Monday, January 3, 2011

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum

iconiconSince I wasn't too impressed with Gregory Macguire's Matchless, I figured I should read and review another Christmas book!  I also found this one via the library, and was quite pleased at how scholarly and well-researched it was.

The Battle for Christmas is about the evolution of Christmas into the holiday we know now: commercialized gift-giving, domestic holiday.  The author shows that it wasn't always like this — in fact, Christmas used to be a holiday of drunkenness and rioting.  The holiday was banned by the New England Puritans, because of its pagan roots but also because of the rioting.  It wasn't until the mid- to late-18th century that Christmas could be legally celebrated in Massachusetts.

It wasn't until the early 19th century that a group of people in New York started actively trying to recreate Christmas.  Many people today believe that "Santa Claus" came from an old Dutch tradition celebrating St. Nicholas.  While that's true, it was apparently only celebrated for a short time, and by a small group of people, in the mid-18th century — and it wasn't brought to America by them.  A group of New Yorkers (Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore among them) intentionally fabricated the American tradition.

The tradition of the Christmas tree was born in a similar fashion.  Rather than being brought over by German immigrants, as it seems to have been, it appears that the tradition was intentionally created via the fiction of a couple of early 19th-century writers, just as St. Nick was.  What the author of The Battle for Christmas continually stresses is that these people were intentionally turning Christmas into something new — instead of a holiday that was marked by excess and bad behavior, they were deliberately refocusing it as a domestic holiday, with a focus on giving gifts to loved ones, especially children.

I was especially amused when the author talked about how the complaint about "When did Christmas get so commercialized?" is not a new one.  He talked about how early in the 19th century, "gift books" — books made with the sole intention of being purchased and given as gifts — made an appearance.  He also cites (and reproduces) many ads dating from around 1800 to 1820 that show how commercialized Christmas had already become.  In fact, Harriet Beecher Stowe apparently observed how commercialized it had become in an 1850 story.  We may like to talk about how "it wasn't this way when I was a child," but in fact neither the commercialism nor the complaining are anything new!

Although the book was a bit dry at times and I did a lot of skimming, it was also quite a revelation to me.  I highly recommend at least flipping through it if you want to know the truth of how Christmas evolved into the holiday we know today.

The first image link in this post is to the paperback edition, which — with Barnes & Noble's online discount — is actually a little cheaper than the ebook.  However, it appears that the paperback and the ebook are not linked on the product page, so for those of you who would prefer the ebook, here it isicon!

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