“If I become president, we’re all going to be saying Merry Christmas again, that I can tell you,” Donald Trump promised more than a year ago. Well, he is not president quite yet; but the first Christmas of the Trump era is just around the corner, and, so far, this looks like one campaign promise that is not going to be kept. The use of “Happy Holidays” as an all-purpose December greeting is just too habitual in America to be banished by presidential edict. Indeed, Trump himself recently sent out a card to his supporters that contains the dreaded greeting.
Still, as so often with Trump, what matters is not the performance but the rhetoric; and by coming out so strongly against “Happy Holidays,” he was signaling his support for a certain vision of America. This is not so much a pious Christian vision—Trump himself is famously cavalier in matters of faith—as it is an ideal of homogeneity. The implied reasoning is that Americans stopped saying “Merry Christmas” and started using “Happy Holidays” because of the unwelcome arrival of people who did not celebrate the Christian holiday—people who forced Christian Americans to abandon a religious custom in order to cater, in politically correct fashion, to their alien sensitivities.
Theoretically, it might be possible to think of Muslims or Hindus as the guilty party here. But historically, of course, it is the Jews who were the first major immigrant group to change the complexion of Christian America. For a long time, this change was minimized by the adoption of “Judeo-Christian” as a new adjective for American religion. Jews, in this view, might not actually celebrate Christmas, but they could be comfortably grandfathered in as honorary members of the Christian tradition. But in recent years, this tolerance has been eroding as the notion of a “war on Christmas” gains traction, to the point that even so benign a figure as Garrison Keillor could complain about the Jewish conspiracy to replace Christmas carols with non-denominational holiday songs, like “White Christmas.” (This was written by Irving Berlin, who also gave us the all-purpose nondenominational hymn “God Bless America.”)
Talk of a war on Christmas is, then, at least implicitly anti-Jewish, and sometimes quite explicitly so. Donald Trump’s promise to restore “Merry Christmas” was a coded message about reducing the Jewish influence on and presence in American culture—just as his notorious campaign ad about the “global power structure” robbing “our working class” made the same promise in economic and political code.
There are good reasons, however, to believe that “Happy Holidays” is here to stay as a public December greeting, especially in commercial and official contexts. This has nothing to do with sparing Jewish feelings, or even Muslim and Hindu and atheist feelings—though taken together non-Christians make up a growing minority in American life. It is, rather, because American public discourse lacks the ability to discuss religion in any kind of substantive way. Commerce, not religion, is the tie that binds Americans of many different faiths, including the various Christian denominations; it is what we all have in common, like it or not. That is why American Christmas, to the despair of many religious Christians, long ago became a holiday whose public expressions are not about the birth of Jesus, but about buying things and giving gifts. (In a sense, this represents a deep continuity with the ancient roots of the holiday as a pagan winter festival, in which a season of deprivation was symbolically banished by feasting.)
Indeed, the transformation of Christmas into a holiday of consumption tinged by humanitarianism is not just an American phenomenon; it happened across Europe as well, in tandem with the rise of capitalism. A splendid way to see this process at work is to read the new Penguin Christmas Classics, a charmingly designed box set of six stories about the holiday, each in its own slim, stocking-size volume. These range from Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and E.T.A Hoffmann’s The Nutcracker to lesser-known tales by Louisa May Alcott, Anthony Trollope, Nikolai Gogol, and L. Frank Baum, the creator of Oz.
These are mostly 19th-century works, and though they come from several different countries and in a variety of languages, they have a remarkable amount in common. Most notable is that none of them is about Jesus, and few even mention the birth of the Christian savior except in a pro forma way. In the Dickens story, Scrooge’s nephew dispenses with the theological meaning of the holiday in a parenthesis: “I am sure I have always thought of Christmastime, when it has come around—apart from the veneration due to its sacred name and origin, if anything belonging to it can be apart from that—as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time.” The language is significantly ambiguous: Christmas is about “having a good time” as much as it is a time for doing good, and indeed, for Dickens, the two are inseparable. At the end of the story, Scrooge’s reformation is signaled by his finally accepting his nephew’s invitation to a Christmas party, as if the ability to be jolly were itself a sign of moral grace.
This union or confusion of virtue and enjoyment is one reason why Dickens’ story has become the classic of capitalist Christmas. Scrooge is, of course, a famous symbol of miserliness, of the capitalist ethic run amok—his only purpose in life is accumulating money. But the opposite of miserliness is not only generosity; it is also consumption, the joyous, free-spending consumption that for Dickens is essential to the Christmas spirit. Just after Scrooge’s transformation, Dickens writes, “His hands were busy with his garments all this time: turning them inside out, putting them on upside down, tearing them, mislaying them, making them parties to every kind of extravagance.”
Extravagance is the key, and it is very Dickensian to transfer this word from the realm of emotion and behavior to the realm of physical objects, as though clothes themselves could embody it. But extravagance is itself a key capitalist virtue, because it is the drive to spend and consume that keeps the economy in motion. Scrooge’s miserliness can, in fact, be seen as a vestige the heroic age of the Protestant work ethic, the time when capital accumulation was necessary for the first stage of industrialism to take off. In a later day, in a consumer society, it is maladaptive, and Scrooge must learn to spend as well as earn—just as a capitalist economy needs demand as well as supply if it is to avoid a depression.
Extravagance, then, is one meaning of Christmas in the modern world. The Nutcracker, as readers familiar with the Tchaikovsky ballet will remember, is all about the voluptuous pleasure of getting presents. Here, again, consumption is seen as a blessed activity, as Hoffman writes: “The children, who kept whispering about the expected presents … added that it was now also the Holy Christ, who, through the hands of their dear parents, always gave them whatever real joy and pleasure He could bring them.” It is not until later, when the dolls and candy assume nightmarish proportions in young Marie’s fevered dreams, that there comes to seem something ominous about accumulating luxuries. But even then, the uncanniness of Hoffmann’s tale reads like a distant homage to the original uncanniness of the Christian incarnation, in which the eternal breaks into the temporal. Christmas is a time when the usual laws—not just of economics, but of nature—are momentarily suspended.
Taken to the extreme of banality, as it is in Anthony Trollope’s Christmas stories, this means that Christmas is a time for lucky breaks and funny coincidences, of the kind familiar from sitcoms or romantic comedies. Trollope’s tales, such as “Christmas at Thompson Hall” and “The Mistletoe Bough,” were seasonal commodities produced for magazines, and what they show is that even in Victorian England, readers wanted Christmas stories with as little Christianity in them as possible. In these tales, a wife mistakes her hotel room number and accidentally applies a mustard plaster to a strange man—who turns out to be her future brother-in-law; or else a young man wins the love of a young woman after overcoming the slightest of misunderstandings. Christmas has no role to play except as a generally happy and benevolent atmosphere, which ensures that everything will turn out for the best.
Reading these classic Christmas tales helps to explain how American Jews could develop Hanukkah, previously a fairly minor winter holiday, into such a successful counterpart to Christmas. Religiously and ideologically, Hanukkah is just about the worst holiday possible for such a purpose—it is, after all, a story about Jews resisting assimilation by violence. But if Christmas is civically celebrated mainly as a day of consumption tinged by benevolence, as it is by Dickens and Trollope and Hoffmann, then it presents no obstacle for Jews who want to enter into its spirit. Singing songs and giving gifts requires no particular theological commitment, and we can all share in the secular magic of “the Christmas season,” even if we do it under the stern aegis of the Maccabees. Still, we should remember that the transformation of Merry Christmas into Happy Holidays predates the entry of Jews into Anglo-American society, and it happened as a response to Christian, not Jewish, cultural and economic needs. If it smoothed the entry of Jews into American society, that was only a side effect, though a wonderful one.
Speaking for myself, I knew perfectly well as a child that Christmas was not my holiday; but I never felt that it was wrong for me to attend friends’ Christmas parties or to enjoy their trees. I did have some compunction about singing Christmas carols, which are explicitly religious. But what matters is that I was invited to do it, by friends and at school, and I could do it in a spirit of friendliness and participation, rather than religious affirmation. This inclusiveness seemed only natural to me, and it is only as an adult, having learned much more about Jewish history, that I realize what a truly extraordinary thing it is. American Jews celebrate Christmas Eve by going out to the movies or eating Chinese food, making common cause with another non-Christian minority; and Christian America accepts this as a kind of endearing oddity.
Compare this to the way Jews used to “observe” Christmas Eve in Eastern Europe, on what they referred to as Nittel Nacht: by holding vigil all night and refraining from Torah study, both for theological reasons and to avoid incurring the wrath of celebrating Christians. (The custom of playing dreidel may originate in the games Jews played to pass the time while locked in their houses on Nittel Nacht.) The fact that most American Jews today have never heard of this tradition is a sign of how completely our relationship to Christians and Christianity has changed for the better. That makes Christmas a holiday worth celebrating for Jews, and other non-Christians, as well.
All we want for Christmas … is Jew. Read Tablet’s holiday coverage here.
Adam Kirsch is a poet and literary critic, whose books include The People and the Books: 18 Classics of Jewish Literature.