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Book Reviews Review: Gerry Bowler’s Christmas in the Crosshairs looks at the long, contested history of the world’s biggest holiday

While contemporary American Christians are not being religious persecuted, Christmas has been contested throughout history.

Title
Christmas in the Crosshairs: Two Thousand Years of Denouncing and Defending the World’s Most Celebrated Holiday
Author
Gerry Bowler
Genre
History
Publisher
Oxford University Press
Pages
336
Price
$32.95

On Dec. 14 of this year, Fox News conservative pundit and professional troll Bill O'Reilly issued a rare triumphant statement: War is over. "And," O'Reilly added, "we won."

For the better part of a decade, O'Reilly and other conservatives with literally nothing better to do had been reporting from the front lines of the so-called "War on Christmas": the assault on Christendom by companies that prefer generic, non-denominational seasonal greetings such as "happy holidays" over "Merry Christmas." Now, the war has achieved a détente. Let's hope none of the soldiers and pundits missed the last chopper out of the North Pole, St. Peter's Basilica or an overcrowded Costco parking lot.

Recently, I heard a historian respond to a question with a great, all-purpose answer: 'Twas ever thus. It's a way of niftily explaining (or explaining away) the specifics and particulars of a given moment by suggesting that, well, it's always been like this. Why do people rally around strongman politicians? 'Twas ever thus. Why do people vote against their own interests? 'Twas ever thus. Why is Christmas such a seemingly fraught holiday, assailed on various sides by competing factions of religion, globalization, nationalism and atheism? As historian Gerry Bowler's new book Christmas in the Crosshairs proves, 'twas ever thus.

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As Bowler writes, "there is a history of almost two thousand years of opposing, controlling, reforming, criticizing, suppressing, resurrecting, reshaping, appropriating, debating, replacing and abolishing the world's most popular festival." So the history of warring against Christmas runs back just about as far as the reported nativity of Christ itself. While contemporary American Christians are not – as the glowering, Grinchy Bill O'Reillys may claim – being religiously persecuted, Christmas itself has been contested on numerous different fronts.

First, there was the idea of even celebrating the birth of Christ – birthday celebrations being regarded in older times as the gaudy province of pagan rulers. In the Middle Ages, Christian higher-ups balked at the ways in which Christmas celebrations adopted certain rowdy pre-Christian traditions, such as singing, dancing, tree-decorating and the excessive consumption of spirits. Fourteenth-century English-Catholic reformer John Wycliff decried the holiday practice of "syngynge songs of lecherie." By the 19th century, the season was being reclaimed. Clement Clark Moore's 1822 poem Account of a Visit from St. Nicholas, better known as 'Twas the Night Before Christmas, popularized the image of Santa Claus, the jolly, secular giver of gifts. Moore, Bowler claims, "redefined Christmas by moving its focus from the tavern and street to the kitchen and family fireplace, from adult conviviality to the expectant child."

The arrival/invention of Santa Claus led to more squabbling. And not only from Christians who worried that the (already shaky) religious basis of the holiday was eroding, but from various nationalist and political groups who resented the globalized American-Christian icon of holiday good cheer.

Hitler's government replaced Santa with Knecht Ruprecht, an annual gift-giver riding a white stallion, styled after the Germanic god Wotan (a version of the Norse god Odin). Before banning Christmas altogether in 1969, Castro's Cuba revamped the Biblical "Three Wise Men" as Che Guevara, army chief Juan Almeida and Castro himself. In 1930s Brazil, St. Nick was deemed a corrupting foreign influence and was supplanted by the government-sponsored Vovo Indio ("Grandfather Indian"), devised as a half-black, half-aboriginal embodiment of national patriotism. Even the KKK had "Santa Klaws," who handed out presents in black communities as a show of "goodwill" that was really a show of white, Eurocentric power. And there is, of course, Zwarte Piet, Dutch Santa's blackface sidekick who remains controversial to this day.

With the ostensible exception of atheists and anti-capitalists calling for the abolition of the holiday altogether (while still enjoying some statutory time-and-a-half), there seems to be, even among these squabbling camps, an essential need that Christmas satisfies. As Bowler concludes, Christmas remains "important in countless ways: in the intimate lives of families, in the industrial economy, in its spiritual challenge, in art, music and cinema." It is, in other words, worth fighting for – and fighting over.

So forget the horrid consumerism, and even the birth of Mary's boy child. It's just essentially, pretheoretically nice to huddle up with friends and family to mull some wine, sip some upmarket rye, share some stories and jokes, synge songs of lecherie, watch Badder Santa and just feel – well, sort of – warm. The pragmatic cynicism our world demands can cool its heels, if only for a night or two, surely.

Which is why I wish anyone reading this column, with what unbecoming earnestness I can muster, a merry Christmas, a happy Hanukkah, a joyous Kwanza, a hale and hearty Boxing Day protest and just a nice, warm time sipping and laughing with the people you love, and who, believe it or not, might even love you back.

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