Holiday Cheer is an Evolving Tradition
By Anne Pyburn Craig
We recognize the exchange of gifts as a sacred occasion, which is why we instinctively make a ceremony out of gift giving. Sacred money, then, will be a medium of giving, a means to imbue the global economy with the spirit of the gift that governed tribal and village cultures, and still does today wherever people do things for each other outside the money economy.
–Charles Eisenstein, Sacred Economics
Everything is essentially a gift. We’d be at a loss to create air, water, or light out of nothing, or start a crop without seed, which may be why the hoarding and monetization of these basics seems so instinctively wrong to most of us. Even the most advanced technological products depend on raw materials already here, such as sunshine or minerals, combined with ideas and human energy.
If we buy into the mainstream gestalt that envisions life as one big competition, and success as a scramble to the top of the pile no matter whose head gets stepped on, each individual’s ideas and energy are to be exchanged for the dominant regime’s pieces of paper (or, to be more accurate these days, notations in digital files). These are then exchanged or hoarded for everything from basic needs to exotic trinkets of all sizes.
Giving, in this mainstream version, is supposed to be measured by the quantity of the various markers that the giver needed to exchange to produce his or her gift. Every year right around this time there is a concerted effort to convince everyone, no matter their means, to cough up as much as we can humanly muster as a way of expressing our connectedness to others and, in some cases, our own status. And indeed, there is nothing quite as much fun as giving someone something they really want or need.
By all reports, the people living here before the European mass migration arrived thrived on giving. It was what you did, fueled by an understanding that not only are we all connected, we are not separate from the air, water, and land itself. The measure of a person was not in what they hoarded, but in what they gave; in giving, it was understood, one could not lose because reciprocity and gratitude were as real as the rivers and the sun.
Sadly, the new arrivals held a different view. For many generations, under feudalism and early capitalism, territories and even people themselves had been assigned abstract monetary value, and could be owned by individuals and groups as private property. Spiritual tradition paid lip service to giving, and undoubtedly some have always tried and succeeded to make it more than that, but being raised with a scarcity mindset and an isolationist, individualist worldview made it more of a challenge. If there is not enough to go around, giving can put the giver at risk.
It remains, however, an indisputable pleasure to give; even the Puritans found ways of doing it. Altruism is essential to human survival. But if you think there’s a fuss over the so-called “War on Christmas” in modern times, it’s nothing compared to the dustup that was going on throughout our nation’s Colonial era, when society still questioned whether or not it was okay to feast, drink, and be merry on December 25.
Puritans, Quakers, and a few other denominations considered such doings deeply impious. Puritans, in particular, disliked the seventeenth-century European custom of celebrating for twelve days of singing, drinking, feasting, and gift exchange, believing aspects such as charitable giving were outweighed by the drinking, carousing, and Saturnalian notions of “misrule” in which the servants got to boss the masters for a brief time. “What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonor of God and impoverishing of the realm,” fumed Philip Stubbes, writing in the 1580s. A few decades later, in 1642, preacher Thomas Fuller told his congregation to renounce celebration. Kids, he said, might be taken in by all the hullabaloo, but responsible elders should “mourn while they are in mirth.”
It’s all sort of logical if you try and twist your mind around to the concept of original sin, which may have been one of humans’ earlier attempts to put a price tag on the gifts of a benevolent Universe. Christmas was forbidden throughout New England and discouraged in other places. In fact, having a feast in Massachusetts, or taking the day off, would cost you a five-shilling fine.
The Hudson Valley was one front on which the war was soon won (or lost, depending on your viewpoint). Puritans had been unable to sell their sour-pussed take on things even in their native England; it was one of the reasons they wanted to get away and found a brave new world of asceticism. The early Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam, on the other hand, brought with them Sinterklaas, an adaptation of third-century Saint Nicholas and his legendary heartfulness and love for kids that made a nice early-December companion piece for Christmas, which the Dutch customarily spent in worship and family togetherness. The two did not compete in the Dutch mind of the early Hudson Valley, even though it was glaringly obvious that Sinterklaas was no Puritan. The first church on Manhattan Island was dedicated to Sinterklaas.
Meanwhile, those who weren’t Calvinist had never had a problem mixing some secular joys with wishing Jesus a putative Happy Birthday. When Hudson Valley native Washington Irving borrowed a joyful version of Sinterklaas for his Knickerbocker Tales in 1809 and thirteen years later Clement Moore envisioned his “jolly old elf” visiting on Christmas Eve, plenty of people were ready to hop aboard the festive holiday sleigh.
It was, after all, near the dawn of the Industrial Age. Perhaps the need for an external symbol of generosity and giving was needed, and growing greater. If the tribal mode of living, in which giving was all, had been gone from much of the European psyche for centuries, there still remained a real need for giving. Traditions such as trees and cards developed in the middle of the 19th century, something to grab onto in a rapidly changing world.
Of course, industrial capitalism would rapidly sink its fangs into what was emerging as “the holidays.” The story of the Christmas card is instructive. A German immigrant, Louis Prang, briefly dominated the trend around 1870. “Behind Prang’s delight in profits lay a certain idealism,” writes Penn Restad on the website History Today. “He saw his cards as small, affordable works of art. Through them he hoped to stimulate popular interest in original decorative art and to educate public taste. In 1880, Prang began to sponsor annual competitions for Christmas card designs to promote these ends. These contests made Christmas cards so popular that other card manufacturers entered the market. By 1890, cheap imitations from his native Germany drove Prang from the Christmas card market entirely.”
We’re coming in a circle. The concept of abundance is being rediscovered, and there’s a growing resistance to the monetization of absolutely everything. At potlucks, meet-ups, and communal gatherings, we rediscover the truth that there really is enough. We give time, energy and ideas to each other all year long, at Repair Cafes and farmers’ markets and swaps, on street corners and farms. A growing number of hyper-local organizations promote transition in a direction that ultimately leads back to a gift economy.
And so we salute you, dear reader, as a part of this trend. Eat, drink, and be merry—and keep on spreading that joy all year long.