It’s fitting that both the day after Christmas and the day after New Year’s fall on a Tuesday this year. Tuesday is an appropriate day to wake up to after a long period of fantasy and gluttony disguised as the highest holy holiday of the year. Like other periods of gluttony and celebration, we wake up the next morning asking ourselves what just happened. The Christmas letdown is in and of itself an annual tradition.
As I’ve written before, Western society has backloaded its peak spiritual energy and seasonal celebrations into December. Kate Bush might have sung that “December will be magic again.” But it was actually morphed into a giant extravaganza over the last two centuries where peak commercialism and peak spirituality began to feed off each other.
History of the commercialization of Christmas
The Christmas holiday as we know it is a remarkably recent phenomenon. I’ve touched on some of the potential pagan antecedents of modern Christmas traditions. But no evidence of a direct link has actually been established between these traditions and modern traditions. Some antecedents existed with the Roman celebration of Saturnalia but many Christians actually resisted this due to its pagan origins. Much of the modern celebration of Christmas with its decorations and gift-giving came with the Protestant Reformation. Much of the American version of Christmas was popular in Germany in the late 18th century. It didn’t spread to the Western Hemisphere until the early 1800s.
The first vivid description of the modern day Santa Claus figure appeared literally two hundred years ago last week. (The figure was referred to as St. Nicholas–the Santa Claus name came later.) Efforts at commercialization of this phenomenon began in the coming decades. Even so, the practice didn’t start gaining significantly in popularity in the U.S. until around the Civil War. An image of Santa Claus visiting Union troops appeared on an 1862 cover of Harper’s Magazine. The illustrator of that image, Thomas Nast, published a more detailed cartoon series in the same magazine in 1866. In 1870, the U.S. Congress passed a law declaring Christmas, New Year’s, Independence Day and Thanksgiving as the first federally recognized holidays. It’s noteworthy that Easter, officially the most holy day of Christianity, was not among those holidays. Though perhaps it was because it has always fallen on a Sunday.
Nearly 70 years later, President Franklin D. Roosevelt moved Thanksgiving Day from the last to the fourth Thursday of November. It had been established by President Lincoln some 70 years before on the Thursday of November. Roosevelt’s proclamation was designed to help retailers during the Depression, and this more clearly established the link between Christmas and commerce. (Retailers were happy, Republicans were not.) The term “Black Friday” was reportedly coined by traffic police in Philadelphia who dreaded the fallout from the massive traffic jams and overcrowded sidewalks of shoppers.
Building up to a big Christmas letdown
So it’s not hard to see a self-perpetuating feedback loop occur between spirituality and commerce around Christmas time. It’s easy to see spiritual themes become marketing tools during this season. Also, Santa Claus becomes a formative part of children’s spirituality (leading to an often bigger letdown among children ages 7 or 8).
Western society is notably lacking in other seasonal celebrations, which can make us feel rather spiritually bereft. Easter simply never caught on as a big holiday in the U.S. despite the fact that it is officially regarded as Christianity’s holiest holiday. The U.S. Independence Day has a lot of celebratory summer themes around it but itself does not have any religious theme (though those who wrap themselves in the American flag may beg to differ). So Christmas begins to feel markedly like a different time of year. The music suddenly changes and familiar Christmas songs beginning to fill the airwaves on our radios and in our stores.
Feeling spiritually bereft through the year, the sudden rush of this spiritual-commercial cocktail puts an immense amount of pressure on December. Peak commercialism puts a lot of pressure on working people. For those dealing with difficult financial and/or family situations, the time of year can be especially painful. And then on December 26 or January 2, we have the after Christmas letdown.
Greg Lake, an English musician who co-founded the progressive rock groups King Crimson and Emerson Lake and Palmer, wrote the song “I Believe in Father Christmas” in 1975 with lyrics supplied by King Crimson co-founder Peter Sinfield. Lake said that he intended the song to be a protest against the commercialization of Christmas. Sinfield said he intended the song to be about the lost of childhood innocence. (Trigger warning: Vietnam War footage of guns firing and bombs falling are in one segment of the video.)
Making the holiday season(s) your own
The eight-spoked Wheel of the Year lends itself to seasonal celebrations throughout the year. One thing I have done over the years is develop a playlist on my media player for each of the Sabbats. The playlist consists of either songs explicitly relating to the Pagan holiday or in keeping with the vibration of year.
You also don’t have to be Pagan in order to mark the seasons throughout the year. Many Catholics have used the feast days of saints (some of which have been deliberately tied to pagan celebrations) to mark the year and decorate. A Catholic supervisor I once worked for has found great joy in decorating for the seasons.
Dealing with the ups and downs of the official “Western holiday” season also gives us an opportunity to think about what our most important spiritual values are. From there, we can get creative as to how we can celebrate them through other times of the year. We may have to contend with a world and culture that tries to define our spiritual holidays for us. But we can make the December holiday season–and any season we wish–what we want it to be. And in that way we can avoid the phenomenon of the Christmas letdown.