The Battle for Christmas

A Cultural History of America's Most Cherished Holiday (1996)
The Battle for Christmas

Now and again we hear about how there is a war being waged on Christmas. Yet the Puritans did not celebrate Christmas. In 1659, the Massachusetts General Court even declared celebrating Christmas to be a criminal offense. How did we get from there to here?

The Puritan’s reasoning against the December 25th holiday included there being no mention in the Bible of when Christ was born and that no shepherds would have been out with flocks in December. Increase Mather stated that those who did celebrate Christmas in December did not do so “thinking that Christ was born in that month, but because the Heathens Saturnalia was at that time kept in Rome and they were willing to have those Pagan Holidays metamorphosed into Christian (ones).”

Christmas was celebrated in many different ways-pious devotion, feasting, drinking, misrule and carnival, social inversion, and even violence, but they were all public celebrations. By the mid-1700’s, even Massachusetts joined in, but in a “suitable” manner, without including superstition and without the excesses of the day.  

The commercialism associated with Christmas, and decried as taking away from the “true meaning” of the holiday, actually reflects the 19th century redefinition of Christmas as a family holiday, instead of a public one. The author states that Christmas as we know it started with the mercantile Episcopalian Knickerbockers in New York City in the 1820’s, including Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore (A Visit from St. Nicholas), who popularized this genteel version Christmas.

Christmas gained official recognition in the US between the 1840's-1860's. By 1865, 27 out of 36 states had set December 25th as a day when certain kinds of ordinary business could not be legally transacted. Interestingly, two of the states that did not enact this legislation were in the south east.

Behind the images of domestic bliss that Americans now regard as the timeless embodiment of Christmas lies a convoluted social, political, and theological history filled with irony. From colonial New England through 18th and 19th century New York’s urban Yuletide contributions, historian author Stephen Nissenbaum does a fascinating and thorough job of tracing Christmas in America.



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