A group blog to promote discussion, debate and insight into the history, particularly religious, of America's founding. Any observations, questions, or comments relating to the blog's theme are welcomed.
Thanks for posting Thomas Kidd’s article. Its best feature was the acknowledgment of the dire Christmas of 1776 when the British thought the end of the American rebellion was imminent. Thomas Paine’s “American Crisis” was published on Dec. 19th, 1776. Paine called the “December crisis” “the times that try men’s souls.” As the remnant of Washington’s army retreated from New York City across New Jersey into Pennsylvania to put the Delaware River between them and the pursuing British, America’s most prominent (Presbyterian) cleric, John Witherspoon (president of Princeton University) closed the school, sent the students home, loaded his books and wife onto a wagon and fled to their daughter’s home in Pennsylvania. The British turned Princeton’s Nassau Hall into a barracks and storeroom, and took great pains to trash the place. For me personally, Christmas is more about Washington’s crossing than celebrating the birth of Jesus. I grew up a few miles from where George Washington crossed the Delaware River (where Jon Rowe lives) and surprised the Hessian garrison at Trenton on Christmas day 1776. My earliest childhood memories (circa age three) are about my parents bundling me up on Christmas morning before we opened any presents (well, maybe we opened one) and going to watch the annual reenactment (weather and the height of the Delaware River permitting). That is what sparked my interest in history at an early age. I found Kidd’s article to be a bit ahistorical. For an excellent scholarly (i.e., footnoted) yet accessible (i.e., well-written) overview of the history of Christmas in America, I recommend highly Stephen Nissenbaum’s book, The Battle for Christmas. The book’s thesis is that in every era Christmas has always “reveal[ed] something of what we would like to be, what we once were, or what we are becoming despite ourselves. Christmas always illuminates these underlying features of the social landscape – and sometimes the very ‘fault lines’ which threaten to divide it – that the content of the holiday, its timing, and even the matter of whether to celebrate it at all, have often been hotly contested.” (p. xii)In regards to Kidd’s assertion that, “Christmas at the time of the founding–for those who embraced it–was mostly a family and church affair, Nissenbaum’s research led him to this opposite conclusion: “But not one of these ways of celebrating Christmas (he is referring to the continuum of late 18th century colonial American Christmas observations ranging from piety, prayers, hymns and joy over the Savior’s birth to feasting, drinking and elements of rowdy “misrule”) to the holiday most of us know today. All of them were public rituals, not private celebrations; civic events, not domestic ones.” (p. 38) I also think Kidd’s statement that, “society was pervasively religious,” while true in the broadest sense, conveys a false sense of homogeneity. There was a great deal of class, regional (New England, Middle Atlantic and Southern), denominational and local religious heterogeneity. As Nissenbaum states, “Christmas was embraced by different groups with different cultural agendas. Then as now, there was no single Christmas.” (p. 37)
I grew up a few miles from where George Washington crossed the Delaware River (where Jon Rowe lives)Pinewood. Levittown. ;-) I also think Kidd’s statement that, “society was pervasively religious,” while true in the broadest sense, conveys a false sense of homogeneity. Could be, but I think the "pervasive" works well in contrast to our own times--back then, it might be fair to say that even the irreligious were somewhat religious. Ben Franklin said you could go your whole life without meeting an atheist.
Tom - I agree. I grew up in Yardley, PA, about three miles from Washington's Crossing.
JMS:I had no idea you were, like me, a Yardley guy.
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