Wednesday, December 21, 2005

All I want for Christmas....

In a sudden burst of inspiration, I posted a version of this at Street Prophets, and then realized I should post it over here.

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his The Battle for Christmas, shows that the holiday was domesticated largely by making it a "commercial" holiday, one focussed on the receiving of presents (although there was a strong "moralistic" tone to it, too, since Santa only gave presents to "good" children, and the Christmas tree, he shows, spread largely as a way of rewarding "good" children).

It started out, of course, as a raucous affair; one more connected to drinking and gaming than caroling and wassailing. The Church picked a day for Christ's birth close to the Roman celebration, in order to link up with the holiday already familiar (not so odd, when you realize this happened after Constantine became a Christian, a conversion that changed Christianity as much as it changed the Empire).

In medieval times this party spirit even gave way to the "Feast of Fools," when for one day the peasants and the poor could mock the rich and even make fun of the Church (in ways still echoed by British humor, where making sport of the Queen and the politicians is allowed on a level even the most devoted anarchists in America would never approach). Which, to make the jump, is part of what the Puritans objected to: public drunkenness and the general upheaval of the social order.

When it came back into style in America, it came back through the working class Irish and English, by and large, who still wanted their wassail and their welcome from the "master." A "master" who was more and more a middle class (read: "bourgeois") businessman who more and more resembled Ebenezer Scrooge than Mr. Pickwick.

Enter Clement Clarke Moore.

Moore's poem, "The Night Before Christmas," is Nissenbaum's centerpiece in the transformation of Christmas from public drunkenness and semi-anarchy, into domestic holiday best enjoyed with one's own family behind closed doors. It turns the central figure (an American invention, by the way), S. Claus, from a dangerous home invader into a "kindly old peddler," who discreetly leaves gifts and leaves the home better than he left it. He brings, rather than takes, gives, rather than receives, and affirms the sanctity of the domestic home by acknowledging their privacy (he never says a word, and is quiet and quick about his work).

The poem also focusses on the home, and the family (nuclear, by and large) as the proper locus and focus of the celebration. The other "half" of this equation, by the way, was the Christmas tree, which was spread, says Nissenbaum, by readers, not by contac, and presented largely a a socially acceptable method of reward for "good" children. Early behavior modification, in other words, as it continues (sort of) to be today. This tag-team combination effectively tamed Christmas from public brouhaha into the placid "stay at home" holiday all the mega-churches want to observe this Sunday.

And then came the '20's, and merchants who discovered what a boon to the sales year Xmas could be. But that's another story.

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