Omar's Reviews > The Battle for Christmas

The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum
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's review
Feb 05, 2014

really liked it
bookshelves: americana, history, holidays-and-holy-days
Recommended 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 had happened in the early 19th century that obscured and obfuscated the path between today's Christmas and its pagan roots; but what that "something" might be was never apparent to me.

Nissenbaum clears it up in a way I found pretty surprising - most of our current idea of what entails Christmas was invented pretty much out of whole cloth and a pressing need to instill some social order.

Moving through a combination of primary and secondary sources, Nissenbaum traces the history of a holiday that was originally sanctioned to harness the inevitably rambunctious (and potentially threatening) post-harvest/pre-sowing celebrations of agricultural societies' peasant classes into a loosely ritualized reinforcement of established social hierarchy -- characterizing these early traditions as "carnival" or "misrule".

Nissenbaum moves from the late pagan ritual of "misrule" (Saturnalia) to medieval Christian variants, like wassailing. From there he demonstrates why the English North American colonies initially criminalized all celebrations of Christmas as fundamentally unChristian, only decriminalizing them under pressure from the central government in London.

Since a social release valve that worked well in relatively sparsely populated agricultural villages (or in corresponding cities where the elite lived in fortified and armed compounds) didn't translate so well into industrializing metropolises, Nissenbaum goes on to show how a bizarre intersection of needs between elites and progressive reformers in early America began to evolve the more modern, commercialized Christmas around the turn of the 19th century. In the process, they concocted such trappings and "traditions" as St Nick, Kris Kringle, Santa Claus, gift giving, and Christmas trees to meet the particular needs of the embattled feeling upper and surging middle classes. He also makes a compelling case that modern Christmas both helped create and was created by the conjoined twin forces of Market Capitalism and Domesticity.

Beyond highlighting the amusing historical fact that the US "Founding Fathers" actively opposed all celebrations of Christmas, he shows that the modern concerns about Christmas (that it's overly commercial, that it cultivates greed in children, and that it drives parents crazy from the stress and rush of buying the perfect gift) are all complaints that originate with the very first manifestations of modern Christmas back in the early 19th Century.

Along the way, he shows the way that the evolution of commercialism and domesticity corresponded with the evolution in the concept of classes and the very concept of childhood, drawing connections between abolitionism and early theories of childhood education. He points out how Christmas motivated the publishing industry to create the modern marketing concepts of Market Segmentation.

All quite fascinating and not NEARLY as dry as I make it sound. In the end, I'll let Nissenbaum state his own thesis in these two paragraphs:

"A key reason for the enduring popularity of this holiday may be that it has provided a profoundly ritualized means of helping people come to terms with their own complicity in a larger system that they realize must breed injustice. That may be as true for a member of the 17th century English landed gentry as it is for a Southern planter. Or, for that matter, for a modern plutocrat who makes generous Christmas donations to a deserving cause"


"Perhaps the very speed and intensity with which those essentially new rituals were claimed as timeless traditions shows how powerful was the need to keep the relationship between family life and commercial economy hidden from view -- to protect children (and adults, too) from understanding something troublesome about the world they were making. In our own time, a century and a half later, that protection may be an indulgence we can no longer afford."

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Reading Progress

February 5, 2014 – Shelved
February 5, 2014 – Shelved as: to-read
February 5, 2014 – Shelved as: americana
February 5, 2014 – Shelved as: history
February 5, 2014 – Shelved as: holidays-and-holy-days
Started Reading
April 30, 2014 – Finished Reading

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