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.