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After Black Friday’s mall pummelings, we all can second the rant from one woman about Christmas materialism: “Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.” What do you get “for people that have more than they know what to do with now? … There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.”
That was Harriet Beecher Stowe, letting off steam through one of her characters in a holiday story—from 1850. Two years before she assailed slavery in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Stowe was one of many who were fed up with the whole Christmas scene. A letter writer to a magazine in 1834, dazed by the sheer mass of Christmas merchandise in stores—including junk—was amazed “at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.”
Both examples come from “The Battle for Christmas,” Stephen Nissenbaum’s Pulitzer-nominated debunking of the notion of the holidays’ good old days. When someone says old-fashioned Christmases weren’t commercial, Nissenbaum’s 1996 book makes clear, they’re wrong, unless by “old-fashioned” they mean before the 1820s, when an onslaught of gift-giving became the yuletide SOP. And while it’s hard to believe, this capitalist Christmas was a good thing. We should all lift a glass of eggnog to it this season.
The short version of Nissenbaum’s history: Christians didn’t settle on Dec. 25 to celebrate Jesus’s birth until the fourth century, and then only to compete with Rome’s pagan festival of Saturnalia. (The Bible doesn’t date the Nativity.) This Christian counterpoint itself became an occasion for what we would consider criminality. For three centuries until the early 1800s, European and then American revelers made gluttons and drunks of themselves in public at Christmastime, occasionally becoming violent and sexually assaultive, and forced their way into rich people’s homes to demand food and drink in exchange for singing. You needn’t take Nissenbaum’s word for it; New England Puritans, he says, famously banned Christmas for these very reasons. He quotes an 1833 Philadelphia newspaper account:
Throughout almost the whole of Tuesday night—Christmas Eve—riot, noise, and uproar prevailed, uncontrolled and uninterrupted in many of our central and most orderly streets. Gangs of boys and young men howled and shouted as if possessed by the demon of disorder.
This "inversion" of the social order, as Nissenbaum calls it, with the poor sticking it to the Man, might cheer some (until they reflect that these home invasions hardly sowed sympathy for helping the needy). Anyway, things changed beginning in the early 19th century, when affluent Americans, led by literary types, sought to tame Christmas. Rather than public rowdiness and gifts extorted from the haves, they designed a family-centered holiday with presents for children. Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823, was a crucial step in this direction. Also that decade, Gift Books—literary anthologies for women and young people—became the first mass-marketed Christmas presents.
“It would be unfair to conclude that these books were purchased and given away simply as a display of conspicuous consumption,” Nissenbaum writes. “Christmas gifts had to be (or appear to be) expressions of personal sentiment, designed to signify or enhance intimate personal bonds—bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives, suitors and those they courted. And that is surely what parents, husbands, and suitors wanted them to be.” Christmas presents coincided with a cultural shift to viewing children as cherished human beings, not merely economic assets (workers) for the family, he says.
In short, capitalism not only ensured us all a tranquil night’s sleep during Christmas, it helped produce our modern, kid-beloved, peace-on-earth-and-in-the-streets holiday.
Capitalism not only ensured us all a tranquil night’s sleep during Christmas, it helped produce our modern, kid-beloved, peace-on-earth-and-in-the-streets holiday.
None of this excuses today's hysterical avarice. Commercialized Christmases were supposed to replace rowdy, violent ones, making all the more offensive the mobs trampling each other for a crummy TV at Wal-Mart. (To think that stores force their employees to work Thanksgiving catering to these doofuses.) I'm among those for whom worship services are an essential part of a good Christmas, the historical Nativity's unknown timing notwithstanding.
But if we can shear commercial Christmas of its excesses, Nissenbaum offers a healthy dose of perspective: “There never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism. The domestic Christmas was the commercial Christmas — commercial from its earliest stages, commercial at its very core.”
This program aired on December 16, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.
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