The Battle for Christmas

Posted: 22 December 2009 in Uncategorized
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Christmas was invented in the nineteenth century, in New York City. Christmas more or less as we know it today—and quite different from what it was before. It was a battle and a small group of very wealthy, conservative New Yorkers, including Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, won.

That’s what Stephen Nissenbaum argues in his 1997 book, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas That Shows How It Was Transformed from an Unruly Carnival Season into the Quintessential American Family Holiday.

According to reviewer David Yosifon,

In an agricultural setting the Christmas season arrived just when intense harvesting was finished, freshly slaughtered meat was widely available (as it was not through the rest of the year) and the year’s supply of beer and wine was ready for consumption. For several weeks in December gentle folks and commoners alike indulged in food, alcohol, and sex with an intensity that was proscribed throughout the rest of the year. A key feature of this “season of misrule” involved a sanctioned “social inversion” in which peasants could demand entry into the homes of the rich in order to solicit gifts of food and drink. Essential to Nissenbaum’s broader argument is that it was the poor who initiated this exchange, the poor who demanded it as a right. . .

While elites sanctioned and participated in this Christmas revelry for centuries, by the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century they began to fear and try to suppress it. Industrialization suffered no slackening of work in the winter, and in an urban setting roving bands of angry, drunken young proletarians seemed more of a direct threat to established interests than had their peasant ancestors.

According to Nissenbaum himself,

What you can see happening between 1810 and 1830, is the invention of a tradition. A new kind of Christmas is created, complete with its own mythical figure – Santa Claus. It takes place in the house, and does not involve opening the doors if you are rich. On the one hand this is a new development, because it excludes the outside world. On the other hand, by centering the holiday on children, in a structural way it replicated old patterns: people in authority still give gifts to their inferiors; not along the lines of class but within the family. In the 19th century, children would have knocked around with the servants, and really belonged on the bottom of the social scale. There is a duplication of the old structure, no longer rich to poor, but still powerful to powerless. Psychologically this seems to have satisfied the old need without the threat of opening your doors.

That’s how a new set of Christmas traditions—a new set of class-oriented traditions—was invented in the United States.

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