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The Battle for Christmas

3.86  ·  Rating details ·  504 Ratings  ·  79 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 "wassailers extorted food and drink from the well-to-do. In this intriguing and innovative work of social history, Stephen Nissenbaum re ...more
Paperback, 400 pages
Published October 28th 1997 by Vintage (first published 1996)
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Dec 15, 2013 rated it really liked it
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 rated it really liked it
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
Jul 27, 2008 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 01, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Liza Lorenz
Nov 17, 2014 rated it it was amazing
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 28, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 21, 2017 rated it really liked it
Shelves: folklore, history, non-fic
Absolutely fascinating history of how the Winter holidays were pushed/pulled in various culture scrapes over the centuries.

Nissenbaum's writing is accessible and he sheds much light on the way holidays on/around and for the Winter Solstice have been celebrated, co-opted, and derided.

The "Battle" Nissenbaum is talking about has nothing to do with the fabricated "War on Christmas" b.s. that Fox News promotes; rather it's a study of how the Cultural Christmas we Americans know today would shock t
Dec 13, 2014 rated it really liked it
"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
Nov 01, 2011 rated it liked it
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 14, 2009 rated it it was ok
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 rated it really liked it
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.
Dec 07, 2015 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.
Jan 24, 2017 rated it really liked it
Insightful, well-written cultural history. Extremely well-researched with arguments easy to follow
Cynthia Varady
Jan 20, 2013 rated it really liked it
Dueling Librarians March 2013 review!
Sep 30, 2009 rated it really liked it
Shelves: non-fiction, history
Read the March 2013 Dueling Librarians review!
Jan 17, 2008 rated it liked it
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 11, 2013 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
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
Dec 06, 2017 rated it it was amazing
Ho ho ho, Christmas time is here and I haven't bought half the gifts I should have. Apparently this problem goes all the way back to the beginning of the commercial transformation of the holiday itself (brought on my its domestication for tiny humans).

"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 time. But of course it was." (317) This is at the core of it all---it's a wonderful thing to enjoy the holiday season, but you
Jan 03, 2018 rated it it was amazing
The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum, is a fascinating study of opposing views of the Christmas celebration in America. When immigrants brought their Christmas rituals from northern and southern Europe, the customs were not always welcome. Puritans dismissed Christmas as a pagan celebration masquerading as a Christian feast. Some celebrations, particularly those related to Saturnalia and the Yule feast, were rowdy affairs. Drunken gangs demanded food and drink from rich residents, a p ...more
Dec 17, 2017 rated it really liked it
Some fascinating historical information about the early progression of Christmas beginning in the 1600s and through the late 1800s. I did find the book disjointed at times (it felt very much like several papers written by the author simply placed within the same cover). Also feel that exploring more 20th century cultural developments in Christmas is important for a book claiming to do a cultural history of the subject (it did not say an “early” history).

Yet the information shared about the growt
Dec 03, 2016 rated it really liked it
The excellent history writing left no important detail out while the sharp cultural analyses kept everything interesting. I won't look at Christmas quite the same way again, thanks to this book.
Linda Wallace
While Nissenbaum gave many fascinating facts about the traditions of Chrstmas ( and many interesting facts not related to Christmas) , this book was way too long. It really needed a good editor. The author also came across as professorial in many instances?
Feb 05, 2014 rated it really liked it
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
Nov 29, 2008 rated it really liked it
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
Jan 04, 2017 rated it it was amazing
This is the most fun scholarly work I have ever read, and I like to skim a bit of it every Christmas to get me in the spirit :)
Jeffrey Barouch
Its always good to study the origin of one's tradition. However after reading Mr Nissenbaum's book, I'm not totally against celebrating a "fixed day" for Jesus birth. However those traditions that originated, and are steeped in paganism I am certainly against. In addition to that, the author is definitely an accomplished historian, and makes for good reading in general on American History.
Hank Stuever
Sep 27, 2011 rated it it was amazing
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
Dec 24, 2013 rated it liked it
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
Caitlin Marineau
Dec 12, 2010 rated it really liked it
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
Dec 08, 2012 rated it liked it
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
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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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