The Battle for Christmas
by Stephen Nissenbaum
4 stars - fascinating stuff
Materialism - the passion for money-making and excitement, is eating up the heart of our people. We are not a happy people; our families are not happy. Men look anxious and weary. We want something more genial and social and unselfish among us.
- Home-Life in Germany Charles Loring Brace 1853
All the children are expecting presents, and all aunts and cousins to say nothing of near relatives, are considering what they shall bestow upon earnest expectants... I observe that the shops are preparing themselves with all sorts of things to suit all sorts of tastes; and am amazed at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.
- Boston Unitarian Magazine 1834
Let's start by saying that pretty much everything I thought I knew about the Christmas holiday was either only marginally true or plainly false. Mr. Nissenbaum is a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts and in The Battle for Christmas he traces the holiday in New England from the seventeenth century up through the turning of the twentieth century (after which, we can assume that most readers can fill in the blanks).
It's a great read and it certainly pays to be informed regarding whatever decisions you make on how to celebrate the holidays. I'll summarize by saying that virtually every "tradition" we associate with the Christmas holiday was something created out of the desire to minimize mayhem. Yup, mayhem.
Start in the good old days when there were lords and ladies and everybody else. Along about the winter solstice, the harvest was in, and it was time to slaughter animals. It was the only time during the year when fresh meat would be available in quantity as most would be salted or smoked so as to survive for months at a time. Well, with all that meat and nothing to do in the fields and short days, time to party!
And party they did! Starting around the Winter Solstice and running through the early new year, there was much drinking, parading about, and generally roguish behavior. During this time, it was tradition for the lords and ladies to open up their manor houses and provide food and wine for the folks who worked the estate. There was also a significant amount of dress-up and role playing as farmers dressed as lords and visa versa. Curiously, cross-dressing was also quite common. It was, to say the least, anything goes.
The Puritans, not liking any of that nonsense, pretty much banned the holiday when they arrived in New England. Now then, what about Christmas as the celebration of the birth of Christ? Sorry, folks, but the church, not having any record of the precise date of the birth of Jesus, assigned December the 25th in an effort to both curtail a bit of the debauchery of the season and also to take advantage of the winter idleness to possibly induce some folks into church.
In fact, very little of the Christmas holiday as we know it has anything to do with religion. The notion of a family cozily huddled around the tree was a "tradition" that was created to try and curb the gangs of youths that would break into people's houses demanding food and drink during the holiday season. Closing of schools over Christmas was due in large part to schoolboys who would barricade themselves in the schoolhouse with plenty of food and grog and sometimes shoot at any schoolmaster so reckless as to try and gain entry. Gift giving was institutionalized by merchants who practiced segmented marketing as early as the early nineteenth century. The idea of charity was also a way to encourage the folks without to settle down and take what was offered instead of raiding the homes of the wealthy and middle-class.
Mr. Nissenbaum dedicates chapters to the evolution of Santa Claus, the Christmas Tree, and charitable giving at the holidays. He also details the failure of the Puritans to ban the holiday and the reclamation of the winter celebration in seventeenth and eighteenth century New England.
He does it all in the context of what was happening in society at the time; how economic and lifestyle changes played in to developing the various activities that we associate with the Christmas holiday.
For me, the moral of the book is that, once again, there is nothing new under the sun, and all our complaints about "losing the Christmas spirit" and materialism during the holidays and whatnot are as old as the hills. I'm also left with a more positive feeling about the season, because the only true tradition appears to be to do something, whatever, to lighten the load as winter settles in.