By the way, I had quite a surprise when I checked out Religion News Service and found out that 1) it's not sponsored by the National Lampoon, and 2) it's been around for nearly 80 years. An interesting outfit. Its "unbiased coverage of religion and ethics"--secular coverage, of course--consists of treating religion like the rest of the media treats it. That is, as a far-right phenomenon. They take the standard slur against religiosity and turn it up several notches. Apparently, "unbiased" means flowing with the trends.
Anyway, much of the Christmas history data offered at History.com and elsewhere is perfectly accurate in a detail by detail sense, but false in its often contradictory presentation. This isn't surprising, since the the media's Christmas story is meant to function primarily as a rebuttal of the conservative Christian take. The most hilarious example is found at History.com. Dig this:
After the American Revolution, English customs fell out of favor, including Christmas. In fact, Christmas wasn't declared a federal holiday until June 26, 1870.
Wow. That pretty much takes out the 1800s. Or seventy years thereof. But, wait--it goes on:
It wasn't until the 19th century that Americans began to embrace Christmas.
Whereupon, they continue with... the early 1800s. Which they had just dismissed from discussion. Why the contradiction? Did History.com get lost in its own narrative?
No. It's simply a matter of received truth colliding with actual truth. You'd think that one would have to give way to the other, but the media's quite expert at combining contradictory accounts. Most people receive data very selectively--so much so, that even gross contradictions (19th century a time of major change in U.S. Christmas/19th century quiet on the Christmas front) can be presented side by side with few people noticing. The media, left to its own devices, tweaks everything toward popular reality.
As an example of the manner in which these things migrate, here's (who else?) Huffington Post on Xmas in the 19th century:
(The Puritans) could find no biblical support for the holiday, and they believed (correctly) that it was originally a pagan festival now masquerading as a Christian one. This view was widely held in American throughout the 19th century.
Gone is any of History.com's qualification.
So, was Christ's Birthday a mere blip on the American pop radar during the 1800s? Not according to what I found when I examined some of my U.S. tune books and hymnals from that period, starting with the 1823 edition of Musica Sacra, which includes Joy to the World, While Shepherds Watch (sic) Their Flocks By Night, and a Nativity anthem (Click on images to make them larger):
Meanwhile, my 1842 copy of the American Tract Society's Sacred Songs for Family and Social Worship includes, among others, such items as Hark! What Mean Those Holy Voices, Joy to the World, Hark! The Glad Sound, and Brightest and Best of the Sons of the Morning. For a period allegedly lukewarm about Christmas, there was sure a lot of attention given in sacred songbooks to the infant Christ.
Jumping to 1857, we find this list of Nativity numbers in Hymns for the Use of the Methodist Episcopal Church (tunes included):
You'll notice that Hark! The Herald Angels Sing is joined to a tune other than the well-known Mendelssohn melody. Keep in mind that, in the old days, hymn texts weren't necessarily associated with a particular melody (i.e., tune). The hymn Amazing Grace, for example, was used with 30-plus tunes, including the one we associate it with today. Probably more.
Then, from an 1865 songbook, it's hard to imagine anything more Christ-in-Christmas-y:
Finally, an 1883 collection of quartets and choruses with its very own Christmas (there's that word again) section:
Many conservatives call it the War on Christmas. Maybe it's more like a war on responsible journalism.