Holidays in America: Part II

What happened next to holidays in America is that the Dutch arrived! Or the Germans and Scots, depending on the holiday.

Just as German-born Prince Albert inspired Queen Victoria (and through her, the entire Victorian era) to put up Christmas trees and sing "O Tannebaum," likewise, German, Dutch, and Scottish immigrants inspired Americans to embrace their holiday spirits. A great deal of inspiration--for Christmas, specifically--came from the New York/Appalachian corridor from whence sprang Nast, the creator of the quintessential Santa Clause image, and his friend Clement Clarke Moore, the creator of "A Visit From St. Nicholas."

Apparently, the Puritans and Protestants who stayed in Europe had less absolutist notions about how holidays should be celebrated. Their arrival on American shores re-introduced the European influence back into the holiday mix.

What should be noted is that customs got re-introduced, not history. I have to prevent myself from grinding my teeth in frustration when websites or books try to claim that Halloween (for instance) finds its roots in Samhain.

Halloween is related to Samhain the same way modern-day medicine is related to bleeding with leeches. Yes, there is a connection in the sense that people calling themselves doctors once did that. But not really.

The problem with making these types of connections--similar to well-meaning Christmas-lovers trying to tell you that candy-canes came about because they represent shepherd's crooks, not because shops found them commercially successful--is cause and effect.

The well-meaners aren't arguing that the candy canes could represent a shepherd's crook--which is cute in an innocuously pointless way; rather they are arguing a chronological connection. And as with Samhain, that just ain't so.

The best way to explain almost any holiday is through the following process (1) there is a human and/or theological need to express something, such as fear or thanks or celebration; (2) a holiday arises out of that need; (3) a new holiday replaces the older one; (3) the original delivery of the holiday is completely lost--as in TOTALLY; (4) customs begin to accrue to the holiday like balloons sticking to static-y hair; (5) people begin to back-date customs to link them up to the (supposed) original version of the holiday.

(5) is what causes problems and gets people mad when you try to (pointlessly) argue with them. The accruing customs may be revivals of previous customs and even bear remarkable similarities to what we understand the original customs to have been but they are not the original customs (only updated).

Around Easter, people do stuff with eggs because eggs are related to springtime (new chicks, etc.) and because people say, "Hey, eggs represent new life!" But doing something with eggs doesn't mean that an egg-related custom is the outgrowth of the original custom that involved eggs--it simply means that eggs are useful in creating customs. And human ingenuity operates along similar lines between ages and cultures. 

At this point, I should mention that I don't get all cynical about this gap between the original customs and the current customs. Neither do I get upset about (3). I find it amusing but odd when people tell me breathlessly, "I bet you didn't know that Christmas replaced a pagan holiday!!"

Yeah, I did. And so?

This type of thing--one holiday replacing another--was happening long before Christians arose on the scene. Ancient Egypt performed several hundred years of non-Christian practices in which local gods rose in prominence to assume authority over other local gods and various customs got subsumed, replaced, and transformed by incoming immigrants, developing politics, and changing capitals.

It isn't all the different from what occurred when my parents got married. They each brought their own holiday customs to the table. They decided on an amalgam of those customs. So, for example, on Christmas Eve, we exchanged family gifts. On Christmas morning, we got our stockings after which we ate breakfast (sweet cereal!) after which we lined up and marched into the living room where the Santa Clause presents were stacked (the tree was in the dining room off of the living room).

Large-scale, this is how cultures operate--only not always as consciously or conscientiously.

Part III will follow next Friday . . . 

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