It is impossible to decide what presents to get for people for the simple reason that everybody has got everything that can be thought of.
H. B. Stowe
Sound like your Christmas? You might be surprised to learn that this sentiment was penned by Harriet Beecher Stowe—author of Uncle Tom’s Cabin—in a short story written in 1853. Things must have been moving pretty quickly because Christmas had only been reinvented in 1819. That’s the year Washington Irving wrote, the Sketchbook of Geoffrey Crayon. The book tells the story of the Squire of Bracebridge Hall who crosses boundaries of wealth and class when he invites the local peasantry into his home for Christmas. Irving saw Christmas as a time of peace, goodwill, joyful celebration and ample revelry.
But why did Christmas have to be reinvented?
It turns out to have everything to do with excess. Christians didn’t begin celebrating Christmas in a noticeable way until the early 300’s, but by the 1500’s the holiday had gained phenomenal popularity. Unfortunately, the 25th of December was enjoyed at that time as much for feasting, gift-giving and hearty-partying as for its original religious meaning. As a result, Christmas was an early victim of the Protestant Reformation. Before the Reformation was over, the holiday was actually made illegal in many places—including Boston! Even when restrictions eased, Christmas didn’t rebound to its former glory until Irving got the ball rolling again.
Inspired by Irving’s book, Charles Dickens began writing about Christmas in 1836. He too saw Christmas as a time of cheerfulness, goodwill and for the “gathering together of family connexions.” By the time he wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, he also understood the day as an opportunity to mobilize resources against the twin evils of Ignorance and Want. All this was tailor-made for those sentimental Victorians who took to Christmas like a thirsty partier to a bowl of wassail. With the same enthusiasm, President Grant extended the spirit of Christmas to Americans of all beliefs when he proclaimed it a national holiday in 1870.
There’s some comfort in the realization that people have been complaining about the excesses and commercialization of Christmas since the 16th century. At least the chiding of our own age isn’t quite so unique. But there is even greater comfort in the recognition that for centuries men and women have been drawn to the impulses that inspire Christmas.
Christmas is a warm and forgiving time. It’s a time when past complaints are more easily put aside and when it’s easier to extend a hand in friendship. It’s a time when charity is prominent and empathy swells the heart. Christmas gives us a chance to reflect on our own blessings and to substitute, if only briefly, happiness for care. And it inspires us to give. It makes selflessness our chief virtue. We give generously to those we love and we give generously to acquaintances and strangers as well. We even give to those we may not particularly like because anger seems petty and out of place in this generous season. If we let the exuberance of the season overwhelm us, shame on us—but not shame on Christmas! The best things about Christmas are common to us all—charity, goodwill and selflessness. We need these excessively and we need them all year long. —Ebert