By Scott Freeman
Christmas is traditionally a time both of “good will to all men,” and, falling at the end of the year, of quiet reflection. It seems fitting then to consider the influence on our celebration of this period that has been exercised by ‘all men’; not only those born native to our country, but also immigrants and travellers who have made their way here, and those residing in foreign lands who have affected us from afar.
While economic worries play a major role in the widespread support for increased controls on immigration, protection of a national culture is also a prime concern. A 2013 study found that 35% of Americans and 56% of Britons surveyed agreed that immigration has a negative effect on national culture.1 Another study split survey respondents into seven groups describing their attitude to immigration. Those primarily characterised by ‘cultural concerns’ about immigration were the joint-most numerous of the classifications, accounting for 16% of respondents.2
In scholarly thought, too, cultural protection is at the forefront of many arguments in favor of immigration restrictions. Michael Walzer typifies this view:
The distinctiveness of culture and groups depends upon closure… At some level of political organization, something like the sovereign state must take shape and claim the authority to make its own admissions policy, to control and sometimes restrain the flow of immigrants.”3
Shelley Wilcox echoes this conclusion, writing that “citizens must be able to regulate immigration as necessary to protect their… culture.”4 So too does David Miller, who argues that “the public culture of [a people’s] country is something that people have an interest in controlling.”5
This hostility towards immigrant cultures appears to be at odds with the seemingly joyful embrace of foreign influences on the institution that is Christmas, both in Britain and the United States. After all, the Puritans who sailed on the Mayflower, often seen as the forefathers of modern America, disapproved of Christmas and it was even banned in New England. The holiday fell further out of favor after the Revolutionary War as it was associated both with the English and their German mercenaries. The occasion would not become fashionable until the mid-nineteenth century, as Catholic immigrant traditions diffused more widely.
One of the best known examples of this kind of cultural transfer is the Christmas tree, which was introduced to England by Queen Charlotte, of the Kingdom of Hanover, after she married King George III. The tradition was further popularized by Prince Albert, of the Duchy of Saxe-Coburg and Gotha, following his union with Queen Victoria. A picture of the family gathered around their decorated tree was published in the United States in 1850, and by 1870 the practice of placing fir trees indoors, adorned with candles, had become common on both sides of the Atlantic.
Santa Claus, another notable European import, brings untold joy to millions of children every year. He was, it is believed, a synthesis of Odin, the white-bearded Norse god called the ‘yule figure’, and the historical Greek bishop Saint Nicholas. These were merged to create a Dutch folk figure known as SinterKlaas. Author Washington Irving, son of Scottish immigrants to New York, Anglicized SinterKlaas into ‘Santa Claus’ in his book A History of New York (1809) with the intention of satirizing the many Dutch émigrés living in New York City at the time. Much of the tradition that would become associated with this popular character was established in the poemA Visit from St. Nicholas (1823), penned anonymously, many believe, by Clement Clarke Moore. He was said to have been inspired in his depiction by a local Dutch man. Meanwhile, Santa’s modern appearance was established by the German immigrant cartoonist Thomas Nast (contrary to the popular myth that his red, fur trimmed outfit was first portrayed in advertisements for Coca-Cola).
As Santa makes his way down chimneys across the globe, he is likely to find the mantelpieces in many homes brimming with greeting cards conveying merry wishes and notes of friendship. It was the Franco-Polish immigrant and printer Louis Prang who popularized this tradition. He brought the latest lithographic techniques from Europe which he used to manufacture greeting cards for export to England. By 1874 he was selling them domestically also, and they became so popular (and copied) that he is often dubbed “the father of the Christmas card.”
While these heartfelt messages may bring a measure of delight, it is the climax of the festive period that adults most anticipate (at least the ones who do not have to cook it): Christmas dinner. This is an occasion not only for a mouth-watering feast, but also a deeply social event, firmly centered on the family unit. Aside from its many regional variations that are themselves often drawn from immigrant communities, the orthodox meal is a particularly complex example of transatlantic cultural cross-pollination. Henry VIII is thought to have eaten the first Christmas turkey in the late sixteenth century, after navigator William Strickland brought the bird from the New World. It was not until the late nineteen hundreds that turkeys became affordable for those outside the upper classes in England, but they were plentiful in the American colonies and the royal fashion for holiday turkeys had spread there before the revolution. When Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol was published in 1843, in which Scrooge upgrades Bob Cratchit from a lowly goose to a lofty turkey, it cemented the homely, gobbling bird as the principle centerpiece of the yuletide table in both nations.
These seasonal examples are but a few of the myriad traditions and wider cultural currency that we owe to foreigners. Our culture and traditions are not static, but constantly changing. Much of this evolution would occur even in an entirely insular society, but a great deal is also driven by outsiders, some of them immigrants. Far from being the threat that many opponents of open borders perceive, foreign cultures have enormously enriched our enjoyment of Christmas and, I believe, our lives more generally. These changes have not been forced upon us: The British royal family did not decree that Christmas trees be erected, nor did Charles Dickens order us to cook turkeys at this time of year. People do not adopt particular practices or snippets of folklore in this way because theymust, but because they seem good to them. The wholehearted acceptance of foreign traditions at Christmas time, I think, is some evidence that we are not truly as antagonized, and certainly not as damaged, by alien cultures as we might often think. Is it a tragedy of the United State’s once-open borders that Americans no longer regard Christmas as degenerate merrymaking? Are our children the victims of German and Dutch cultural corruption as they await a visit from St. Nick? No.
I hope that this holiday season some of us will take a moment to consider how much drearier December might be if we had a more closed society as so many advocate, and how much richer it might be if we enjoyed greater openness.
1 Transatlantic Trends: Mobility, Migration, and Integration, 2014, p. 62
2 Ashcroft, Michael, Small Island, Public Opinion and the Politics of Immigration, 2013, p. 9
3 Walzer, Michael, Spheres of Justice: A Defense of Pluralism and Equality, 1984, Ch. 2
4 Wilcox, Shelley, The Open Borders Debate on Immigration, Philosophy Compass Volume 4, Issue 1, 2009
5 Miller, David, in Contemporary Debates in Applied Ethics, 2004, p. 200