Every Christmas I have the same vague sense of dislocation. What am I doing celebrating this religious holiday when my family and I not only do not belong to any sect of Christianity, but do not really belong to any religion at all! We have a Christmas tree, and lights drape the holly tree outside. We wrap and exchange presents. We eat Christmassy foods, and drink Christmassy beverages, wishing each other Christmas cheer and sending Christmas cards. My nieces and nephew believe in Santa Claus, and their parents maintain the lie.
I have learned upon examining this that there is only one reason for this assimilation, but that it is affected by several other factors. Quite simply, everything we do as a family for Christmas is for the children, it began that way when my siblings and I were small and continues now because of my nieces and nephew. No one in my family has the strength of will to squash the hopes of small children beaming while holding candy canes, lists for Santa, and dropping broad hints about what they want. Part of what makes this inevitable is the hold Christianity and Christmas has on American culture. Yet, that is not all. The public, largely non-denominational, face of mercantile Christmas is particularly suited to assimilation by immigrants of no particular organized religion with certain kinds of traditions. What results is a secular festival which revolves around ideals of family, plenty, generosity, charity, and the celebration of children. What follows is an exploration of why Christmas has been embraced by my family and others, and the reasons why this pattern is possible.
The United States is a Christian country. This is true culturally even if our civil system attempts to be secular. The US Census Bureau is restricted from asking questions about religion.1 However, information collected by religious organizations was collected into the 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States. According to this document, in 1990 52.7% of the entire population were Christian adherents of some sort. Compare this to the 1998 figures on the same chart for Jewish population, 2.3%.2 The gap between these figures goes far beyond margin for error and time elapsed. Another chart counting only adults and comprised of data collected from another source, has somewhat different figures: 55% Protestant; 28% Catholic; 2% Jewish; 6% other, and 8% none.3 Again, even if assuming a very large margin of error, these figures clearly show that Christians, especially Protestants, are in the majority.
This cultural hegemony of Christianity, specifically a Protestant hegemony, began with the origins of the United States when the statistics were even more dramatic. William Hutchinson describes the early colonial population as having been over 95% Protestant, predominantly Calvinist, and overwhelmingly English speaking.4 He remarks that later in the early 1800s "the colonists had been at least 85 percent English-speaking Calvinist Protestants, and that this quite homogeneous population had spent two centuries constructing a culture to their own specifications…".5 According to Leigh Schmidt the dominance of Protestantism in colonial America has greatly influenced the development of today’s holiday celebrations.
Schmidt explains in Consumer Rights that the medieval Catholic tradition placed holy observation in opposition to work. In practice the two met frequently, whether in the farmer working the fields or the merchant peddling wares on a feast day.6 Sunday, feast days, and the liturgical calendar were all clearly delineated sacred time and the relationship with commerce was often an uncomfortable balance of profit and necessity. According to Schmidt "With the floodgates of reform lifted in the sixteenth century, holidays were a consistent focal point for criticism and conflict as Protestants worked out new versions of time, celebration, worship and labor. "7 Protestant Sabbatarians such as Puritans, Baptists, Presbyterians, etc. rejected festival and feast days. They kept only the Sabbath and certain fast days reserved for spiritual reflection, and sharply separated those days from the marketplace and work. The Quakers took this even further, questioning the validity of separating out a special time or day for religious and spiritual observation since all days were to be lived with an equal degree of piety and reflection.8 Because of this, work and holy days were no longer separate. Indeed, with the dominance of the Protestant work ethic, and the growing Enlightenment philosophy that time off from work for holidays was economically unsound, sober work came to be considered the true expression of piety and good citizenship.9
According to Schmidt, during the Victorian period Americans began to have a romantic desire for festivals. This led to a rediscovery or re-imagining of Christmas and other holidays, as well as the creation of new ones, and the appropriation of ‘genteel’ traditions such as gift giving from other countries. This rediscovery did not possess the same uneasy concept that, aside from practical necessity, the holy day should be separate from commerce and work. Two hundred years of asserting that holy time did not exist had the residual effect of permitting the vendor metaphorically into the church. Also, the work ethic (both Protestant and Enlightenment) was still powerful. Selling well on Christmas was admirable, and since austerity had passed, purchasing was appropriate and desirable. Consider the Dickensian Christmas model put forward in A Christmas Carol and how dominant it is in Christmas imagery and merchandizing. Needless to say, merchants saw the trends early and began to shape holidays into marketplace festivals of consumerism.
Today, in the majority of American neighborhoods, Christmas is inescapable. Starting in November, canned carols drift from banks and malls, are piped through shopping districts and office building elevators. Christmas movies hit theaters and those from past years are on television. Some radio and cable television stations choose to go All Christmas All The Time. Lawns and doorways sprout lights, wreaths and plastic Santas, even the odd inflatable Grinch. One can chase green and red M&Ms with seasonally packaged Coca-Cola, and color coordinate one’s outfits to gourmet candy canes. Christmas is the most prominent holiday in this country. No other has such a broad display or long season, with marketing of related merchandize beginning as early as Hallowe’en, and an extended repertoire of public and private celebratory events that continue well into January.
Church efforts to ''Put the Christ back into Christmas'' began in the early 1900s and still persist.10 Christmas has come full circle and once again the marketplace is considered by many to have an uncomfortably profound impact on the holiday’s expression. There is a sense that the holiday has become one of buying good will, bribing children, gluttony and excess. It is common to hear people of all backgrounds complain of the merchandizing frenzy of the holiday marketing colossus, and of the marked lack of generosity and fellow-feeling in those fighting and clawing over the last available 'hot toy of the year.' Still, the sheer ubiquity of holiday displays and traditions, whether commercial, private, or civic, shows that austerity is not yet making a return.
Perhaps ironically, it is this absence of Christ and the absence of specific church or sectarian affiliation which makes the holiday accessible to non-Christians such as my family. The secularized holiday enforces rules of normative behavior ostensibly to further several ideals (peace, charity, good will, generosity, devotion to family, love for children, etc.) yet does not require adherence to a specific church or doctrine.
Back Where I Come From
To understand how it has been possible for my family and so many other Chinese American families to embrace a secular Christmas, it is necessary to understand a little about the culture we have come from. Specifically, the religious atmosphere prevalent in Taiwan fifty years ago when my parents still lived there, and which has not changed drastically for the religiously disinclined in the decades since they moved to the United States.
Just as Montezuma had his Temple of the Diverse Gods, Chinese traditions (excluding late monotheistic introductions) accept multiple gods and saints.11 Even Buddhism accepts gods, while saying there is yet a state which transcends godhead. The general pervasiveness of religion in Taiwan, and consequently in immigrants from Taiwan, is as strong as that of the American Protestant hegemony. However, its expression is very different. It is a combination of ancestor veneration, pantheism, Buddhism, Taoism, and Confucian philosophy. For every temple off a major thoroughfare, there are others accessible only by foot path, or in the remote recesses of a mountain, reachable only by nauseatingly steep one lane switchbacks. Each temple is scaled to match the god it houses, so neighborhood temples are almost smaller than the people who leave the offerings. The temples, especially the smaller ones, often do not have organized religious observances managed by a religious order. Most of the small and medium sites are maintained through the years by the work of a specific family using donations from the community. Meanwhile, the temples themselves are generally open to use whenever a member of the community or a visitor should need it, regardless of their specific affiliation.
Traditions are not only expressed in a temple. Some families still burn fake money and incense for their ancestors; you can easily find the money even in the United States. Or, the next time you visit a Chinese restaurant, look around and see if there is a spot with an odd number of oranges and a glass of liquor or can of soda set aside, perhaps before one or three statues. It is an offering for the god of prosperity. Look around for where mirrors are placed in Chinese homes. Opposite a door, they prevent ghosts from entering the house. The ghost will see its reflection, and terrified by its own hideousness, run away. And then there are the puns for luck and the puns that are avoided. Fish is eaten on New Year’s Eve because the word 'fish’ sounds similar to the word for 'excess’ or 'plenty’ and thus symbolizes bounty for the new year. Many houses, including my parents’, have a plaque with the word 'happiness’ displayed upside down. The word for 'turned over’ sounds similar to the word for 'arrived.’ Knives and umbrellas are never given as gifts because 'knife’ sounds the same as 'fall’ and 'umbrella’ sounds the same as 'fall apart.’
Chinese New Year’s Eve is the most important Chinese holiday, and one of only two Chinese holidays my family truly observes.12 It is always marked with new clothing, cleaning, a family dinner with special foods, and red envelopes of money for the children which bring luck to the giver. Family and friends from around the world are called and wished a prosperous new year.
Without fanfare, my mother has made sure that both of her daughters have gold and jade. Jade and gold are for good fortune and prosperity, and while I am not a very superstitious person, long habit has worn significance into my necklace and I feel exposed if I take it off. My mother wears one as well, and my sister also has a piece although she does not wear it. My grandmother many years ago gave my brother, sister, and I each a small bone bead on a piece of red silk. The bead was said to be a piece of skull bone from a Buddhist monk, taken from where the third eye would be. All three of us wore them for years, and I only stopped because mine became fragile. I believe my brother and sister still wear theirs.
If you ask my parents to what religion they belong my father may mention Buddhism, but neither actively practices. If you ask to what religion they have raised their children to adhere, they will say none. We visit temples out of interest, but do not seek them out out of piety. Nonetheless, upon entering one both my parents will light the incense, and bow three time before placing it in the urn. When my grandfather died, my father played a tape on continuous repeat for several days after their return from the funeral in Taiwan. It was of Buddhist monks chanting, and it was to help my grandfather’s spirit find its way after death. My father also adheres to another tradition, and displays black and white portrait photographs of his deceased parents. Although my parents do not place offerings of incense or flowers before the photographs, my aunt has done so with hers despite having been baptized several years before. These and all the other little artifacts of belief are automatic to the point where, when asked, my father is not entirely sure from which traditions many of these come.
Another key difference between the Chinese traditions and American Christian traditions, is that there is no stigma or uneasiness attached to giving gifts or money. The rules of hospitality require fighting for the check at a restaurant and never arriving empty handed when visiting. Wine, liquor, beer, cakes, sweets, fruit, tea, and ginseng are typical hospitality gifts. Money, bounty, feasting, drinking, are all necessary aspects of holidays, and expected components for other events of significance as well.
For families that can afford it, a bride is to have several special dresses as part of her trousseau, and she changes into all of them at points during the reception. She is also given jewelry by her parents, as fine as they can afford. Pearls, 24 karat gold chains, jade bracelets bedeck the new bride in her new dresses to show her wealth to the assembled guests. In turn, money is the traditional wedding gift to be given by guests.
Red envelopes of new bills are not only given to children on New Year’s Eve, but really at any time of the year. They are also given as tips to anyone who has been especially helpful or particularly good at their job. These tips do not have the same connotation as tipping the doorman here. They bear more resemblance to the giving of money to children and are taken as an act of patronage by an older, more prosperous person.
Funerals also have traditions of money and gift giving. On a visit to Taiwan, I saw a yellow tent on a side street. There was a large portrait inside the tent, and the entrance was flanked by two enormous pyramids made of cans of beer and decorated with lights and garlands of artificial flowers. The tent had been erected for the funeral of someone who had died outside of the home and thus could not have the funeral at his house. Whether the ceremony is held in or outside the home, funeral guests give money to the host. Sums can be quite significant, reflecting the respect the giver feels for the deceased. The towers of beer were also a gift to the funeral from persons paying their respects. A gift such as the beer would be used as refreshments for the guests after the service.
That Looks Like Fun
Clearly a culture that marks significant events and holidays with money is not going to boggle at a commercialized American Christmas. If anything, the non-denominational commercial face of a secularized Christmas is a comprehensible holiday to be entered into with enthusiasm.
For those who have immigrated to the United States from Taiwan, the undercurrent of religion in Christmas would not be off-putting. Separated from a church and a specific doctrine, it is, as my mother put it, a ‘safe holiday’ wherein one’s observation does not equate one’s conversion. I conducted a far from scientific survey of family and friends in which just under half of the respondents belong in some way to a Christian tradition. It was skewed Catholic because one family with adult children is Catholic. Of the nine respondents who indicated that they do not have a Christian background, three stated that they began celebrating Christmas upon having children, and one stated that he began upon moving to the United States. Since I happen to know who this last respondent is, I know that he was a young teenager when he moved here and he was absorbed into my family’s traditions which included a secular Christmas. Also, a number of the persons who do not have a religion but have celebrated Christmas all their lives are the children of people who began celebrating because of their children. The data does not clearly indicate this relationship.
Looking at the survey questions, wintry weather (although snow has different connotations than ice and cold), presents, food and drink, family, and the Christmas tree top the list as the most repeated items in the ‘off the top of the head ten.’ However, when asked the more specific question of the meaning of Christmas for the respondent, family tops the list with gift-giving as the next nearest. In both questions, Christ, church, Christmas Mass, and other religious expression are not greatly represented in the answers. Partially, this is because the questions have multiple answers, so food, presents, etc. have a commonality across the board, whereas church, etc, responses were limited to seven people. However, in the meaning question, only two mention Christ at all in their responses. This despite five persons mentioning Christ in the list of ten.
What I conclude from this is that in this group the socially normative aspects of Christmas as a festival celebrating family and especially children, and with food, wine, and gifts, is much more powerful than the doctrines of any church or scripture. The information, although flawed, does indicate that a desire to please the children has participated in creating a secular Christmas tradition for at least some of the respondents. One in particular, states specifically that it was not until his children began nursery school that Christmas came to be celebrated in his home. I asked him about this later and he said that the children would come home from school talking about Santa Claus and presents, and his children’s expectation was not something he was prepared to disappoint.
I have had conversations with my sister-in-law post-survey as well. She explained that her elaborate Christmas is entirely to create a special experience for the children. While she specifically focuses on her own children, she is also interested in the children of family and friends. It is a children’s event for her, and while she finds the whole round of preparations and visiting exhausting, she finds it extremely fulfilling at the same time. For her, Christmas was not a particularly celebrated holiday growing up. Her parents are far less assimilated than mine are, and participated in New York’s Chinatown culture rather than the suburban New Jersey of my parents. Her family observes Chinese traditions more closely than American ones, yet they have embraced a secular Christmas upon exposure to my family’s traditions and upon the arrival of grandchildren.
We have also created a number of holiday traditions, such as adopting the Yankee Swap to prevent bankruptcy and disappointment. The benefit of the game is that it gives us something to do that is fun and precludes conversation. A house with thirty or so people in it can be full of tension, boredom, and awkward silences. Some people are not talking to others. Many people only meet each year at Christmas. Some people are total strangers. There are as many as twelve disparate households converging under one roof for seven or more hours. The game permits us to preserve the illusion of Rockwellian fellowship and enjoy ourselves in the process. The gifts are not the point of the game, it is all about interacting. Undesirable gifts are inevitable, and I have received several of them. They in no way impair the enjoyment of the game, or dull the remembrance of the evening. In fact, the gag gifts are by far the most popular. The children open their own presents before the Swap begins, and they in many ways envy the adults the game. While they prefer their piles of presents, they always put down their new toys to watch the Swap and help out.
The game is emblematic of the holiday, and all about maintaining and re-enforcing relationships for the coming year. To collect everyone under one roof is a great feat. To have everyone enjoy him or herself and remember the evening fondly is closer to a miracle! Yet, this is what we achieve every year. And, of course, Christmas Day is only one small part of the larger layering of Christmas traditions of grown children coming home from far away residences, shopping, baking, tree trimming, etc.
But still, why Christmas?
The holiday is certainly accessible to the subgroup of immigrants which encompasses my family and many others. A secularized Christmas is perfectly suited for appropriation. But why has it been appropriated in the first place? This must be because it is everywhere. Here is a holiday which celebrates children and family and friends, adopted by immigrants far from their parents and siblings, starting families and turning to their friends for a feeling of community and connection. There is nothing about the holiday to offend, and its non-religious presence in the marketplace is sufficient to make it welcoming to those in need of a festival. And it is pervasive, expected, normal to celebrate this holiday. The children are taught it in school and the parents follow. Indeed, my sister-in-law’s parents did not follow this pattern and begin celebrating Christmas. Her father managed a Kosher Chinese restaurant for many, many years, and their social context was the Chinese speaking enclaves in New York. This setting permitted them to maintain a sense of connection and continuity with Chinese traditions, keeping Chinese New Year as the most prominent holiday of the year.
This was not possible for my family and many of their friends. The majority of my parents’ friends purchased houses in suburbs of major cities as soon as they could afford them. These suburbs were overwhelmingly white, middle class, Protestant. Christmas is celebrated to some extent in each of these households. There was also, inevitably, the desire to fit in and be a part of the group. To participate in the fun and share in the excitement. This is true for adults just as much as children. And, upon having children, adults need to interact with the community they live in more and more.
In the end, we celebrate Christmas because we enjoy it. It is why we enjoy it which is complicated. There is the desire to please children who bring the imprint of the ideas home from school. There is the spectacle of the mercantile machine in every shop window and media outlet. There is the common wish on the lips of friends and acquaintances. There is the of time off from work and a festival atmosphere in the air. There is the desire to be just as those happy folks in the movies. There is the feeling fostered by stories, images and advertisements that it is right to be with family and to indulge a little. So we say it is for the children, even though it is really just as much for the adults. In the end, it is for the entire extended family; to reaffirm our relationships, to satisfy the internalized ideals of the season, and to feel like we belong.
Some results from the survey.
A short survey of 8 questions was given to family and friends on Thanksgiving, 2003. It was also given to a separate group of family friends at a gathering approximately a week later. There were a total of 16 respondents. They were asked not to take too long filling out the questionnaire and to answer without much reflection. There is a range of ages from college to late 70s, and all persons are of Chinese ancestry living in the United States. Some are immigrants (some more recent than others), some are first generation children of immigrants (some with children of their own). Only one belongs to a family whose immigrant origins are no longer in living memory, being fifth generation.
Only one of my two siblings, my sister, filled out this survey, and I did not fill one out.
1) Do you celebrate Christmas and/or any other holiday occurring in December (and if so, what)?
- Christmas – 15; none – 1; other – 0
2) Please list the first 10 things that come to mind when thinking about Christmas (and/or any other holiday occurring in December which you celebrate, please do this separately for each).
- family – 14 (1 parents, 1 kids); Presents - 13; drinking/eating –12; Christmas tree - 11; snow –10; vacation – 9; Shopping – 8; Santa – 8; carols – 5; lights – 4; gathering/party – 4; Jesus' birthday – 3; church – 3; fire – 3; cold – 3; decorations – 3; friends – 2; travel related – 2; charity – 2; reindeer – 2; relax – 2; everything else has 1 mention: money; evergreen; tax; Elves; snow men; icicles; traffic; manger; paper; home; rituals; December; Christmas Eve; elation; happiness; candles; 5th Ave. decorations; Xmas cards; stockings; green + red; think about what to do next year; house cleaning; watch a good movie; read a book; end of the year; ski.
3) What does Christmas (and/or any other holiday occurring in December) mean to you?
- family gathering – 10; Holiday/time off – 5; presents – 5; celebration – 3; Birth of Christ – 2; food – 2; everything else has 1 mention: making kids happy; giving; gospel; salvation to the world; being happy; decorating; shopping; It's time to review what we have done for the year and make a plan of next year.
5) Have you always celebrated Christmas (and/or any other holiday occurring in December)? If no, when and why did you begin?
- always/most of life – 10; started once had children – 3; started once came to US – 1; started once joined a church – 1; unclear – 1
8) What is your religious background (if any)?
- none – 8; Catholic – 4; Christian (no denomination stated) – 3; Buddhist – 1
- 1 "Public Law 94-521 prohibits us from asking a question on religious affiliation on a mandatory basis; therefore, the Bureau of the Census is not the source for information on religion. " http://www.census.gov/prod/www/religion.htm
- 2 "Christian church adherents were defined as "all members, including full members, their children and the estimated number of other regular participants who are not considered as communicant, confirmed or full members." Data on Christian church adherents are based on reports of 133 church groupings and exclude 34 church bodies that reported more than 100,000 members to the Yearbook of American and Canadian Churches. The Jewish population includes Jews who define themselves as Jewish by religion as well as those who define themselves as Jewish in cultural terms. Data on Jewish population are based primarily on a compilation of individual estimates made by local Jewish federations. Additionally, most large communities have completed Jewish demographic surveys from which the Jewish population can be determined" Table 76 - Christian Church Adherents, 1990,and Jewish Population, 1998 - State, 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States (http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/statab/sec01.pdf), pg. 62.
3 "In percent. Covers civilian noninstitutional population, 18 years old and over. Data represent averages of the combined results of several surveys during year or period indicated. Data are subject to sampling variability, see source. " No.75.Religious Preference, Church Membership, and Attendance: 1980 to 1999, 2000 Statistical Abstract of the United States (http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/statab/sec01.pdf), pg. 62.
4 Hutchinson, Religious Pluralism in America: p.20-21.
6 Schmidt, Consumer Rites: p.19-21.
10 p.175-191. And also demonstrated by the "Keep Christ in Christmas" billboard prominently displayed by a church in my area.
11 Todorov, The Conquest of America: p. 106.
12 The other is the moon festival, again celebrated with a special dinner. Moon cakes are traditionally eaten as well
- Hutchinson, William R. Religious Pluralism in America: the contentious history of a founding ideal, Yale UP, New Haven, 2003.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric. Consumer Rites: the buying and selling of American holidays, Princeton UP, Princeton, 1995.
Todorov, Tzvetan. The Conquest of America: the question of the other, Harper & Row, New York, 1984.
U.S. Census Bureau – Religion, Last Revised: Wednesday, 29-Oct-2003, http://www.census.gov/prod/www/religion.htm.
U.S. Census Bureau – Statistical Abstract of the United States: 2000, http://www.census.gov/prod/2001pubs/statab/sec01.pdf.
I forgot to mention that this was the final paper for my fall 2003 Historiography class....