James K.A. Smith: “Christmas IS Political”

merry-christmas-donald-trump-men-s-premium-t-shirtIn his piece at The Washington Post following Donald Trump’s Values Voter Summit announcement that “we will be saying Merry Christmas again,” philosopher James K.A. Smith reminds us what it really means to think politically about Christmas.

Here is a taste:

The biblical account of the birth of Jesus Christ is drenched in political significance. His genealogy in the Gospel of Matthew makes Him royalty, the heir of King David. The titles Savior and Messiah, which we imagine are merely religious, carry political connotations of deliverance and liberation. When his mother hymns her Magnificat, she praises a Savior who “has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble.” (Luke 1:51-52).

None of this was lost on Herod, ruler of Judea at the time of Jesus’ birth. Herod the Great — Herod the infrastructure king, the tyrant who was the biggest, best, greatest ruler — knew that Christmas meant a rival was in town. When he caught wind that people were paying homage to a “king of the Jews,” he summoned priests and teachers for intel. They reminded him that the prophet Micah had promised that a ruler would emerge from Bethlehem. So Herod unleashed the heinous solution we know as the slaughter of the innocents, which was (he thought) a surefire way to eliminate any pretenders to his throne.

So yes, Christmas is political.

Read the rest here.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!

We are taking a few days off here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home, but before we do I want to wish everyone a Happy Holidays and thank you for a great year.  It’s been a pleasure to continue delivering content at the “intersection of American history, religion, politics, and academic life.”

As many of you know, The Way of Improvement Leads Home is more than just a blog (or a book).  It is a multi-faceted effort to bring history and historical thinking to the public.  Here are some highlights from 2016:

  • In January we launched The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast.  After sixteen episodes and two seasons we have established what appears to be a relatively strong listener base.  Please, please, please consider partnering with us at our Patreon site. We need your help to keep the podcast going.
  • We wrote many pieces, both here and elsewhere, on the 2016 presidential election. We published dozens and dozens of posts on the election here at the blog and another fifteen at other venues, including Religion News Service, the Harrisburg Patriot-NewsChristianity Today, the Washington Post, USA Today, Sojourners, Fox News, and History News Network.
  • We offered extensive coverage, with our team of correspondents, of both the annual meeting of the American Historical Association and the Organization of American Historians.  (Stay tuned for our coverage of the AHA in Denver early next month.  We can still use correspondents!)
  • We produced twenty-six “Virtual Office Hours” videos.  This year we focused on the question of “Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?” and on my Fall 2016 course on the American Revolution.
  • We interviewed eighty-one authors this year as part of our “Author’s Corner” series.
  • We added two more features to our “So What Can You Do With a History Major?” series.
  • I hit the road eighteen times this year to promote our work, including a trip to Oxford University in January.  I also appeared on eighteen radio shows (and C-SPAN!) to talk about everything from the Bible in America, religion and politics, and the role of history in public life.
  • In July we spent a week in Princeton leading a seminar for history teachers on Colonial America.  This Gilder-Lehrman summer seminar is always one of the highlights of the year.
  • I was also pleased with the release of The Bible Cause: A History of the American Bible Society.  It appeared in April with Oxford University Press.

Some of you may notice that I often use the first-person plural pronoun “we” to refer to what happens here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  That is because I could not do all of this alone.  So let me end this post by saying thanks to everyone that made it all happen this year: Joy Fea, Caroline Fea, Allyson Fea, John Fea Jr., Joan Fea, Kim Phipps, Randy Basinger, Pete Powers, Christine Walter, Barb and Dwayne Dobschuetz, Abby Blakeney, Katy Kaslow, Nate McAlister, Abigail Koontz, Devon Hearn, Drew Dyrli Hermeling,  Mikaela Mummert, everyone who wrote for us this year as correspondents and guest posters, our podcast guests, and everyone who invited me to come and speak at their schools, colleges, universities, churches, museums, historical sites, and other organizations.

See you in 2017 (if not sooner!).


Christmas in the Shenandoah Valley, 1775

“Christmas Morning–Not a Gun is heard–Not a Shout–No company or Cabal assembled–To Day is like other Days every Way calm & temperate–people go about their daily Business with the same Readiness, & apply themselves to it with the same Industry, as the used.–“

–Diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, December 25, 1775 (from Lower Calf-Pasture, Virginia) in Journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Robert Greenlaugh Albion and Leonidas Dodson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934), 150.

Christmas in South Jersey, 1774

“Preached to day at New England-Town (Fairfield, NJ) on Matt. 4:23: ‘From that time Jesus began to preach,’ & c.  I used my Notes some, but was none afraid.  My Brother Josiah is now very ill in a Pleurisy.”

–Diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, December 25, 1774 (Greenwich, Cumberland County, NJ) in Journal of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Robert Greenlaugh Albion and Leonidas Dodson (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1934), 248.

Christmas at Nomini Hall, Virginia, 1773

“I was waked this morning by Guns fired all round the House.  The morning is stormy, the wind at South East rains hard. Nelson the Boy who makes my Fire, blacks my shoes, does errands & c. was early in my Room, drest only in his shirt and Breeches!  He made me a vast fire, blacked my Shoes, set my Room in order, and wish’d me a joyful Christmas, for which I gave him half a Bit.–Soon after he left the Room, and before I Drest, the Fellow who makes the Fire in our School Room, drest very neatly in green, but almost drunk, entered my chamber with three or four profound Bows, & made me the same salutation; I gave him a Bit, and dismissed him as soon as possible.–Soon after my Cloths and Linen were sent in with a message for a Christmas Box, as they call it; I sent the poor Slave a Bit, & my thanks.–I was obliged for want of small change, to put off for some days the Barber who shaves & dresses me.–I gave Tom the Coachman, who Doctors my Horse, for his care two Bits, & am to give more when the Horse is well.–I gave to Dennis the Boy who waits at Table half a Bit.–So that the sum of my Donations to the Servants, for this Christmas appears to be five Bits, a Bit is a pisterene bisected; or an English sixpence, & passes here for seven pence Halfpenny, the whole is 3s and 1 1/2 d.

At Breakfast, when Mr. Carter entered the Room, he gave us the compliments of the Season.  He told me, very civily, that as my Horse was Lame, his own riding Horse is at my Service to ride when & where I Choose.

Mrs Carter was, as always, cheerful, chatty, & agreeable; She told me after Breakfast several droll, merry Occurrences that happened while she was in the City of Williamsburg. This morning came from the Post-Office at Hobbes-Hole, on the Rappahannock, our News-papers. Mr. Carter takes the Pennsylvania Gazette, which seems vastly agreeable to me, for it is like having something from home–But I have yet no answer to my Letter.  We dined at four o-Clock–Mr. Carter kept in his Room, because he breakfasted late, and an on Oysters–There were at Table Mrs. Carter & her five Daughters that are at School with me–Miss Priscilla, Nancy, Fanny, Betsy, and Harriot, five as beautiful delicate, well-instructed Children as I have ever known!–Ben is abroad; Bob & Harry are out; so there was no Man at Table but myself.–I must carve–Drink the Health–and talk if I can!  Our Dinner was not otherwise common, yet elegant a Christmas Dinner as I ever sat Down to…”

 –Philip Vickers Fithian, Saturday, December 25, 1773 from Journal and Letter of Philip Vickers Fithian, ed. Hunter Dickinson Farish, 39.

Christmas in Greenwich, NJ, 1766

“There was many guns fired last eve and I heard of some frolicks.  To day we had a Sermon upon the 4th Chapter of galations., the 4th and 5th Verses.  But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his son made of a woman & c.  We dressed flax.”

-Diary of Philip Vickers Fithian, Thursday, December 25, 1766 (Greenwich, NJ) cited in F. Alan Palmer, The Beloved Cohansie of Philip Vickers Fithian (Greenwich, NJ: Cumberland County Historical Society, n.d.), 58.

A History of Christmas Cards

I heard Ellen Brown talking about the history of holiday cards the other day on The Takeaway and thought it would make for a nice Christmas Eve post here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home

Here is a taste of Brown’s piece at JSTOR Daily:

Cultures have enjoyed sharing written New Year’s greetings for centuries. The English-speaking ritual of sending holiday cards, however, dates back only to the middle of the 19th. Some sources say it originated with Thomas Shorrock, of Leith, Scotland, who, in the 1840s, produced cards showing a jolly face with the caption “A Gude Year to Ye.” 

Credit more commonly goes to Sir Henry Cole, who would later become the first director of London’s Victoria and Albert Museum. He commissioned an artist to create 1,000 engraved holiday cards in 1843. Cole’s greeting featured a prosperous-looking family toasting the holidays, flanked on both sides by images of kindly souls engaging in acts of charity. A caption along the bottom read, “A Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year to You.”

With advances in printing technology and mail service, the practice of sending commercially produced Christmas cards caught on. By the 1880s, it was an integral part of the holiday season for many American families as well. In “The Female World of Cards and Holidays: Women, Families, and the Work of Kinship,” Yale anthropologist Micaela di Leonardo explains that the practice thrived amid postbellum industrialization and the demise of the family farm. As relatives spread out geographically, women assumed responsibility for “the work of kinship” and became caretakers of extended family connections. Christmas cards were a convenient way for them to nurture relationships among their husbands, children, and distant relatives.

As the Christmas card habit took hold, manufacturers rushed to meet demand. Best known was German emigrant Louis Prang, who produced attractive and reasonably priced chromolithographed cards for the mass market. He is often referred to as the father of the American Christmas card.

Read the entire piece here.  You can listen to the interview below.  Allen comes in around the 24:00 mark.


The Perfect Stocking Stuffers for the History Buff

Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds Books in Dallastown, Pennsylvania suggests some stocking stuffers for the history buff in your family:

Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past John Fea (Baker Academic) $19.99  We have raved about Professor Fea’s award winning, detailed and impeccably balanced Was American Founded as a Christian County; this little volume backs up and makes the case for why Christians (and anyone, for that matter) should care about the enterprise of reflecting on our past. This is a lovely little book, highly recommended.

Christian Historiography: Five Rival Versions Jay Green (Baylor University Press) $34.95 For those who are interested in the Christian pursuit of serious academic scholarship, this will be an edifying and important example of the integration of faith and learning. It will be thrilling for those interested in the philosophy of history, and how people of faith should think about the foundational questions in this field.  Fair, wide-ranging, theologically rigorous, this is a magisterial contribution to thinking about how we write, research, interpret and read history.

In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492 – 1783 Mark A. Noll (Oxford University Press) $29.95  What a handsome big book this is, studying in impeccable detail the rise of the use of the Bible in the earliest days preceding and during the founding of these United States. Noll is an esteemed historian and this simply a must-read for anyone interested in the colonial era.

Religion in the Oval Office: The Religious Lives of American Presidents Gary Scott Smith (Oxford University Press) $34.95 A few weeks ago I put this 665 page magnum opus on a list I did for the Center for Public Justice, for those interested in  the history of US political life. Smith had won remarkable awards for a previous book a decade ago on the faith of some of our Presidents and in this brand new one, he bests himself, wonderfully exploring the unique religious convictions of eleven others. This has garnered fabulous reviews from those who study the history of Presidents, those curious about the inner working of the White House, and how faith has or hasn’t impacted US policy, in the distant past and in recent decades. A fascinating, great read!

Thanks for Byron!

Southern Baptists Are Not Happy About the New Starbucks’ Holiday Cups

A lot of Christians on my social media sites are asking if anyone out there is actually opposed to the new Starbucks cups.  I initially thought that the Starbucks critique came from one guy–an evangelist named Josh Feuerstein

But I was wrong.  
Richard Land, the president of Southern Evangelical Seminary and the former president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission of the Southern Baptist Convention, has joined the cause.
I am curious to see what Russell Moore, Land’s successor as the president of The Ethics & Religious Liberty Commission, has to say about this.  How many Southern Baptists does Land represent?  If what I have read about Moore is any indication, I would think he would rise above this petty issue and keep the Southern Baptist Convention focused on more important things related to its mission. But will he speak out against his predecessor?  (I haven’t seen any commentary by Moore on this.  If he has spoken or written on this topic please let me know).
It is worth noting that in 2012 Moore spoke out against a Christian boycott of Starbucks after the coffee company announced that it would support same-sex marriage.
Al Mohler, another Southern Baptist leader, is not too happy about it either.

I Like the Red Starbucks’ Cups

I just started drinking coffee about two years ago.  I like my coffee with a lot of cream and sugar. When I order coffee I am basically looking for the taste of coffee ice cream with a shot of caffeine.  I have never liked Starbucks coffee.  It is too strong for me and the baristas never leave enough space for the cream.

It appears that Starbucks is now the latest company to be complicit in the so-called “war on Christmas.”  Starbucks has rolled out new holiday cups that are red, white, and green.  Wait–aren’t these Christmas colors?  Frankly, I really like the new design, although it is unlikely I will be drinking much Starbucks this holiday season for the reasons stated above.

This whole hullabaloo was started by a guy named Joshua Fuerestein who calls himself a “pastor” and “social media personality.”  Here he is on CNN:

On one level this video is hilarious (Is Fuerestein really unable to hear the other guy?).  On another level it is very sad.  Shame on CNN and other media outlets that are covering this story in a serious way.  This is just another example of the shallow culture-war shouting matches that pass for serious dialogue in our culture today.

For those of you who want to think seriously about the role of Starbucks in American culture check out Bryant Simon’s Everything but the Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks.

And here is my irreverent take on coffee in church.

Signing Off for the Year

The Way of Improvement Leads Home is signing off for the year.  We will back on January 1 to get you geared up for our extensive coverage from the American Historical Association meeting in Washington D.C. on January 2-5.  Stay tuned!  If there is anything we decide to throw out there between now and the new year, check the Twitter feed–@johnfea1 or Facebook page.

In the meantime, Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays, and thanks again for reading!

More on the "War on Christmas"

Morgan Lee, a reporter for The Christian Post, interviewed me for a story on the so-called “War on Christmas.”  Here is a taste:

Holiday trees. Seasons Greetings. Carols devoid of religious references. Is there a “war on Christmas,” as some cable news commentators and politicians believe?
John Fea, a Messiah College history professor, does not deny that there has been a shift in how Christmas is celebrated in the United States in the 21st century. But as he looks back into the country’s past, investigating arguments by conservative political personalities like Sarah Palin and Bill O’Reilly calling for a return to the United States’ “golden age” of Christmas, he is not convinced that such an era ever existed.
Fea, who recently authored Why Study History?, a book he hopes will convince Christians to delve more deeply and critically into the past, pointed to the earliest days of Americans history to illustrate the various ways that the holiday’s meaning has been distorted.”I would argue historically that Christmas in the sort of truly Christian understanding of the idea—that Jesus Christ came in the form of a man—that has never, never in American history been the primary motivation for why people celebrate Christmas,” Fea told The Christian Post.
Read the rest here.

Facebook Post of the Day

From Christopher Jones, Ph.D candidate in early American history at the College of William and Mary:

I’m currently transcribing the journal of Isaac Bradnock, a Methodist missionary in the British West Indies, from December 1802. Without fail, he abbreviates “Christ” as “Xt” and “Christian” as “Xtian.” And he doesn’t even mention the word “Christmas” (or “Xmas”) in his entry for December 25.

Why does Isaac Bradnock hate Christmas?


Was There a Golden Age of Christmas in America?

My recent piece at The Pacific Standard. 

Here is a taste:

The so-called “War on Christmas” has reared its ugly head again. Conservative Christians—most of them evangelicals—have hit the airwaves and lecture circuits to warn their followers about the supposed threat to the only event on the Christian calendar to have the status of a federal holiday.

Former Alaska Governor Sarah Palin visited Liberty University in Lynchburg, Virginia, recently to promote her new book and alert undergraduates and other assorted culture warriors to the way “revisionists” are trying to turn December into a “winter solstice season.” She told her audience that “protecting the heart of Christmas” (the subtitle of her book) is “really about protecting the heart of America.”

Leave it to Palin to use this most sacred of Christian celebrations for political purposes by comparing its “message of hope and change” to the “stuff you hear coming out of Washington.”At the heart of Palin’s defense of Christmas is an understanding that the United States was founded as, and continues to be, a Christian nation. In her talk to Liberty students she connected the “War on Christmas” to a much larger assault on the country’s Judeo-Christian heritage as embedded in our history and founding documents, concluding that Christianity has made America an “exceptional” nation.

Read the rest here.

New York Times: Consumerism Has Encroached on Thanksgiving

From the editorial page:

In 1939, Thanksgiving was supposed to fall on Nov. 30, but President Franklin Roosevelt, on the advice of the National Retail Dry Goods Association, pushed it forward a week to extend the holiday gift-buying season. That delighted business owners but upset traditionalists, like the selectmen of Plymouth, Mass., who felt that celebrating early meant “sacrificing the real significance of the day for the purpose of satisfying commercial interests.”

Although Thanksgiving was already tied up with “commercial interests,” Americans back then at least waited until after the feasting to start their frenzied shopping. Lately, consumerism has encroached on the day itself. This shift isn’t entirely new. Walmart has been open on Thanksgiving for years. Now big retailers, including Target, J.C. Penney, Macy’s and Best Buy, will open earlier on Thursday than in past years to get a bigger jump on Black Friday. Kmart is opening at 6 a.m. Thanksgiving Day and staying open for 41 hours straight.
Retailers wouldn’t open on Thursday if they thought customers would rather spend time at home. The problem is their policies don’t just dilute the spirit of Thanksgiving. They’re hard on workers, who are often given no choice but to work on the holiday. One Cleveland lawmaker wants to help. Mike Foley, a Democrat in the Ohio House of Representatives, has drafted state legislation that would require employers to pay triple-time on the holiday or give workers the option of staying home. He has acknowledged that it’s unlikely to pass Ohio’s Republican-controlled House, but it would make working on Thanksgiving more worthwhile.

Chris Gehrz on Historians and Moral Reflection

How do historians confront the problem of evil?  Bethel University historian Chris Gehrz wonders how historians should approach the tragic events of December 14, 2012 in the Connecticut town of Newtown and the “Massacre of the Innocents” that took place in the wake of Christ’s birth.

As I do in my forthcoming Why Study History: Reflecting on the Importance of the Past (Baker Academic, Fall 2013), Gehrz draws upon Peter Hoffer’s helpful essay on the problem of evil in The Historian’s Paradox: The Study of History in Our Time. He also draws upon Tracy McKenzie’s recent presidential address at the Conference on Faith and History, particularly his suggestion that historians should be engaging in moral criticism.

I am not as optimistic as McKenzie and Gerhz when it comes to Christian historians engaging in moral judgment, but I do not think it should be removed from the historian’s toolbox.  See some of my thoughts on this subject:

What is the Moral Responsibility of the Historian?

Should Historians Cast Judgment on the Past? 

Thinking Historically With Pro-Slavery Documents

Or just read Gehrz’s excellent post at The Pietist Schoolman