Guest Post - Paul Kivel - Christian Holiday Cycle

by: EJ on 12/13/2013
Posted in: Guest Posts

Similar to St. Valentine’s Day and Halloween, Christmas began as a thinly veiled attempt to place a Christian overlay on Winter Solstice celebrations common throughout the Roman Empire. Christmas has a checkered history and was never a particularly spiritual holiday. The noisy and festive celebrations brought over from England by non-Puritan colonists were so unsettling to the Puritans that they banned them. In fact, many of the dominant religious churches in the colonies did not celebrate holidays such as Christmas.

Even into the 17th century boisterous festivities marked the holiday. In the late 19th century Christian male elites such as the Knickerbockers - a group of New York gentlemen - began a systematic process of domesticating the holiday by moving its celebration from the rowdy public to a more quiet home setting.

North America's traditional Christmas was created during this late 19th century period. People were moved off the streets and into churches and family gatherings, where everyone was encouraged to give gifts to children. The rise of department stores and advertising during this time further commercialized and managed this holiday. There have periodically been campaigns to “put Christ back in Christmas,” but in fact he was never really there.


However, authoritarian values normalizing reward and punishment for good and bad behavior, the watchfulness and judgmental nature of God are memorialized in the verses in “Santa Claus is Coming to Town”:

You'd better not shout,

You'd better not cry,

You better not pout,

Though I’m telling you why

Santa Claus is coming to town.


Although Christmas was recreated as a secular commercial holiday in the 19th century, Christian values remain not far below the surface.

During the Christmas season, calendars, school activities, public displays, constant advertising and the media all convey a message that everyone else is not quite American if they celebrate “exotic” holidays such as Chanukah, or more recently, Kwanzaa.

New Year’s Eve

New Year’s Eve/Day is clearly a Christian holiday. The central figure of Christianity is publicly acknowledged to such an extent that history itself and the entire yearly cycle are centered on his birth.

New Year’s day for Muslims, Jews, Hindus, Chinese, Vietnamese, Mayans and many Native peoples happens at other times of the annual cycle, according to other calendars. The fact that western countries imposed this calendar worldwide, even though those in the West are a minority in the world, is never acknowledged.

At the same time, non-Christians operate simultaneously with a second, culturally specific calendar and a set of celebrations that guide their community life. Many of these calendars are lunar-based and have a very different rhythm than the solar-based Christian one. And yet we say “Happy New Year” as if this calendar were universal, and we might say “Happy Chinese New Year” or “Happy Jewish New Year” to note these other calendars are culturally specific.

There are many efforts to reclaim some holidays and to abandon others. A few cities have proclaimed Columbus Day Indigenous People’s Day, sponsoring education and alternative activities.

Native Americans and their allies have organized indigenous celebrations around both Columbus Day and Thanksgiving.47 People of the Wampanoag nation and their allies in the Plymouth area have declared Thanksgiving a Day of Mourning and hold alternative activities. For several years in Oakland, CA, Native Americans and their allies hosted a Thangs Takin pre-thanksgiving event. They currently organize a day of protest against the post-Thanksgiving shopping that occurs at a mall built on a Native American village site and cemetery. Some Christians try to avoid the commercialization of Christmas and to infuse the holiday with an alternative set of values.   

The holidays we celebrate confront us with the values we uphold and pass on to our children. The choice is ours. Christian dominance operates through the holiday cycle; yet we each have the ability to challenge its impact and gather with others to celebrate our diverse families and multicultural communities. We can do this with simplicity, creativity, joy and much fun.



blog comments powered by Disqus