The Battle for Christmasby Stephen Nissenbaum
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 rediscovers Christmas's 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 traditions, 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 it helps us better understand our present.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
The New York Times Book Review
"Christmas . . . too often fails to wholly satisfy the spirit or the senses. How and why the yuletide came to this is the subject of historian Stephen Nissenbaum's fascinating new study. "
- Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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Meet the Author
Stephen Nissenbaum received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1961, his M.A. from Columbia University in 1963, and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1968. He has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst since 1968, and is currently professor of history there. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Charles Warren Center at Harvard. In addition, he was James P. Harrison Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, 1989-90. Active in the public humanities, he has served as member and president of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, and as historical advisor for several film productions. The Battle for Christmas was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in History in 1997.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
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I commend this book to all Americans of any religious persuasion, who would like to understand our most unavoidable holiday. I had a bittersweet reaction in reading that Harriet Beecher Stowe disliked Christmas for the same reasons I do, and apparently felt just as powerless to dodge it. It is fascinating as the mish-mosh of pseudohistory that we associate with Christmas is traced to its various sources and pulled together into a (reasonably) coherent whole. My one criticism is that Nissenbaum is inclined to a dualistic view of social classes (e.g. rich vs poor) that sometimes distorts his arguments and has perhaps limited his research. His favorite traditional model of Christmas festivity is the local English magnate hosting his tenants. He strains to explain the "breakdown" of this system by references to some highly unlikely causes, including "political street theater", etc, but misses, until the very end of the book, the most obvious explanation: the New Yorkers and New Englanders who command most of his attention in the first part of the book didn't have that relationship to one another. The modern office party is the closest survival. Even in medieval England, there were people who fell into neither category -- what did they do?