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"For it's good to be children sometimes, and never better than at Christmas, when its mighty founder was a child himself."
-- Charles Dickens, ''A Christmas Carol''
If you lived in New England in the 17th century, it was not in your best interest to celebrate Christmas. The Puritans believed that Christmas had no biblical basis, and opposed what they viewed as a set of wicked, pagan rituals. They officially outlawed the holiday in 1659. For over 20 years, the open celebration of Christmas in Boston including activities such as "feasting" would result in a fine of five shillings. Shops and businesses in New England were required to remain open on Christmas Day, and a town crier would march through the streets shouting "No Christmas! No Christmas!"
Even after Boston legalized Christmas in 1681, many Americans were indifferent toward the holiday. The American Revolution did not help matters, as colonists united in opposition to what they viewed as a European holiday and thus a symbol of tyranny. Washington's famous crossing of the Delaware River occurred on Christmas Day, when Hessian soldiers (German auxiliaries fighting for the British) were in the midst of their Christmas celebrations. Washington's army took advantage of the Germans' Christmas revelries to execute a surprise attack and defeat them in the Battle of Trenton.
How is it that the same Christians who once opposed Christmas came to embrace it as their most beloved holiday?
Our collective "about face" occurred in the middle of the 19th century. There were a variety of cultural forces at work, but one of the most important was the publication in 1843 of "A Christmas Carol," by Charles Dickens. Published at the very moment in history when we were starting to soften toward Christmas, "A Christmas Carol" recast the holiday as an occasion for personal transformation. For the first time in Anglo-American popular culture kindness and hospitality were linked with the Christmas Spirit. Even the phrase "Merry Christmas!" was popularized by one of Dickens' characters.
We're all familiar with Ebeneezer Scrooge, the solitary, ill-tempered miser who receives visits from the ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come. His journey through time reveals the pitiful legacy he will leave behind if he does not reform his ways. The misanthropic, cold-hearted Scrooge learns to see Christmas as an opportunity to welcome others into his life and salvage his relationships. Scrooge is granted a new lease on life through the Christmas spirit.
The story's focus on togetherness, family and hospitality has influenced the way we celebrate Christmas in the modern era. The earliest readers of "A Christmas Carol" were deeply moved by its message. The writer Thomas Carlyle was inspired to throw a pair of large holiday feasts after reading the story. After attending a public reading of the story in Boston on Christmas Eve in 1867, one factory owner decided to close down his factory on Christmas Day and send turkeys to all of his workers. Countless others have responded to Scrooge's transformation with spontaneous acts of generosity.
Dickens viewed "A Christmas Carol" as a secular tale, but its messages of salvation, transformation and hospitality resonate with the message of the Gospels. Maria Benoit, Director of Mission and Pastoral Care at Youville says, "Hospitality is an important theme in the story of Jesus' birth.
First, Mary and Joseph are turned away from the inn. But as soon as the shepherds hear that a new king has been born, they all rush to the manger to welcome him. In Matthew, the wise men, or "magi," travel from the East to welcome the newborn child with gifts of frankincense, myrrh and gold.
Christians and non-Christians alike recovered this spirit of hospitality when they opened up to Christmas in the Victorian Era. It's hard to believe that many of the joyous holiday customs we're so used to today are only recent developments. As late as the 1860s, most Americans did not buy Christmas trees, hang stockings or celebrate Christmas with friends and family. Christmas did not become a national holiday until 1870.
Today, our Christmas traditions feel comfortable and familiar. Like Scrooge's once-cold heart, our history of austerity has given way to a warmer spirit of welcoming.
Adam Johnson writes for Youville Assisted Living Residences, member of Covenant Health Systems, a Catholic, multi-institutional health and elder care organization serving New England, www.youvilleassistedliving.org.