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The Battle for Christmas

3.85  ·  Rating Details  ·  409 Ratings  ·  64 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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Apr 26, 2016 Matt rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, christmas
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
Dec 24, 2015 Melki rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
No, this is not about Fox News and their imaginary War on Christmas, but an insightful look at the birth of the holiday itself.


Attention, Bill O'Reilly! Christmas is not a celebration of Jesus's birthday, but a cleaned up, churchified version of the Roman Saturnalia, essentially a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.

It was only in the 4th century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was not chosen for religious reasons but simply becaus
Sep 14, 2008 John rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
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.
Dec 22, 2011 Zoe rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 28, 2014 Andie rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 16, 2014 Alicia rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
"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 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
Feb 28, 2009 mike rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Aug 13, 2012 Susan rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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.
Paul Rack
Feb 25, 2016 Paul Rack rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This is a brilliant history of Christmas showing that there has always been a conflict between the religious celebration and the secular party/orgy. The Puritans hated and banned Christmas. Christmas was often associated with mob violence more like "trick-or-treat." Not to mention drunkenness. On the other hand it was when the 99% expected to get some trickle-down swag from the 1%; a safety valve against social revolution. And if it didn't come voluntarily it would be taken. As in the song: "Bri ...more
Mar 01, 2016 Lauren rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Meh. There was a lot of interesting information, but I feel like the prose meandered and, often, continually reiterated the same information without advancing an argument about the nature of the holiday. In the end, I felt as though this 300+ page book could have been significantly shorter had it been streamlined by the book's editor.
Dec 24, 2014 Richard rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 26, 2014 B. Rule rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Mar 04, 2013 Renee rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Read the March 2013 Dueling Librarians review!
Cynthia Varady
Apr 22, 2013 Cynthia Varady rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Dueling Librarians March 2013 review!
Dec 24, 2013 Marilyn rated it liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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 really liked it  ·  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
Sep 27, 2011 Hank Stuever rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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
Jan 11, 2016 Kate rated it really liked it
Christmas traditions are far less organic than we are led to believe. Using countless sources, from diary excerpts, to almanacs, illustrations, and children's books, author Stephen Nissenbaum unravels the mysteries of Santa, Christmas gift-giving, and more in The Battle for Christmas. How did winter misrule evolve into the child-centered domestic affair we know so well today?

Christmas Celebrations or Class Warfare?
Having read reviews beforehand, I knew The Battle for Christmas covered more than
Caitlin Marineau
Jan 04, 2011 Caitlin Marineau rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: history, favorites
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
Sep 26, 2014 Douglas Summers-Stay rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: non-fiction
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
Two Readers in Love
If you are expecting a maudlin look at Olde Timey Christmas contrasted with the hustle and bustle of modern life, you are in for a surprise; the author's thesis is that the invention of the Christmas traditions reflect Americans mixed feelings about the holiday from their inception. The author uses the holiday as a wide lens to bring some of the most fascinating characters and places of 18th and 19th century America into focus. Engrossing - I read it in one sitting.
Coleen Dailey
Jan 06, 2016 Coleen Dailey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
An interesting read about the history of Christmas celebrations in the United States from the beginning when Christmas was banned to the present. It provided a social history and he changes in society modified the Christmas celebrations. In a funny note, at one time in Massachusetts if Christmas fell on a Sunday, state employees got the Monday holiday-and we thought that was something recent.
Jan 04, 2015 Kate rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
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.
Jan 20, 2011 Kevin rated it it was ok  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 01, 2013 Tracey rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
Shelves: christian
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
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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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