A Pulitzer Prize finalist, this scholarly analysis of our modern celebration of Christmas pulls together a thoroughly convincing case for the widely accepted notion that it is a 19th-century creation, indeed a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins. Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ’s birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year’s food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers.
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, Nissenbaum rediscovers Christmas’ carnival origins and shows how it was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into a festival of domesticity and consumerism.
Drawing on a wealth of period documents and illustrations, Nissenbaum charts the invention of our current yuletide tradition, from St. Nicholas to the Christmas tree and, perhaps most radically, the practice of giving gifts to children. Bursting with detail, filled with subversive readings of such seasonal classics as “A Visit from St. Nicholas” and A Christmas Carol, The Battle for Christmas captures the glorious strangeness of the past even as i helps us better understand the present.
Table of Contents
1. New England’s War on Christmas
2. Revisiting “A Visit from St. Nicholas”
3. The Parlor and the Street
4. Affection’s Gift:
Toward a History of Christmas Presents
5. Under the Christmas Tree:
A Battle of Generations
6. Tiny Tim and Other Charity Cases
7. Wassailing Across the Color Line:
Christmas in the Antebellum South
Epilogue: The Ghosts of Christmas Past