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The Battle for Christmas by Stephen…
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The Battle for Christmas

by Stephen Nissenbaum

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Interesting, scholarly, in-depth look at Christmas as it was celebrated in America up to the beginning of the 20th century.

I do think the author is wrong about Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Nissenbaum says that Scrooge never encounters the poor, except in his vision of Marley. While A Christmas Carol is hardly a book in the same class as Bleak House or Little Dorritt, there are some quiet demands made of the reader's sense of social justice. When Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, they converse about the two "scowling, wolfish" children under the Ghost's robe. They are Want and Ignorance, foisted on the world by the failure of society to provide for the common necessities of the poor. Scrooge's heartless comments about workhouses and prisons and the surplus population are thrown back at him by the Ghost. And there's an interesting conversation about the laws which closed the shops where the poor could cook their dinners, along with other places of "innocent enjoyment" that would allow them rest and relaxation.

And wheeeeee! The folks that insist there's a "war on Christmas?" Try time-traveling to a time when the celebration of the holiday was illegal. ( )
  Turrean | Feb 15, 2014 |
Until the 19th century, Christmas celebrations had more to do with the midwinter pagan celebrations of the Saturn and Bacchus, according to a history of the Christmas celebration by Stephen Nissenbaum. The Christmas portrayed by Dickens of the family gathered together for a day of hard-earned rest and modest excess was a novelty. The holiday itself was only beginning to take shape as the dominating force between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Traditionally, December in Europe was a time for celebrating the end of the harvest season, when beer and wine were fully fermented. In fact, rowdy was the rule with massive feast-ing and cuckoldry. The Puritans suppressed the holiday. In Massachusetts there was a five shilling fine for celebrating Christmas. Pagan and consuetudinary celebrations die hard, and when the church decided in the fourth century to link the birth of Christ with a traditional holiday — there was no biblical reason for picking December 25th — it was essentially making a very political decision. “In return for insuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior's birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it always had been.” Despite Puritan animus, the holiday was making a rebound by the mid-19th century, but even as late as the 18th century Christmas “was not centered around the family or on children or giving presents.” It was the “religion of domesticity,” as Nissenbaum calls it, that swept through society in the early 19th century that marked the change. Indeed popular culture reinforces the historical fact. We don’t pine after a medieval Christmas, rather a Victorian one. And the iconography revolves around horse-drawn sleighs, gaslights, petticoats and dark furniture. The precipitate change came from cities, especially New York, where the traditional Christmas was taking children into the streets for rather unseemly activities. There was a push by propertied New Yorkers to move the celebration off the streets and into the homes. Soon St. Nicholas was imported and transformed into the ruddy, obese, hen-pecked icon of Thomas Nast. And the secular shopping spree was born.

Les Standisford's [b:The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits|3098796|The Man Who Invented Christmas How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits|Les Standiford|http://photo.goodreads.com/books/1225394065s/3098796.jpg|3129951] argues that Dickens rescued and re-invented Christmas, a holiday that the Puritans abhorred and made illegal.

revised 5/8/09 ( )
  ecw0647 | Sep 30, 2013 |
12 Books of Christmas

#9 History

A stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth,
And the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath

A memorable little detail from Clement Clark Moore’s St. Nicholas. Not the mitred Dutch bishop who visited on December 6 (his saint’s day), rewarding obedient children and punishing naughty one. An authentic American descendant, “a jolly old elf,” small enough to slide down chimneys but with enough of a belly to get his furry suit “tarnished with ashes and soot.” Elfin. That’s important. NOT the obese, human immortalized by the drawings of Thomas Nast and resurrected every year in thousands of department stores, holiday parades, and office parties. Moore’s was robably a bit craggy, a working man’s elf.

The stump of a pipe is important. As everyone in those days knew, the aristocratic, affluent man (or woman) puffed on a long pipe, the longer the more dignified. Indeed, these people were called the Long Pipes, as noted in the 1812 edition of Washington Irving’s History of New York. The short, stumpy pipe belonged to lower-class, working people, not because they were cheaper, perhaps at first because they could be held clamped in the teeth more conveniently while laborers went about their work, but eventually as a proud, public gesture of class identity. Some workers even purchased long pipes and broke them off at the stem to show they had deliberately chosen a short pipe – “a stump of a pipe,” if you will.

Such tidbits of information, you will find in every section of Professor Stephen Nissenbaum’s scholarly history, The Battle for Christmas (Knopf, c1996). The scholarly nature of the tome is announced in its subtitle: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas That Shows How It Was Transformed from an Unruly Carnoval Season into the Quintessential American Family Holiday. Professor Nissenbaum has done his research well. His text is filled with quotations, anecdotes, and documentary evidence gather from personal letters, diaries, journals, local newspapers, church and government documents as well as works published at the time and long since relegated to archives, rare books collections, and attics.

What he shows his readers, in effect, is the efforts of a healthy, cozy “American family holiday” to emerge. In Puritan New England any celebration of Christmas as a holy-day or holiday was strictly forbidden. Their pastors insisted that so-called Christmas was simply a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer; and, of course, they were right historically. Even so, the winter solstice continued to prove a seductive time for ordinary folk to make merry. Harvests were over but the coldest, hardest winter months were yet to come, so there was a time when workers were relatively idle. Cellars and granaries were full, beer and wine were fermenting just right, fresh meat was available – animals could not be slaughtered and their flesh preserved until these first cold spells. It was a time for feasting and drinking and reveling, for hunger and thirst and passions to be satisfied. With inebriation rampant, misrule became the rule. Anger and lust found expression in riotous behavior. In some case a Lord of Misrule was named; he was worked up with rich food and liquor and then expected to have sex publicly with a woman provided him.

So what Nissenbaum describes for us is a tug of war lasting several centuries – between restraint and excess, self-control and self-indulgence, severity and debauchery. One of the ways to keep people off the streets, of course, was to transform Christmas into a domestic holiday – to emphasize family feasts, homes decorated with evergreens, gift exchanges among family, family “traditions” (sometimes historic, sometimes invented), eventually focusing almost exclusively on young children. So, to this historian, the “battle” for Christmas has been between a boisterous, loud, unruly carnival, and quieter, but cheerful, family parties.

Legislative recognition of Christmas as a legal holiday began in the mid-1800s, eventually supported by laborers as a guaranteed release from toil in factories and offices. Himself Jewish, Nissenbaum pays relatively little attention of religious pageants, cantatas, and the like. He concludes with an epilogue in which he traces efforts to highlight other holidays, in addition to or even as substitutes for Christmas revelry: e.g., Thanksgiving, Kwanzaa, Chanukah, eve n First Night (a more sober New Year’s Eve).

For all its scholarly documentation (50 to 100 detail endnotes per chapter) and detailed piling up of repetitious evidence, The Battle for Christmas is a very readable book. The curious tidbits, the accounts quoted from letters and autobiographies, the surprising transformations can be genuinely entertaining as well as informative. I recommend it for browsing or sampling. I never read (or reread) the whole thing during any holiday season, but instead enjoy a chapter or two. The eight chapters focus on Puritan opposition to Christmas, the “invention” of Santa Claus, the Victorian parlor and the creation of “childhood,” a history of gift-giving, the Christmas tree as a symbol of domesticity (especially among abolitionists), Christmas charity drives, and “wassailing” among slaves in the antebellum South. With the commercialization of Chistmas, the “battle” took on a new form: selfishness replaced dissipation as the problem to be overcome.

The Battle represents social and cultural history as its best. If you don’t devour the whole thing (and you probably won’t), at least treat yourself to morsels. And, by all means, read Chapter 2, “Revisiting ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas’.” Nissenbaum concludes, “Between being a jolly plebeian elf and a jolly fat uncle, the real St. Nicholas would surely have found it difficult to choose.” The latter won out, and was domesticated and idealized. In their famous editorial, beginning “Yes, Virginia, there is a Santa Claus,” the New York Sun used the child’s vision to strike out against “the skepticism of a skeptical age.” Clement Moore’s work became “an oasis of respectability,” and to this day has helped preserve the “childlike faith,” the poetry, the romance of Christmas.

Professor Nissenbaum deserves recognition and gratitude for his exemplary history, but also for his contribution to the "joys of Christmas." ( )
2 vote bfrank | Jan 1, 2011 |
The Battle for Christmas is an interesting book that sheds some light on Christmas practices and traditions. The Puritans made Christmas illegal in New England becuase of its pagan roots. It's ironic that some will claim a 'war on Christmas,' which they believe is coming from the left, but in reality it's coming from the right. ( )
  06nwingert | Nov 18, 2009 |
very interesting book which shows that Christmas was indeed a secular holiday, started by American PR companies. The church was opposed to the holiday because from the start it was a pagan feast with drinking and the like and later on was mostly for material gifts. Very enlightening. ( )
1 vote Mitsou | Apr 13, 2009 |
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0679740384, Paperback)

This scholarly analysis of our modern celebration of Christmas pulls together a thoroughly convincing case for the widely accepted notion that it is a 19th-century creation, indeed a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins. Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ's birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year's food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:51:37 -0400)

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"A social and cultural history of Christmas that shows how it was transformed from an unruly carnival season into the quintessential American family holiday"--Jacket.

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