Thursday, November 17, 2005

Yes, Virginia, there is a History of Christmas

[This was going down for the third time, so I've redated it should the conversation want to continue]

Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle for Christmas is as dense and rich as a good Christmas pudding, and trying to summarize it is like trying to describe the taste of such a pudding: eventually you just throw up your hands and say: "Here. You just have to try this."

That said, I want to delve a bit deeper into it, mine it for a bit more information. His is a cultural history (v. Penne Restad's equally excellent book, which is a more "traditional" history), which means its full of detail, packed dense with it, in fact, all the better to buttress his argument. So, while I can give you the basics of his conclusions, if you want to question the validity of the process, you'll have to go to the source. I can only do him an injustice here.

First, Nissenbaum notes that in America Christmas has been more honored in the breach than in the observance. There are many reasons for this: the Puritans, for one, banned it outright (Massachusetts made the observance of Christmas a criminal offense for 22 years (1659-1681; Battle, p. 3) But we forget, on the other side of the "melting pot," what a polyglot land this was after it was created by the Constitutional convention. Swedes, Danes, Germans (of many stripes; the "Germany" we all know didn't exist in the 19th century, or the 18th), Italians, Irish, as well as the Puritans who dominated New England, all added to the mix at one time or another. As Restad points out, the Europeans didn't even have a uniform calendar in the 18th century.

Dutch settlers, and presumably Germans, Swedes, and other Continental Europeans, used the Gregorian Calendar. Until the British government switched to the Gregorian in 1752/3, English settlers used the Julian calendar. Dissenters in New England and Quakers in the Delaware Valley of Pennsylvania used the same calendar, but renamed the months and days to avoid referring to their pagan origins. January became First Month, and Sunday became First Day. (Restad, 18)
And uniform customs? Fuggedaboutit!

See what you missed in history class?

So the syrup of uniformity we pour on the past is entirely anachronistic, and clouds our understanding. But the real problem with Christmas, per Nissenbaum, was the English celebration of it.

Originally, in Europe, the celebration coincided with the Feast of Fools. This was a time when the poor were able to freely mock the rich. Victor Hugo describes the fete in The Hunchback of Notre Dame. Even the powerful church of medieval Europe was not immune, as revelers might crown a monkey or a monster (Quasimodo) as Bishop, and treat the king in ways that would make the New York Times editorial board today, blush and mutter intemperately. And that was, finally, precisely the problem with it.

The feast was, as Nissenbaum points out, a "system of control" (to steal a term from "Matrix Reloaded").

At other times of the year it was the poor who owed goods, labor, and deference to the rich. But on this occasion the tables were turned--literally. The poor--most often bands of boys and young men--claimed the right to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls, and recieve gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money as well. And the rich had to let them in--eseentially, to hold "open house." [This custom remains vestigially in our culture, in the Fall; we call it "Hallowe'en"] Christmas as a time when peasants, servants, and apprentices exercised the right to demand that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them as if they were wealthy and powerful. The Lord of the Manor let the peasants in and feasted them. In return, the peasants offered something of true value in a paternalistic society---their goodwill. Just when and how this actually happened each year--whether it was a gracious offering or the forced concession to a hostile confrontation--probably depended on the particular individuals involved as well as the local customs that had been established in years past (and which were constantly being "re-negotiated" through just such ritualized practices as these.) (Battle, 9)
This eventually came to an end, of course, but the ritual, the practice, did not end as cleanly. What ended the attitude of the "rich" was the industrial revolution, and the rise of the middle class, which meant an end to the "paternalistic society."

E.P. Thompson has argued that in eighteenth-century England it was the upper classes themselves who severed the paternalist bonds that allowed the rituals of misrule to operate as a safety valve. Both the gentry and the established church abandoned their control over holiday ritual; these now became purely "plebeian" cultural expressions....In this new setting, rituals of misrule began to assume are more openly oppositional form. (Battle, 51)
Which leads us to "A Visit from St. Nicholas."

It is Nissenbaum's insight (persuasively argued in the book, butchered here by your humble host), that this famous Christmas poem created the modern, family oriented Christmas celebration. Not single-handedly, of course; it came at the confluence of a number of social changes which Nissenbaum outlines in full detail (I won't bore you). But the centerpiece is the poem; and maybe the proof of the importance of tha poem is that it has become itself both a Christmas tradition, and has been "translated" into so many forms (Texas Night before Christmas; Cajun Night before Christmas, etc.) and all those forms quite peculiarly American.

How did Moore pull of this amazing feat? Put simply, by turning Santa the "home invader" (rowdiness and insistence on being treated bordered on violence and mayhem in America around Christmas; as I say, the vestiges of that remain in stories of "tricks" being performed at Hallowe'en in my father's and grandfather's day, when no treats were forthcoming) into a "kindly old peddler" who entered the home not to do harm, nor to demand food, but to actually bring gifts. The obligation, in other words, finally shifted away from the Lord of the Manor not to the peasants, but to a "jolly old elf." And the gifts were given, not to those economically dependent on the rich, but to the legal dependents of the rich: the family members.

As I say, Nissenbaum explains this in detail and quite well; I can only offer a poor summary here. But one other matter Nissenbaum points out is that this kind of Christmas celebration was not only inevitably "commercial," but fundamentally and unavoidably commercial as well. Indeed, Nissenbaum offers ample evidence to establish that the "Christmas customs" of a tree and exchanging presents were products of burgeoning commercialism, and were made possible and widely spread, and readily accepted, because of it, not in spite of it.

That's yet another topic about the "war on Christmas" which has raged at least as long as I have been alive. And we haven't even gotten to the topic of the religious observance of Christmas; but we will.

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