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The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Christmas That Shows How It Was Transformed from an Unruly Carnival Season into the Quintessential American Family Holiday.

By Stephen Nissenbaum (New York: Alfred A. Knopf 1997. xiii plus 381pp.).

If on the night before Christmas, 1822, a New York gentlemen like Clement Clarke Moore heard "such a clatter" out on the lawn he might very well have expected to have found a "callithumpian band" of drunken working-class youths forcing their way into his home demanding alcohol, food, and money. But Christmas traditions were contested that winter. Among the vanguard of Knickerbockers attempting to tame and reinvent Christmas in the first half of the nineteenth century, Moore's narrator in his "A Visit from St. Nicholas" "threw up the sash" and saw nothing but a harmless, jocular, tiny old man (in working-class garb, smoking a working-class pipe) whose only intent was to shower Moore's idyllic domestic scene with presents and good cheer. Santa Claus thus entered the Christmas season only in the nineteenth century, as an infantalized proletarian, a figure who both represented and contributed to the transformation of Christmas from a carnivalesque, public, and potentially dangerous celebration, to a private, domestic, and safe family affair. With stories like this, buttressed by systematic evidence from journals, letters, and newspaper accounts, Stephen Nissenbaum elegantly shows how an early nineteenth-century "Battle for Christmas" not only mirrored significant transformations in American culture, but was "an active instrument of change as well." (p. xii)

Christmas of course was an invented tradition from the beginning. (As Nissenbaum points out, there is no such thing anyway as "a tradition that was not invented - and reinvented, and invented yet again." [p. 315]) The New Testament gives no date for the birth of Jesus, and it was almost surely not in December when it would have been too cold for shepherds to keep watch over their flocks at night. Only in the fourth century did the Church officially mark Christmas on December 25th, and then for the convenient reason that it coincided with Pagan celebrations of the winter solstice. Nissenbaum is less interested in origins though, for his story begins in the early modern period when the Christmas season was celebrated as a period of "misrule" resembling Carnival in both form and function. In an agricultural setting the Christmas season arrived just when intense harvesting was finished, freshly slaughtered meat was widely available (as it was not through the rest of the year) and the year's supply of beer and wine was ready for consumption. For several weeks in December gentle folks and commoners alike indulged in food, alcohol, and sex with an intensity that was proscribed throughout the rest of the year. A key feature of this "season of misrule" involved a sanctioned "social inversion" in which peasants could demand entry into the homes of the rich in order to solicit gifts of food and drink. Essential to Nissenbaum's broader argument is that it was the poor who initiated this exchange, the poor who demanded it as a right, "in rituals that would strike many of us today as an intolerable invasion of privacy." (p. 9) Drawing heavily on the work of E. P. Thompson, Peter Burke, and Natalie Zemon Davis, though, Nissenbaum argues that such ritual inversions ultimately served to reaffirm the existing social order by making the hierarchy explicit and by functioning as a kind of "safety valve" which allowed frustrated peasants to periodically "blow off steam." Much of the evidence here is drawn from Europe, though a few delightful episodes involving homegrown Bostonian "charivari" persuade the reader that this is very much an American story.

While elites sanctioned and participated in this Christmas revelry for centuries, by the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century they began to fear and try to suppress it. Industrialization suffered no slackening of work in the winter, and in an urban setting roving bands of angry, drunken young proletarians seemed more of a direct threat to established interests than had their peasant ancestors. In his three most effective chapters, "Revisiting 'A Visit from St. Nicholas,'" "The Parlor and the Street," and "Affection's Gift," Nissenbaum shows how activists, industry, and middle-class families managed to marginalize "traditional" rituals and recreate Christmas as a domestic holiday. In so doing Nissenbaum both relies on and deepens our understanding of a wide range of issues that social historians have recently pursued. The "invention of childhood" in Nissenbaum's account allowed age to replace class as the axis along which superiors engaged inferiors at Christmas. Children could not make demands upon their superiors as peasants and proletarians traditionally had during the holiday season; rather, they had to accept any gifts that might be offered passively and gratefully and in their own homes. The new domestic Christmas, Nissenbaum argues, was also a "thin wedge" through which a burgeoning consumerist ethos could be legitimated under a veneer of extra-market exchange - gift giving. Nissenbaum's discussion of the history of Christmas presents is an example of cultural history at its very best. He begins by analyzing the production and advertising of commodities which, marketed as presents, served the financial interests of a particular class, and the bottom lines of specific companies. He follows this though with an intimate investigation of how gift giving could serve new emotional needs of people trying to live up to a domestic ideal that was painfully difficult to achieve in everyday middle-class life. A final chapter on the ante-bellum South shows how Christmas rituals could be used by slaves to "negotiate" certain conditions of their bondage - or was it another "safety valve" which perpetuated American slavery? Nissenbaum frames the question in a fresh example, but is unable here to fashion any final answer to this lingering historiographical dilemma. The exciting evidence in this chapter might have been put to better use had Nissenbaum incorporated it into the broader narrative rather than leaving it until the end where it appears a bit tacked on.

The Battle for Christmas shows not only that the domestic Christmas was invented, but that the particular form in which it was invented already arranged our contemporary frustrations with the whole ordeal. "There never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism," Nissenbaum argues, for the domestic Christmas was "commercial at its very core." (p. 318) The agony we feel trying to connect emotionally enough with family and loved ones during the holiday season was determined when the bar was set, early in the last century. To untangle ourselves, then, we can only look to the ghost of Christmas past for help in diagnosing the problem; the resolution does not lie there.

David Yosifon Carnegie Mellon University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Yosifon, David
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Sep 22, 1998
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