The Battle for Christmas


Stephen Nissenbaum

​New York, Alfred A. Knopf, 1996, 381 pp.

Santa's Whiskers

(Book jacket) Americans who complain about the modern-day commercialization of Christmas may be surprised to discover that dissatisfaction with the way the holiday has been observed is by no means a new phenomenon. In 1659 the Massachusetts General Court declared the celebration of Christmas to be a criminal offense. What the Puritans were trying to suppress was a season of excess rooted in the ancient agricultural cycle – rowdy public displays of eating and drinking, mockery of established authority, aggressive begging, and boisterous invasions of the homes of the wealthy. In The Battle for Christmas, Stephen Nissenbaum shows how in the early nineteenth century, with the growth of cities, these Christmas-season carnival revels became even more threatening as they turned into gang violence and even riots.

Attempting to get Christmas out of the streets, a group of New Yorkers – Washington Irving among them – led a movement to transform it into a new style of celebration that would take place within the secure confines of the family circle, and be concerned especially with the happiness of children. . . .

Nissenbaum demonstrates that this new domestic Christmas had from the very beginning a commercial character – that it was an active force in bringing about the modern consumer revolution – and that the “Christmas tree” was introduced into American culture to counteract the materialism that had become a concern even before the middle of the nineteenth century. …

Throughout Nissenbaum looks at what America’s way of celebrating Christmas over the years reveals about the broad forces transforming our culture. And he shows us as well how it has been both an instrument and a mirror of social change in America.