If Halloween’s behind us, it must mean we’re into the holiday season. Alright, our Atlantically-distanced cousins mark it from Thanksgiving, but come on: Halloween, Bonfire Night, Thanksgiving… whatever side of the pond you’re on, it’s one festivity after another this time of year. Like the lorry of sugary black stuff tells us, holidays are indeed coming. Happy holidays, everybody!
Oh, hasn’t that term always bristled? Doesn’t it smack of Christmas-bashing? Of secular season’s greetings and watered-down Wintervals? But here am I – English, God-fearing, Christmas-loving chump that I am – to say that I think I’m happy with ‘holidays’. Happy, if not merry.
Till I researched my Christmas history book, I hadn’t fully appreciated the history of the U.S. holiday season. I knew that Cromwell banned Christmas over here in Blightyland in the 1640s, causing a good decade and a half of no legal Christmas in Britain. But I’d not realised the impact in America.
The Puritan Pilgrim Fathers banned Christmas in Boston a few decades later, and unlike in Britain, they didn’t have centuries of Christmas to build on (or knock down). They were banning something that had never had a footfall in the New World, so as a religious festival it never hugely came back, because it was never hugely there. Christmas was celebrated in pockets along the East Coast in the 17th and 18th century, but churches couldn’t agree: Was it a feast day? A fast day? A normal day? Christmas became an excuse for a riotous party, or just a riot.
Scotland had done a similar thing – with no official Christmas holiday from 1560 right up till 1958. That left a gap, so Scotland gained Hogmanay, while North America gained Thanksgiving.
Thanksgiving was celebrated as early as the American Christmas, with new (and hungry) pilgrims grateful for the harvest. Britain had its Harvest Festival, but things grew bigger in the New World – even festivals. It took till 1789 to become official under George Washington, marking the proper start of the ‘holiday season’, which now covers the Christian Christmas, the Jewish Hanukkah, and the African American Kwanzaa. So it makes total sense to be called a holiday season, given the holidays it covers include things like Thanksgiving, that had a foothold before Christmas fully did.
For Thanksgiving to go national as an actual day off, thank nineteenth century magazine editor Sarah Hale: a very creative, innovative and can-do American businesswoman. She wrote to each U.S. President over 26 years suggesting an official Thanksgiving Day (Lincoln finally relented), and also first published ‘Mary Had a Little Lamb’ plus stories by Washington Irving and Edgar Allan Poe in her mag. Oh, and she also printed something else for our Christmas tale: the American reprint of the famous ‘Victoria and Albert and family around a giant German Christmas tree’ picture, which went viral and pretty much created an industry.
To appeal to the American market, Hale’s version of the picture used one of the earliest examples of journalistic airbrushing, removing Victoria’s crown (to make her less royal) and Albert’s moustache (to make him less German). Spot the difference in the above pics, UK vs US… However anti-royalist and xenophobic it sounds, good ol’ Sarah Hale sold the Christmas tree to America – so give thanks to her for a couple of ‘holiday’ customs.
If ‘holiday’ is still sounding anti-religious, it’s worth remembering the word’s religious in origin in any case, being Old English for ‘holy day’. And in fact a century or two ago, ‘Happy holidays’ could have easily meant a Christian greeting to cover Advent, Christmas and New Year into Epiphany… as well as those other non-Christian festivals too.
So I have no problem with ‘the holiday season’. It’s a season of holidays. As for ‘Happy Holidays’… well the backlash against that is perhaps more valid, and more recent. It’s a greeting used at Christmas, instead of ‘Merry Christmas’. I see the point though. What if you’re wishing someone a Merry Christmas, and they’re Jewish, and Hannukah is their thing? Don’t you want to wish them a merry one of those? So Christmas shopping might be labelled ‘holiday shopping’. Perhaps it rankles to the British ear because holidays, for us, are what they call vacations, and are normally summery and as far from Christmas as possible. So is it a language thing then, or a multi-religious thing?
Maybe it’s more that in the U.S., when they say ‘Christmas’ they more often mean the religious Christmas – so when their festive season becomes more multicultural, they pick a new term that’s less religious. Over on our sceptred isle, we’ve been watering down our religion for some time, merrily ticking census boxes that claim us as Christian when really we mean we like the morals we learnt in R.E. forty years ago, and we sing along to Last Night of the Proms. If we’re happy to be labelled Christian without going to church, we’re also happy to label Christmas as ‘Christmas’ when actually we’re no longer celebrating Christ’s mass.
Either way, whether you’re enjoying Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Guy Fawkes Night or even Christmas, I know it’s too early and too annoying to wish you Happy Holidays. So I’ll just wish instead it to be as fun a holiday season as King Edward III had in 1348, when he spent Halloween to Candlemas (a.k.a. All Saints Eve to Groundhog Day) – three full months – on a masked animal-skin party in Guildford. I live in Guildford, and can report, it hasn’t changed a bit.