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The Battle for Christmas

The Battle for Christmas

4.6 3
by Stephen Nissenbaum

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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


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.  

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher

—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. "    


Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
Christmas in America hasn't always been the benevolent, family-centered holiday we idealize. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony so feared the day's association with pagan winter solstice revels, replete with public drunkenness, licentiousness and violence, that they banned Christmas celebrations. In this ever-surprising work, Nissenbaum (Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America), a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, conducts a vivid historical tour of the holiday's social evolution. Nissenbaum maintains that not until the 1820s in New York City, among the mercantile Episcopalian Knickerbockers, was Christmas as we know it celebrated. Before Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore ("A Visit from St. Nicholas") popularized the genteel version, he explains, the holiday was more of a raucous festival and included demands for tribute from the wealthy by roaming bands of lower-class extortionists. Peppering his insights with analysis of period literature, art and journalism, Nissenbaum constructs his theory. Taming Christmas, he contends, was a way to contain the chaos of social dislocation in a developing consumer-capitalist culture. Later, under the influence of Unitarian writers, the Christmas season became a living object lesson in familial stability and charity, centering on the ideals of bourgeois childhood. From colonial New England, through 18th- and 19th-century New York's and Philadelphia's urban Yuletide contributions, to Christmas traditions in the antebellum South, Nissenbaum's excursion is fascinating, and will startle even those who thought they knew all there was to know about Christmas. Illustrations. (Nov.)
Library Journal
Christmas celebrations as we know them today with trees, gift giving, and Santa Claus are a recent phenomenon. Puritans in New England prohibited Christmas celebrations because they inevitably led to drunken brawls. Temperance groups helped to take celebrations from the streets into the homes while encouraging quiet, sober socializing. Merchants promoted this trend toward domestic celebrations and began the commercialism of Christmas prevalent today. The Christmas tree and Santa Claus were holiday symbols made popular to deal with the rampant materialism of the holiday. Nissenbaum (Sex, Diet and Debility in Jacksonian America, 1980) does a thorough job of tracing Christmas in America, emphasizing the recurrent theme of the haves giving to the have-nots. His detailed, unusual history of Christmas in the American social milieu will appeal to academic and large public libraries.Grant A. Fredericksen, Illinois Prairie Dist. P.L., Metamora

Product Details

Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group
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5.20(w) x 8.00(h) x 0.80(d)

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.

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The Battle for Christmas 4.7 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 3 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Guest More than 1 year ago
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?