Merry, mixed up, American Christmas

It is a holiday filled with contradictions, a mixture of the holy and secular, rooted in a religious story two millennia old, but framed in its modern-day configuration by poet Clement Clarke Moore, an American born three years after his country declared its independence; 19th-century British author Charles Dickens, and 20th-century Hollywood.

Prof. Moore gave us the poem "A Visit from St. Nicholas," more commonly known as the "Night Before Christmas," introducing to popular culture the character who became Santa Claus.

Mr. Dickens authored "A Christmas Carol," restoring and perpetuating the concept of the Christmas season as one of fun and jollity, while emphasizing Christian themes of caring for the poor and taking a good poke at the excesses of industrial capitalism in the process.

Hollywood has built upon these themes, indulging the magic of Santa Claus in the 1947 film "Miracle on 34th Street." Utilizing Mr. Dickens' method of an alternative timeline to tell the story of goodness prevailing over greed, Frank Capra gave us "It's A Wonderful Life" in 1946. The 1983 comedy "A Christmas Story" recalls warmly the material indulgences of the modern holiday.

"We plunged into the cornucopia, quivering with desire and the ecstasy of unbridled avarice," recalls the narrator and lead character, Ralphie, about the childhood delight of diving into presents piled under the Christmas tree.

A pragmatic approach to mixing the earthly and divine is found in the very origins of the holiday's time of observance, Dec. 25. The New Testament is silent on what date the birth of Jesus Christ took place. The date celebrated blends with the time of the Winter solstice. Converted pagans carried along to the Christmas celebration such solstice customs as the Yule Log and decoration with greenery.

It is a holiday laden with nostalgia, thick with memories and filled with impossible expectations.

"From now on, our troubles will be miles away," wrote Hugh Martin and Ralph Blane in the wistful classic "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas."

Running hard against these joyful aspirations are the realities of family discord and bills to pay.

Little wonder that a recent Pew Research Center poll would show there are divergent and seemingly contradictory views among Americans concerning Christmas.

According to the poll, 92 percent of Americans celebrate it, with 51 percent characterizing it as more of a religious holiday, 32 percent seeing it as more of a cultural holiday and 9 percent ambivalent on the topic. Yet about 3 out of 4 Americans, meaning some of those who see it as a cultural holiday, embrace its miraculous origins, expressing to pollsters belief in the virgin birth.

Some things are changing. The older a person is, the more likely he or she will view Christmas as a religious holiday, with 66 percent of those 65 and older holding that view, compared to 39 percent of those 29 and under.

Some things are not. Nine in 10 Americans responded that they maintain the customs and activities they experienced as children.

Whatever personal views, Christmas remains a ubiquitous and popular celebration in American culture. Judging by the many toy drives, food collections and other acts of charity seen again this holiday season, the words spoken to Scrooge by his nephew, Fred, in "A Christmas Carol" are truer today than when Mr. Dickens put them to pen.

"I have always thought of Christmas time, when it has come round as a good time: a kind, forgiving, charitable, pleasant time: the only time I know of, in the long calendar of the year, when men and women seem by one consent to open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them as if they really were fellow-passengers to the grave, and not another race of creatures bound on other journeys. And therefore, uncle, though it has never put a scrap of gold or silver in my pocket, I believe that it has done me good, and will do me good; and I say, God bless it!"

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