Mar 7, 2013

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

Book cover for THE BATTLE OF CHRISTMAS by Stephen Nissenbaum
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Christmas traditions are far less organic than we are led to believe. Using countless sources, from diary excerpts, to almanacs, illustrations, and children’s books, author Stephen Nissenbaum unravels the mysteries of Santa, Christmas gift-giving, and more in The Battle for Christmas. How did winter misrule evolve into the child-centered domestic affair we know so well today?

Christmas Celebrations or Class Warfare?

Having read reviews beforehand, I knew The Battle for Christmas covered more than reindeer and tinsel, but the scope of the book still surprised me. Nissenbaum considered every angle from which to view Christmas—the politics that shaped it; the religion that resisted, then reinforced, it; and the economies that commodified it. Nissenbaum’s writing is dry and slow at times, but his research is impressive, and you have to admit the topic’s interesting. Beware, though. This book may turn you into that person who ruins all the fun at Christmas parties.

Dwight dressed as Belsnickle in The Office - Season 9

I, for one, would love a party with Belsnickle or Krampus.

The Battle for Christmas is made up of a preface, seven (overly long) chapters, and an epilogue. The first two chapters are the most informative. They cover the early history of Christmas in America, wherein you learn the holiday was not some quaint cultural import, be it from Anglo pagans or Christians, but rather a carefully crafted modification of an existing winter “misrule” enjoyed by the working poor and begrudgingly tolerated by the wealthy. Some of the wealthiest, men we might now call Scrooges and Grinches, created the modern Santa and other Christmas lore.

While other chapters offer interesting and oftentimes amusing tidbits of information about gift-giving, Christmas trees, and holiday charity, these initial chapters were the ones I found not only enlightening (e.g., Puritans tried to ban Christmas!), but also infuriating. Reading about wealthy society’s contempt for the poor they disenfranchised will have you laughing in disbelief and maybe even feeling a little nauseated. The subtle, and at other times blatant, class warfare documented in this book makes you realize how far American society has come. It also makes you realize how much work there is left to do—if you didn’t realize that already.

And in 1822 (the year “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared), John Pintard explained to his daughter just why he was opposed to the new state constitution adopted that year, a constitution that gave men without property the right to vote: “All power,” Pintard wrote, “is to be given, by the right of universal suffrage, to a mass of people, especially in this city, which has no stake in society. It is easier to raise a mob than to quell it, and we shall hereafter be governed by rank democracy…. Alas that the proud state of New York should be engulfed in the abyss of ruin.”

In short, [this “small group of antiquarian-minded New York gentlemen”] felt that they belonged to a patrician class whose authority was under siege. From that angle, their invention of Santa Claus was part of what we can now see as a larger, ultimately quite serious cultural enterprise: forging a pseudo-Dutch identity for New York, a placid “folk” identity that could provide a cultural counterweight to the commercial bustle and democratic “misrule” of early-nineteenth-century New York.

One thing I enjoy about Nissenbaum’s work is his use of primary sources. You don’t merely learn about the history of Christmas this way. You also learn about the individuals who wrote about the holiday’s inception and the surrounding culture and events of the time. It’s through these quotes and excerpts on day-to-day life that you’re able to watch the winter holidays evolve with each passing generation. By the mid 1800s, a mere 30 years after Pintard’s above statement to his daughter, Christmas seems rather familiar:

But nowadays, things are different: “‘There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.'”

While reading, I couldn’t decide whether it was comforting or disheartening to know Christmas has been a deeply commercialized holiday from the beginning and that people are saying the same things about it today that they did a century and a half ago. It would seem Americans, in particular, have always struggled to find meaning in manufactured traditions and gifts. If the history of this book tells you anything, it might be that such American yearning for authenticity around the holidays is unlikely to change any time soon.

Even people who fervently believe in market capitalism sometimes blame it for cheapening Christmas. But what this book has suggested is that there never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism. It has argued that the domestic Christmas was the commercial Christmas—commercial from its earliest stages, commercial at its very core. Indeed, the domestic Christmas was itself a force in the spread of consumer capitalism.

The Battle for Christmas should probably be shorter: Nissenbaum is far too eager to share all his research. Small flaws aside, though, you can learn a lot from this book about the supposed sacredness of traditions and the manipulation of culture and history. We would all do well to take our rituals with a grain of salt and be open to changing them. And why not? It wouldn’t be the first time they’ve been altered.

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Quotes from The Battle for Christmas

Indeed, at the time Moore wrote “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” in 1822, he himself owned five slaves.

Newsboys were drawn from the poorest classes of large cities; often they were homeless–in fact, the word newsboy was sometimes used interchangeably with homeless boy or street arab. … Newsboys may have been a new phenomenon in the late 1830s, but they fit a social and demographic profile that had long been associated with rituals of Christmas misrule: They were poor and youthful males. So it is no wonder that they took to acting up with particular intensity during the holiday season.

Alcott’s program was controversial from the beginning–for example, when his pupils misbehaved badly, Alcott would punish them by ordering them to whip him!

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