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The Battle for Christmas

3.85 of 5 stars 3.85  ·  rating details  ·  333 ratings  ·  56 reviews
Anyone who laments the excesses of Christmas might consider the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts: they simply outlawed the holiday. The Puritans had their reasons, since Christmas was once an occasion for drunkenness and riot, when poor "wassailersextorted food and drink from the well-to-do. In this intriguing and innovative work of social history, Stephen Nissenbaum red ...more
ebook, 400 pages
Published December 1st 2010 by Vintage (first published 1996)
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Thanks to newsfeeds on various social media platforms, I’ve been able to follow the mildly entertaining faux-controversy swirling around the public display area of Florida’s State Capitol. If you’ve been living your life in blissful ignorance of this local-interest story massively inflated by special interests (contributions welcome!), it comes down to this: A prayer group put a Nativity scene into the Statehouse; atheist groups responded with a pro-winter solstice message; some guy put up a Fes ...more
Fascinating. Especially in light of the Fox News meme "liberals are fighting a cultural war on Christmas" propagated on TV every winter. It was social conservatives in New England (led by the theologically liberal Unitarians!) who banned Christmas 200 years ago. Huh?

Christmas celebrations were a social carnival with roots in A Day of Misrule rituals marking the shortest day of the year. Public drunkenness and fornication was celebrated, along with barely tempered home invasions in which lords an
I am somewhat in love with the Christmas season. I am equally in love with finding out that certain long-abiding cultural traditions are not really so traditional and long-abiding after all. There's something satisfying about the sharp sting of disillusionment that accompanies discovering how cold, historic realities cannot live up to the romantic ideals of poetic fancy. Maybe I'm reliving the trauma of being told Santa doesn't actually exist, or maybe I'm just getting cynical in my old age. In ...more
Stephanie (
Original Quickie Review @

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 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.
I just re-read this book over the Christmas holiday after it has sat on my shelf for 14 years (Apropos of nothing, it was the first book I ever bought on Amazon). This should be required reading for everyone who complains about either "the War on Christmas" or "what a shame it is that Christmas has become more commercial." Little do these people know that what Christmas was in "the good old days" was really pretty much a drunken brawl (where it wasn't declared illegal) & that the wholesome, ...more
Got to page 50 and ran out of gas, skimmed the rest of the book and threw it back.

The book itself probably would have been a good read for someone truly interested in the history of Christmas traditions, but what I had been looking for was something that explained the history of Christmas as the date of Dec. 25 -- who decided it should be on December 25, what went into that decision, and what sorts of warring factions there were, as there must have been some.

I hate to mark the book down as a two
"Our own culture has made us acutely aware of inauthenticities that pervade our own lives- in advertising, business, and politics. And the awareness presses us to seek out the practices of other, different societies, including those of our own past- distant places and times that carry the promise of being more 'in touch' than our own with 'what really matters.'... We read about times gone by and we do not wish to think those were just as complex, and as morally ambiguous, as our own times. But o ...more
This book was an illuminating description of how the way we celebrate Christmas in the US has evolved in just a few generations. It will take you out of the mindset that there are immutable "traditions", seemingly hundreds of years old. If you are interested in how our perceptions of the Christmas holidays have been shaped over time, this is a really good one. Full disclosure, I am not a Christian, so I read this because I have an interest in the history of the holiday.
Not quite as wide-ranging as I hoped it would be, but what Nissenbaum covers he does so in interesting detail. More a work of scholarship than a light read, it offers an entertaining view of how Christmas was celebrated in North America--particularly around New York--prior to the 1850s. Think riots and all sorts of rowdy behavior very much in the tradition of Misrule and carnival.

The crux of the book is how the season was very consciously reshaped, especially from the 1820s to the 1840s, from b
B. Rule
This is an interesting cultural history of Christmas that largely argues that the domestic and commercial aspects we now associate with the holiday emerged simultaneously and synergistically. It's charmingly written with lots of arch asides, often translating the primary sources he quotes into modern slang (usually unnecessarily but amusingly). Each chapter picks up a different symbol or element of the Christmas mythos and traces its sources and evolutions into what we now think of as the "timel ...more
Chapters support the thesis that modern American Christmas celebrations took form in the early 1800s, adapting various older traditions of a public nature into a family-oriented holiday.
Read the March 2013 Dueling Librarians review!
Cynthia Varady
Dueling Librarians March 2013 review!
We’ve long known that Dec. 25th was not the birth of Christ, but coincided with the winter solstice and Saturnalia, a time for gluttony, drunkenness and revelry. It was another type of Mardi Gras, with besotted bands of rowdies, aggressive begging accompanied by underlying threats of damage. With such social disorder, Christmas keeping was outlawed in New England until the mid 1800’s, and was just another workday.

Campaigns began in Boston in 1817 urging businesses to close on Christmas, in orde
Apr 30, 2014 Omar rated it 4 of 5 stars  ·  review of another edition
Recommends it for: Timothy Schroeder
Informative and thought provoking, this book has me rethinking a lot of my views on not only Christmas, but Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday), too.

It's fairly common knowledge that the modern concept of Christmas was adapted from older, pagan solstice traditions; but I've long been curious about which older religions and practices each component tradition is rooted in. The fact that most of my sense of "traditional" Christmas was clearly Victorian made it pretty obvious to me that something ha
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 celebr
Hank Stuever
This is the best book ever written about Christmas, but it's also a towering example of careful historical research. Simply and elegantly put, Christmas is not what you think it is. Even if you know the basic history of it. Without any malice or intent to lecture Americans about their Christmas kookiness, Nissenbaum's book traces our cultural and historical relationship to the holiday. The only bummer about this book is that a lot of people probably wouldn't read it because (and on this I speak ...more
Should I read it?
Definitely. Though this book was first published in the 90s and the historical content within mainly deals with the 1800s, there are some alarming similarities between the cultural and class tensions it mentions and America's current state of affairs. In some respects, it feels unusually relevant (at least for U.S. American readers).

What's the short and skinny of it?
The Battle for Christmas is about the history of Christmas traditions, which, it turns out, are far less organic
Caitlin Marineau
A fascinating examination of the evolution of Christmas traditions. The Battle for Christmas shows early Christmas (and New Years, for historically the two seemed often interchangeable) traditions revolving around an atmosphere of carnival and misrule; a time when the social order was inverted and conventional forms of behavior were ignored. Occurring during the deep winter, after rural work had ended, Christmas came during a season of leisure and rowdiness. Though these behaviors briefly turned ...more
Interesting, scholarly, in-depth look at Christmas as it was celebrated in America up to the beginning of the 20th century.

I do think the author is wrong about Dickens' A Christmas Carol. Nissenbaum says that Scrooge never encounters the poor, except in his vision of Marley. While A Christmas Carol is hardly a book in the same class as Bleak House or Little Dorritt, there are some quiet demands made of the reader's sense of social justice. When Scrooge meets the Ghost of Christmas Present, they
Douglas Summers-Stay
I found it intriguing to see how Christmas turned from a public street party holiday-- think "Here we come a-wassailing" and "We won't go until we get some"-- into the private, family oriented holiday it is today, and how the various elements (the presents, the tree, the stockings) were invented. They were invented along with their own antiquity, and sometimes quite deliberately so.
It made me start to think about the connections between Odin, and Santa Claus, and Gandalf the Grey.
The tensions be
This book is about twice as long as it needs to be. Unless you're a scholarly scholar, it's almost too much documentation. It is quite interesting, though, in the historical evolution of the holiday as we know it today. It really re-enforces my own belief that celebrating Jesus is a daily joy, not a December one. As most of our holidays have pagan origins, so it is with Christmas - the Christians jumping on board in hopes of calming and taking over the extremely rowdy Saturnalia and harvest fest ...more
It's not often you read something that so skillfully and enjoyably explains how a lot of what you that you knew/assumed is actually wrong. Highly recommend if you want to know more about Christmas and where all the traditions we know today - Santa Claus, gift giving, the Christmas Tree, etc. actually come from.
I didn’t finish this because I pretty much got the point about 1/3 through. The upper classes battled with the lower classes to make Christmas more than an opportunity to riot and extort money and food from them. Oh, and merchants wanted to sell stuff. Another case of an historian who’s too wrapped up in his subject and goes into waaaay too much detail. Too bad, because it’s an interesting subject. And some great points to refute the right wing and their complaints about the “war” over Christmas ...more
This was a book that I read parts of with great focus, and skimmed other parts. The author has spent a lot of time on research to describe how Christmas has been and has not been celebrated, even banned during some parts of history. All of the traditions are explained in great detail.

After reading this book and The Origins of Christmas, I have been asking myself, "Why are we really doing all of this?" If this isn't all about Jesus' birth, then what is going on here???

But, then is it wrong to cel
Loved, loved this examination of the invention of Christmas traditions--most of which happened in the 19th century. During that space of 100 years, Christmas went from being a rowdy, drunken holiday to one centered around home and family. Some fascinating stuff here that made me keep reading.
But, unfortunately, it is written in the way so many history books are--lots of long quotes, footnotes, and at times, it's pretty dry. This is a story that deserves wider attention (especially in light of ou
Melinda Chadwick
Really interesting stuff but quite specific-- which I wasn't expecting. This book looks at Christmas before the Victorian period and after, then the events that caused that transformation. I would have liked more information about the holiday's history preceding the 1800's so I wouldn't have to go to wikipedia to figure out what Saturnalia was (among other things.) One short chapter would have easily sufficed. Still, I'm glad I read it. The irony of Christmas is not lost on me and is made richer ...more
This was a very informative book, with very small print, so it took me pretty much all of December to read. But I enjoyed learning about the "traditions" of Christmas and would definitely recommend this to anyone interested in how, and for that matter, when, the "traditional" Christmas we celebrate today actually came about, along with the origins of Santa Claus, the Christmas tree, presents, and charity. Well researched and written in an easily accessible manner.
Josh Tatum
This is an informative, scholarly book without being too dense or "brainy." The lessons in this book about Anglo-American Christmas are revealing about how long we've been "fighting" about Christmas. If you have any ambivalence about the modern Christmas, read this book and find out why. If you want to learn about Christmas---the real Christmas we experience every year, not the ideal Christmas we all long for---this is the book you're looking for.
I have to confess that I read different chunks of this book. I did not read it straight through. Some parts were more detailed than what I was interested in. This book provided a good look into how Christmas developed in America and how it started as a rather wild and dangerous celebration to how we know it today. Aspects such as gift-giving, the focus on children, Santa Claus, and such were discussed. It was really quite interesting.
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Professor Emeritus Stephen Nissenbaum (Ph.D., University of Wisconsin, 1968) retired from the History Department, University of Massachusetts at Amherst, in 2004. In 1998-99 he was a Fulbright Distinguished Professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin. His major publications include The Battle for Christmas (1996), which was a Pulitzer Prize finalist; Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian Americ ...more
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