23 December 2009

CHRISTMAS BOOK REVIEW: The Battle for Christmas

by Stephen Nissenbaum

It was a long road from the original Christmas celebration in the United States to the child-centered, family-oriented holiday we know today: it began on our shores as a riotous, often-violent celebration of half-inebriated men and boys wandering from house to house, making loud noises and pounding on doors demanding liquor and food. In fact, this was the main reason the Puritans held Christmas in disregard for so long: not because it was an idolatrous birthday celebration, but because it was so long celebrated with drunkenness and incivility.

This is a scholarly but readable history that brings us from those obnoxious revelers to the Victorian celebration that is so close to what we celebrate today. Some critics wonder why Nissenbaum stopped there, but it's evident; all the elements were then in place. Covered are the drunken "callithumpians" versus the Puritan element, servants versus the upper class, the writing and influence of "A Visit from St. Nicholas," the change in the gifting dynamic, the rise of the "old-fashioned Christmas tree" as a vehicle for dispensing the gifts versus the stocking tradition, gifts for the poor, and the plantation traditions of the ante-bellum South. Also recommended on this subject: Penne Restad's Christmas in America.

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