With over 4 million articles, Wikipedia is an invaluable resource, whether you’re throwing a term paper together at the last minute, or your panicked search for last-minute gift ideas has reached new levels of desperation. But follow enough links, and you get sucked into some seriously strange places. We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 4,671,731-week series, Wiki Wormhole.
This week’s entry: Christmas controversy
What it’s about: As any Fox News viewer can tell you, there is a war on Christmas. What they won’t tell you on Fox, however, is that Christmas is winning, as the holiday has invaded and annexed November, has Thanksgiving surrounded, and is eyeing up Halloween. They also won’t tell you that there’s a history of back-and-forth over the holiday as old as Christmas itself, largely in the U.S. and U.K. But in the spirit of the season, Wikipedia will tell you all that, and more.
Strangest fact: Christmas actually predates Christ. The year the Julian Calendar was reworked to keep track of the date, the winter solstice was on December 25. Many cultures celebrated the winter solstice—the shortest of the year—as the turning point when the winter days would again begin to lengthen. Early Scandinavians called the day Jul (and still do), better known to us by its English translation “Yule.” Ancient Yule custom centered on a feast in a temple, with blood from animal sacrifices adorning both the walls of the temple and those in it. Eventually, the Norse transitioned to less gruesome traditions, like the Yule log and Yuletide caroling.
Biggest controversy: Nearly half the page is devoted to modern-day controversies—mostly retailers avoiding the word “Christmas” in their advertising, religious groups boycotting, and the companies backing down (except for Best Buy, which stood its ground). But those squabbles were small potatoes compared to what went on in Puritan-controlled Britain. After the English Civil War culminated with the execution of King Charles I, the Puritans took over rule of the country and banned Christmas, as they felt it was a pagan holiday not based on biblical text. Riots broke out across the country, and for several weeks rioters actually controlled the city of Canterbury. The rioter’s bad behavior included shouting royalist slogans and, in fact, decking the halls with boughs of holly.
Thing we were happiest to learn: One person actually can make a difference. While every manner of Christmas special sees some unlikely hero tasked with “saving” Christmas, the holiday was, in essence, saved by one man in the Victorian era: Charles Dickens. After the Puritans’ ban on the holiday was lifted with the Restoration, Christmas had a resurgence, but celebrations dwindled during the late 1700s. Dickens’ story A Christmas Carol was at the center of a 19th-century revival of the holiday, and part of a conscious effort to make the holiday synonymous with generosity and family togetherness. Also, ghosts.
Thing we were unhappiest to learn: George Washington probably didn’t get any Christmas presents. Before the Puritans were able to ban Christmas in Britain, they brought their dislike of the holiday to Plymouth Rock. As a result, Christmas was not widely celebrated in America—particularly New England—until the mid-19th century, and wasn’t declared a holiday by Congress until 1870.
Also noteworthy: According to historian Stephen Nissenbaum, the modern-day Christmas celebration in America was cobbled together from English and Dutch traditions in New York. The holiday had involved groups of young men going door-to-door demanding alcohol and food, like something halfway between Halloween and a pub crawl. Instead, New Yorkers tried to focus the holiday on the happiness of children, where it remained until recent years, when the holiday mostly became about flight delays.
Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Whether you’re Christian, or just not Jewish, everyone loves Santa Claus! Jolly Old Saint Nick is scandal-free enough to merit only two mentions here, once in the intro, and once in reference to Gerald L.K. Smith, a clergyman turned political organizer. While Smith lobbied for both a minimum and maximum wage during the Great Depression, he was also a white supremacist and anti-Semite, who claimed the Jews introduced Santa in order to supplant Jesus.
Further down the wormhole: Wiki Wormhole will take the next week off, as The A.V. Club runs on a limited schedule. We’ll return in two weeks with a new topic.