Sometime around 1850 my great-grandmother’s second cousin, James Lord Pierpont, wrote a song that for more than a century has been sung the most often in celebration of Christmas, especially by children. The song is “Jingle Bells.” A quick glance at its lyrics, however, reveals that Pierpont never once mentioned Christmas. “Jingle Bells” merely describes a winter scene and people frolicking in the snow, possibly on Washington’s Birthday (no, make that Presidents Day).

Pierpont came from a religious family. His father, Rev. John Pierpont (the grandfather for whom financier J. Pierpont Morgan was named), was a prominent abolitionist preacher in Massachusetts during the antebellum period. Rev. Pierpont preached about slavery to the exclusion of spiritual and theological questions, and for this sin was fired from his pulpit at Boston’s Hollis Church by a frustrated congregation. He lived out his life as a Civil War nurse and died in poverty soon afterward. Ironically, one of his sons, Rev. John Pierpont, Jr., moved to Charleston, South Carolina where he became a Confederate sympathizer. James Lord Pierpont settled in Savannah, Georgia, where he was a church organist and shared his brother’s pro-South proclivities.

The fact of a song having nothing to do with Christmas becoming the most popular of the Christmas season is of a piece with the current “war on Christmas” being cited and fought against by a coalition of high-profile fundamentalist clergymen and right-wing media personnel. Which Christmas is it that Rev. Jerry Falwell and Bill O’Reilly seek to protect from attack? Is it the religious celebration, which in James Lord Pierpont’s day included no department stores, no Santa Claus, and mostly homemade gifts? Or is it the latter-day Christmas of shopping malls, of intense advertising appeals to good old American greed and materialism…a Christmas that has actually become crucial to the very survival of a consumer-driven economy?

Pierpont never dreamed that his song would become associated with Christmas. In fact, he thought so little of “Jingle Bells” that he never copyrighted it. Only on his deathbed in 1893 did a thoughtful niece convince Uncle James that his song’s popularity warranted legal action to protect his authorship. By that time Clement Moore’s poem, A Visit from St. Nicholas (not The Night Before Christmas), had taken hold in American culture. From Moore’s poem came a focus on Santa Claus as the sine qua non of the Christmas spirit, a fiction intensified by an 1897 newspaper editorial that reassured a girl identified only as “Virginia” that indeed Santa Claus was real, if only as the embodiment of all that was right with Christmas…love of family, good cheer, generosity of spirit.

Except Santa Claus had already begun his transformation from European folk legend to American promotional phenomenon. At the dawn of the 20th century the United States was emerging from a long economic depression. Its optimism about the future was buoyed by technological innovation…electronic gizmos, cars, airplanes, radio. Inevitably, consumerism expanded as a staple of daily life, and Christmas, the date of which had been incorrectly placed near the winter solstice in the 4th century by pagan tradition (Jesus was almost certainly born in the springtime), now became an end-of-the-year opportunity for retailers and their advertisers to “make the yearly numbers.” Santa Clauses of every conceivable shape and character began to appear in department store lobbies, in Thanksgiving Day parades, and throughout the popular media…indeed, anywhere they could be used as a device to sell something.

With Rev. John Pierpont having died, with the abolition of slavery obviated by the Civil War, and with a Gilded Age acquisitiveness becoming firmly entrenched in American life, clergymen began to preach against the commercialization of Christmas. “Think of the Christ child at Christmas, not of receiving presents, if you really want to feel the Christmas spirit..” went the refrain. It rang true, but the moral lesson never sufficed for even worshipful Christians to resist the pull of popular culture, and especially the needs of their children to satisfy what Clement Moore had called “visions of sugar plums (dancing) in their heads” on Christmas Eve.

The homogenization of society in the 20th century meant Jewish children, for whose families Christmas had no religious meaning, became willing goyim every December, if only to not get left behind when Santa toured their neighborhoods with his treasures. Meanwhile, “White Christmas,” a non-religious song written by a Jewish immigrant from Russia named Irving Berlin, had joined “Jingle Bells” at the top of the seasonal charts. By the mid-20th century, any chance that Christmas would ever return to its antecedents in biblical history was gone.

So what is this “war against Christmas,” anyway? Whom are you fighting against, Rev. Falwell and Mr. O’Reilly? Are you against Santa Claus, because his origins are European? Are you against American retailers, who say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas” as a polite gesture to non-Christian customers whose business they, and the American economy, can ill afford to lose? Are you against political correctness, and using a sacred holiday to reiterate a point you already made 20 years ago? Or are you simply acting like Ebenezer Scrooges who haven’t yet had an epiphany?