. and describes the disbelief of his friends as coming from “skepticism of a skeptical age.” Church maintains that Santa Claus “exists as certainly as love, generosity, and devotion exists”, downplaying scientific inquiry methods to claim that “[t]The most real things in the world are things that neither children nor men can see.
Many of the arguments for the importance of the arts and humanities that we still hear today can be found in Church language, which identifies sources of emotional experience such as “faith, fantasy, poetry, love, romance ”and belief crucial to a human and fully lived life. According to this mindset, Santa Claus not only exists, but belongs to the one “real and lasting” thing in “everyone”. “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” as it is now called, has been reprinted and adapted in all media since its publication, including as part of holiday TV specials and as a source for inspiration for “Believe” from Macy’s department store. charity and advertising campaign since 2008.
It may seem ironic that the sentiments in this editorial are now associated with a major retailer. Yet calls to reject consumerism at Christmas have been around since it became a commercial extravaganza in the early 19th century, which is also when buying gifts for children became a key part of vacation. How to explain this? Today, just like in pre-modern Christmases, reversing the norms during this particular time helps to strengthen those same norms for the rest of the year. The Santa Claus myth not only gives children a reason to profess the reassuring belief that magic is ever present in our seemingly disenchanted world, it also turns expensive bond holiday purchases into timeless symbols of love and love. ‘enchantment. Like historian Stephen Nissenbaum the dish, from the start of the popularization of Santa Claus, he “represented an old-fashioned Christmas, a ritual so old that it was, in essence, beyond history, and therefore outside the commercial market” . Children’s joyful wonder at finding gifts from Santa on Christmas morning does more than give adults a taste of the magic, it also makes our lavish vacation spending worthwhile, connecting us to a deep and timeless past, while fueling the annual infusion of funds into the modern economy.
Does knowing all of this ruin the magic of Christmas? Cultural analysis should not be a Scrooge type activity. On the contrary, it gives us the tools to create vacations that are more in line with our beliefs. I have always found the way we abandon children to deal with the discovery that “Santa Claus is not real” on their own – or even expect them to hide it for fear of disappointing. adults who want to get one more shot of secondhand enchantment – unethical and against the spirit of the season. The song “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” is meant to be funny, but it captures the undertones of real anxiety that many children go through every year. Knowing what children and their beliefs are doing for society during the holidays can help us choose a better approach.
A few years ago I saw a suggestion floating around the internet which I think offers an ideal solution for those celebrating Christmas. When a child begins to question the myth of Santa Claus and seems old enough to understand, take him aside and, with the utmost seriousness, introduce him to the big secret of adults: now THEY are Santa Claus. . Tell the child that he has the power to make wishes come true, to fill the world with magic for others and, therefore, for all of us. Then help them choose a sibling or friend, or better yet, search outside the family circle to find a neighbor or someone in need who they can secretly “be” Santa Claus for, and let them find out. the enchantment of bringing uncredited joy to someone else. . As Francis Pharcellus Church wrote to Virginia O’Hanlon over 100 years ago, the unseen values of “love, generosity and dedication” are somehow the “most real things in the world”, and it seems to be something that all kids – whether 2 years old or 92 years old, they can believe in.
Maria Sachiko Cecire is Associate Professor of Literature and Director of the Center for Experimental Humanities at Bard College. This essay was adapted from material published in his recent book, Re-Enchanted: The Rise of Fantastic Children’s Literature.