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Search tags: The-Battle-for-Christmas
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review 2014-12-06 20:37
The Battle for Christmas
The Battle for Christmas - Stephen Nissenbaum

How I ended up between its sheets: When Book Riot asked readers what they were reading for Christmas, it got me thinking. While I normally don’t read anything different than normal during the holiday season, I decided to change that. After a bit of research, I settled on this history of American Christmas.


What stimulated me:

  • I love history and I seem to have inherited my grandmother’s Christmas freak gene, so a book combining the two is a no-brainer.
  • The clear, detailed explanation of the holiday’s evolution and how our modern Christmas came to be so.
  • This read contains tidbits about Christmas that most never knew and couldn’t imagine, e.g., it being outlawed by the Puritans, its former carnival-like atmosphere, the connection between it and charity, its original focus (hint: not children or family), origins of its commercialization.
  • Covers varying traditions in several parts of the country: New England, Pennsylvania, New York, Virginia, and the South.
  • Reprints of earliest Christmas illustrations


What turned me off:

  • This is a scholarly work, which I liked, but sometimes the level of detail, number of examples, and constant citing of historical documents became a bit tedious. In truth, I skimmed over some parts.


Final Thoughts: This is a fascinating book, but it’s definitely not for everyone. Given its academic bent, it is dense reading that for some will be way more than they ever wanted to know about Christmas. Too, it may not necessarily put one in the Christmas mood, if that is the aim. On the other hand, if one wants to see exactly how Christmas in the U.S. came to be what it is, this book is the ticket.

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review 2008-11-29 00:00
The Battle for Christmas - Stephen Nissenbaum 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 The Man Who Invented Christmas: How Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol Rescued His Career and Revived Our Holiday Spirits argues that Dickens rescued and re-invented Christmas, a holiday that the Puritans abhorred and made illegal.

revised 5/8/09
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