The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum

Now that Thanksgiving is in the rearview mirror, we can look forward to a full month of Christmas ads in the newspapers, Christmas commercials and specials on TV, Christmas music on the radio and in every retail store, and Christmas decorations throughout our neighborhoods. In view of this, I thought it might be a perfect time to recommend an excellent book on the holiday, The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, published in 1996.

This book is a history of Christmas in America, and has nothing to do with the “war on Christmas” conjured by rabble-rousing demagogues like Bill O’Reilly, nor does it say much about December 25th being ripped off from Sol Invictus or Saturnalia or the birthdays of Ishtar or Mithra. However, the fact that this holiday was originally not a Christian festival is noted.

Why Christmas is commercial

The Battle for Christmas tells how a once boisterous orgy was deliberately tamed in the United States into the tradition of family Christmas shopping and commercialism that we know today. The Christmas holiday was transformed by a small club of wealthy men in New York, members of an elite, politically conservative set opposed to democracy and known as the Knickerbockers. These patricians included author Washington Irving as well as Clement Clarke Moore, credited with writing A Visit from St. Nicholas (a.k.a. Twas the Night Before Christmas).

Christmas was historically rowdy

Initially, Nissenbaum explains, Christmas for many early Americans was a season of “misrule” — an extended post-harvest festival of drunkenness, rowdiness, and lust carried over from similar traditions in England and Europe in general. It was a time of relaxation and plenty, and also a time of release, during which the hostility of the commoners toward their rich bosses was vented. This, as Nissenbaum unravels, was the original sense of “wassailing,” which incorporated the very real, physical threat of tipsy peasants plundering their rich overlords. He also delves into the way this annual disorder played out in the southern United States, with slaves being temporarily permitted to drink, and slave owners taking sexual advantage of slave women.

Meanwhile, for the most religious early Americans, Christmas was an embarrassing non-event. The view of the Puritans was that December 25th had no connection at all to the birth of Jesus Christ, and was merely a varnished-over pagan festival. Puritans deliberately ignored Christmas, went about their business as normally as possible, and held no celebrations. They even purged Christmas from their almanacs, and passed laws to fine anyone found observing Christmas.

All of this emotional froth came to a head in New York City (previously New Amsterdam), where the threatened capitalists finally took Christmas into their own hands. Borrowing the figure of Sinterklaas from the Dutch, they fashioned a new American stay-at-home tradition revolving around family members buying gifts for each other.

A show of the rich feeding the poor

So delighted were these Knickerbockers by this new spirit of giving that they staged a Christmas event at Madison Square Garden in which they arrived in top hats and furs to sit in the good seats and watch orphan newsboys chow down on a free, raucous feast. This story alone is worth reading the book for, and it echoes even today in local TV news reports from our urban homeless shelters.

Nissenbaum also traces the evolution of Santa Claus from a working class hero into a sugar daddy, he finds the original Christmas tree in Germany, and he connects the Christmas dots to Purim, the blues, and Kwanzaa. He does a fantastic job of untangling a truly confusing set of beliefs and traditions and smoothing it all against the tapestry of American history.

It’s usually easier to reconcile yourself to something once you understand its background and development. In that regard, this book on the history of Christmas is a remedial revelation.

I am not kidding in the least when I say that The Battle for Christmas has helped me endure “the most wonderful time of the year.”

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