The Battle for Christmas: Happy Holidays!

December 24, 2008

Today and tomorrow as we gather with family to celebrate Christmas, admire a beautifully decorated Christmas tree,  possibly attend midnight mass or some other religious service, keep an ear out for sleigh bells and the arrival of Santa Claus and exchange gifts, it will seem as if those Christmas traditions have been with us forever.  Surely Christmas has always been celebrated that way! As  Stephen Nissenbaum points out in The Battle for Christmas, however, Christmas is a relatively recent invention.   The Battle for Christmas traces the development of Christmas primarily in the United States from the 17th-19th centuries and how it changed from a raucous celebration that more closely resembled Halloween with alcohol, feasting, costumes, class inversion and chants demanding tribute or else a trick would be played to the domestic, child-centered holiday it has become.

This was a really interesting book.  Some of what Nissenbaum discusses I already knew…for example that the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas and even banned its celebration due to the raucous way it was celebrated with drinking, carousing, and gluttony.  The early church had placed Christmas in December in order to take advantage of existing pagan celebrations that time of year, hoping to put a Christian spin on those celebrations.  What really surprised me was how much Christmas celebrations reflected the social and economic structures of various times and how efforts to tame Christmas were a response to the  changes in society brought by the Industrial Revolution and the breaking of old bonds of service and social change.  As society changed, especially in the United States where cities were becoming chaotic and busy due to immigration and poor economic conditions, Christmas moved inside to focus on the family. 

Nissenbaum neatly punches holes in many of our beliefs about our cherished Christmas traditions.  The wealthy Knickerbocker set in New York City, dismayed over what was happening in its streets, channeled their anxiety into creating a holiday spent at home.  One member of this set, Clement Clarke Moore, pens “A Visit From Saint Nicholas” and purposefully makes Santa Claus seem less genteel than the saint upon whom he was purportedly based in order to appeal to his anxious audience.  The Christmas tree appears almost out of nowhere to become part of celebrations.

There’s a lot going on in this book.  It is a little shocking to realize that what you hold dear about the holiday is of fairly recent invention and that was possibly cynically created as a way of exerting social control.  The book isn’t mean spirited, though, and it covers a lot of ground.  As Christmas was evolving, so was commerce, and the development of the concept of gifts and buying gifts is fascinating.  We often complain that Christmas has become so commercial and we would like to return to some authentic celebration.  As Nissenbaum points out, people have been complaining about the commercialization of the holiday since they first began exchanging gifts, so this complaint is nothing new.  The way we celebrate Christmas is authentic!   It was also interesting to read about how children’s place in the family changed as Christmas began to take hold.  While most of the book is set in the North, Nissenbaum does explore Christmas in the South and how it impacted slavery.

Nissenbaum’s focus extends only to the late 19th century, and I would have loved to have read more about Christmas in the 20th century and how it has (or hasn’t) changed.  Since most of the book is set in the North, one obtains a very good idea of how Christmas developed there, but I wonder if there are other critical elements contributed from other parts of the United States that were left out.  As always…did New York lead the way?

This book doesn’t change how I feel about Christmas or will celebrate it.  If anything, it affirms how I’ve felt about the holiday: goodwill, feasting, friends and family.  The spirit of Christmas is ingrained in us and quite possibly part of our collective unconscious. Though tamed, it’s like a release valve that allows some of the pressure from the year to escape.  That’s coming perilously close to the ancient, raucous way of celebrating Christmas, but as the year winds down and winter setting in, we humans need that release. And frankly, in 2008, many of the Christmas traditions that were created in the 19th century are almost 200 years old…that may not be ancient, but it certainly makes them old and established.  Legitimate.


Third Degree: Crazy Town

December 7, 2008

I am beginning to wonder if Greg Iles is having marital problems because his last few novels have involved serious marital and custody issues. Third Degree focuses on one horrible afternoon in a couple’s life when a husband discovers his wife’s infidelity and snaps, holding her and their children hostage in their home.   The husband’s behavior had been erratic lately, which Laurel, the wife, had chalked up to his concern about the audit of his medical practice for billing irregularities.  Tipped off to incriminating evidence planted in his house by his business partner, Warren, the husband, instead finds evidence of his wife’s infidelity.  Warren demands the name; Laurel won’t give it to him and the madness intensifies as police–including trigger happy members holding a grudge as well as Laurel’s former lover–gather outside the house, preparing for action.  Will anyone emerge alive from this situation?

Set again in Mississippi, Iles is great at painting a picture of small-town life.  I like that he uses the same area for most of his novels.  Unfortunately, I found this novel to be only mediocre.  I think my biggest complaint is that we were expected to be sympathetic to Lauren and her lover’s situation.  Why should we reward their infidelity?  Why do they deserve a happy ending?  Warren (despite taking her hostage) was not a horrible husband to her.  I felt like Iles was rather one-sided with the story.  He paints Warren and Danny’s (Laurel’s lover) as one-dimensional, horrible characters, and maybe they are, but why should I sympathize with infidelity?  It seems that Danny’s major saving grace is that he loves his autistic son while his wife does not, and I think it’s despicable to use that as a characteristic.

I was also a little frustrated by the constant going back and forth about who Laurel’s lover is and her denials and the fact that Warren won’t listen to her.  Iles put in one too many scenes like that, and I was ready for the action to move on.  It seemed that the rescue team took forever to finally move.

In short, it seems like Iles cranked out this book in as little time as possible with scant attention to character development.  He’s written far better books.

Recommended (also by Iles):

Left for Dead: Me after finishing this book

December 2, 2008

Ha ha.  My poor attempt at a joke.  Kevin O’Brien’s purported thriller Left for Dead begins with a serial killer known as Rembrandt (for his lovely makeup skills) on the loose, preying on women of a certain age.  The focus shifts abruptly when one of his victims, Claire Ferguson Shaw, is found alive.  Once Claire regains her memory and reunites with her family, she begins to wonder what is really going on.  Her friends and husband seem evasive.  Considered troublemakers in their small town, her son has run away, and his best friend has left on a sudden backpacking trip.  Claire’s memory of what happened the night of her abduction remains stubbornly hidden.  And it appears that someone is watching her.  Is it Rembrandt coming to finish the job?  Why are there so many disappearances in her town?  And what’s up with the “civic club” her husband belongs to? Claire must find the answer to these questions…they could save her life.

I think I made the description of the book sound better than it actually was.  The book started off promisingly enough from the victims’ perspective as each encounters Rembrandt.  Even as you were introduced to Claire and learn her backstory, there is still hope.  Unfortunately, what O’Brien appears to lack is nuance.  He is heavy-handed with dialogue and plot.  The comments Linda, Claire’s supposed “best friend” make are so obnoxious and intrusive that it’s hard to imagine any real person not replying, “Mind your own effing business.”  However, these comments serve to let us know that Linda is hiding something and advance the plot.  Obviously this plot advancement could have been handled better.  I also found Claire’s derogatory thoughts about Linda somewhat offensive.  Granted, Linda is evil, but there was something about the way O’Brien had Claire talk about Linda’s food and hair that seemed a little too much.  We get that she is a pitiful, evil, vengeful cow, but come on.  There was a level of meanness that threatened to push my sympathy towards Linda at times.  I think a better writer could have handled that relationship better. All the relationships actually.  The young, handsome detective is treated like crap by everyone except for poor damsel-in-distress Claire for no real reason.  Claire’s husband talks to her and treats her like she is a 4-year-old.  It’s like O’Brien wanted to make as much progress as possible writing his novel and just sped through.

And the plot itself was muddled. I’m still not clear exactly who was responsible for what because it seemed like certain people had certain plans that other people who had been involved in other plans didn’t know about.  Are you confused?  I was. 

I read this book in a few hours and stayed up way longer reading it than it deserved, but I wanted to finish it.  It’s a mediocre book, and I admit to skimming the last few pages because I just didn’t care.  I had an idea where the book was going about halfway through, and it took its precious time getting there.   Thankfully I spent only 50 cents on it at the booksale.