The Battle for Christmas
"The Battle for Christmas." By Stephen Nissenbaum.Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996.Vintage, New York, 1997.When your Aunt Millicent scolds you for over-indulging in spiked eggnogg again this Christmas, just remind her that you feel obliged to carry on an age-old tradition of holiday revelry. Hey, it could be worse, and a couple hundred years ago -- as recalled in historian Stephen Nissenbaum's brilliant book "The Battle for Christmas" -- it often was worse, way worse.In olden days, Christmas caused considerable controversy. The Puritans hated it. Scrooge-like industrialists saw it as an excuse for lower class employees to shirk instead of work. In fact, class distinctions lie at the root of the early Christmas controversy and also explain the holiday's evolution into its present day form as a family-oriented orgy of consumerism. Sure, early Americans did their share of consuming at Christmastime as well, but Barbie dolls and Barney dolls weren't what they were consuming. It was grog, guns and gambling.In colonial America, a broadside printed in New York on Christmas Eve 1772 called for authorities to quell "the assembling of Negroes, servants, boys and other disorderly persons, in noisy companies in the streets where they spend time in gaming, drunkenness, quarreling, swearing, etc. to the great disturbance of the neighborhood."A hundred and fifty years ago, gangs of lower class youths including orphaned newsboys and chimney sweeps roamed the cities of America's eastern seaboard on Christmas Day, pounding down free drinks served at every tavern. Quite tight well before noon, the youths caterwauled bawdy songs, viciously snow-balled passers-by and looted wealthy homes. In 1850, the "New York Tribune" noted that the gangs even had names such as "the Short Boys, Swill Boys, Rock Boys, Old Maid Boys ... and other bands of prowlers [who] should have been in state prison long ago."In the somewhat more rural environs of Pennsyvania during the 1820s and beyond, working class men donned tattered garments and flaxen wigs, masquerading as (and mocking) the dress of high class gentlemen. Called "Belsnickles" -- a variant of the German "Pelz-nickle": "St. Nicholas in Fur" -- the maskers sometimes offered gifts of nuts and cakes to children at the homes they visited, but more often they "demanded" rather than gave gifts. A slug of wine would send the bizarre visitors back out into the cold winter night. By 1873, this disturbing Christmas custom had been adopted by groups of rowdy young men, some now dressed as women, burlesquing the fashions of the day. The Pottstown newspaper described their annoying antics:"Pottstown was full of "bell-snickles" on Christmas Eve, young chaps with their faces blacked, with masks, and dressed in all kinds of outlandish styles. These fellows, with their ugly mugs, visited the hotels, stores, shops, and in many instances private dwellings, and went through their monkeyish grimaces, and annoyed people with their horrible attempts at singing, making themselves odious throughout the town generally."As author Nissenbaum points out repeatedly in "The Battle for Christmas", these disorderly public displays represented much more than mere unrestrained revelry. They were thinly veiled social protests in which lower class citizens flipped the bird, so to speak, at property owners, bosses and church-goers.This annual challenge to authority could be heard most clearly in the cacaphony of so-called "callithumpian" bands. The term was coined in England during the 18th century when callithumpians first performed their "rough music" on New Year's Eve. By beating on tin pans, blowing horns, groaning and shouting catcalls, the music, Nissenbaum writes, "was performed as a gesture of deliberate mockery ... [as] the callithumpians ... directed their 'rough music' against those who seemed to be claiming too much dignity or abusing their power."In the early 19th century, the callithumpian tradition took hold in America. A parade of malicious musicians caused a full-blown New Year riot in 1828 in Manhattan. Armed with drums, kettles, rattles, horns, whistles and plenty of liquid stimulant, the callithumpians pelted a Bowery bar with limes before proceeding to Broadway to disrupt a fancy ball at City Hotel. Real violence erupted when the paraders invaded an African-American church, demolished the windows and pews, and beat the congregation with sticks and ropes. The outbreak continued in the commercial district where shops were looted before the callithumpians marched to the Battery, breaking windows at the city's ritziest residences and tearing down the iron fence which surrounded Battery Park.Similar Christmas disturbances, inspired by all-day drinking, occured down South last century, among both whites and blacks, albeit separately. Like the northern callithumpians, southern whites embraced a noisy holiday tradition some called "serenading and shooting up." Small crowds of well-lubricated young men would join together and shoot guns, light firecrackers and make loud, boisterous music while begging "treats" from neighbors.In a humorous aside that demonstrates the impressive breadth of his research, Nissenbaum points out that even the well-bred young Robert E. Lee alluded to the holiday racket by boldly asking a recently married woman friend a rather personal question about her wedding night: "Did you go off well like a torpedo cracker on Christmas morning?"Throughout the South, slaves enjoyed their only vacation of the year at Christmastime, as plantation owners allowed the Negroes to observe the holiday by suspending their duties for anywhere from a week to a full month. This was the only time of the year when slaves were allowed to drink alcohol, and their owners served them unlimited liquor as the Negroes danced, ate and made love to their hearts' content.Of course, some also made music. Along the coast of North Carolina, slaves practiced a Christmas ritual called "John Canoe" or "John Kooner." The ritual revolved around small bands of young men dressed in odd and ornate costumes, including a leader sometimes bedecked in animal horns or ladies' clothes. The leader often applied whiteface makeup and wear a gentleman's wig, just as Pennsylvania's Belsnickles mocked high class fashions.The John Canoe bands -- also prevalent among blacks in the West Indies, especially Jamaica -- would play drums, bells, jawbones, spoons and other simple instruments while marching from plantation to plantation where they would perform outrageous dances and sing songs that subtly ridiculed white folk. When the performance concluded, the leader would pass a hat or tin cup for donations of money, although whiskey was also welcome.Social Inversion It surprises many people to learn that Christmas was ever celebrated with such determined anti-social behavior. The hooliganism seems less shocking, however, when you consider it as an outgrowth of the Old English tradition of "wassailing". Described by Nissenbaum as "roving bands of youthful males," wassailers entered the houses of the well-to-do during the Christmas season, singing anthems to alcohol and often demanding ("give us some figgy pudding!") and receiving gifts of food, drink and money. "The rich had to let them in," the author writes, "essentially, to hold 'open house.'"Wassailing remained a relatively mild example of the carnival licentiousness which dominated early European Christmas celebrations.Owing more to marketplace realities than to religious concerns, Christmas was a time for gorging. In early modern Europe, Nissenbaum writes, "December was the season -- the only season -- for fresh meat ... December was also the month when the year's supply of beer or wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, too, this period marked the start of the season of leisure. Little wonder, then, that this was a time of celebratory excess."And little wonder that frenzied post-harvest reveling slid quickly into anti-establishment rowdiness. It was common for crowds of low class British celebrants in the 1600s, for instance, to choose a "Lord of Misrule." Such mockery of rank and title was an instrinsic element of early Christmas customs, a highly ritualized social inversion."Christmas was an occasion when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically turned upside down, in a gesture that inverted designated roles of gender, age and class," Nissenbaum writes. "During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women and women might dress (and act) like men. Young people might imitate and mock their elders ... a peasant or an apprentice might become 'Lord of Misrule' and mimic the authority of a real 'gentleman.'"Wassailing gave the poor a chance to share the best food and drink from the bounteous tables of their wealthy benefactors. In turn, it allowed property owners a chance to spread "goodwill" to win the loyalty of the workers, thus preserving the social order.Nissenbaum points out that caroling (as a decendent of wassailing) is not the only vestige of social inversion at Christmas. "To this day," he writes, "in the British army, on December 25 officers are obliged to wait upon enlisted men at meals."In a footnote, the author surmises that social inversion customs may be the sole point at which "the two modes of celebrating Christmas -- as carnival and as pious devotion -- managed to intersect, if only in theory ... The Gifts of the Magi, too, represented the high-in-status waiting on the low -- three kings paying homage to an infant lying in squalor."Puritans and Knickerbockers In Nissenbaum's analysis, the battle for Christmas was waged between opposing forces of anarchic misrule and established power structures -- drunkards vs. church-goers and lowly laborers vs. high born landowners.Some of America's earliest settlers, the Puritans, fought a hard 130-year battle to suppress the holiday. They objected so vehemently to the "keeping" of Christmas, that in 1659 the Massachusetts Bay Colony declared it a criminal offense punishible by a five-shilling fine.Not only did the Puritans disdain Dec. 25 for its inaccuracy -- everybody knew the Christ child wasn't born in December -- but they strongly disapproved of the crude behavior the holiday had come to endure.With a meticulous examination of printed almanacs and hymnals from the 17th and 18th centuries, Nissenbaum follows America's slow, reluctant acceptance of Christmas as a good time. Like a pendulum, the Masters of Misrule swung back into the season.In New York, Boston and Philadelphia, the callithumpians appeared to be winning the battle for Christmas in 1822, the same year that Manhattan landowner Clement Clarke Moore published his unforgettable, rythmically-metered poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," also known by its famous first line, "'Twas the night before Christmas."Written initially for his own children, the poem became one of the most popular works of literature of the 19th century. (Moore's poem has legs: on Dec. 5, 1997 two Manhattan manuscript dealers paid $211,500 for an 1860 handwritten copy, which they've put on display at Kaller's American Gallery at Macy's Herald Square.)In a line-by-line study, Nissenbaum links Moore's big hit with a similarly popular poem from 1662, "The Day of Doom" by Michael Wigglesworth. The comparison shows that in the 17th century, St. Nicholas still threatened to punish and short shrift misbehaving children while rewarding only the good children. Moore's elfin saint is decidedly more benign, pleasant and non-judgmental. Nissenbaum's point is that Moore -- and the Knickerbocker set that he was a part of -- consciously created a non-denominational St. Nick with working class roots.Named after a book by their most prominent member, novelist Washington Irving, the Knickerbockers were a group of well-heeled, "antiquarian-minded" men, mostly Episcopalians of British ancestry, who were so conservative they actually opposed democracy. In fact, at the time Moore wrote "The Visit," his pastoral Manhattan estate was being sliced up into streets for rapid urban development, "the result of a plebian conspiracy of artisans and laborers," Nissenbaum writes. The streets outside his window had just been dug as Moore sat down with pen in hand."There is something resonant," the author writes, "about [Moore's] decision to both 'defrock' St. Nicholas and 'declass' him, to take away his clerical authority and his patrician manner, and to represent him instead as a 'plebian.'" Moore's St. Nick resembles exactly "the kind of man who "might" have come to visit a wealthy patrician on Christmas Eve -- to startle him out of his slumber with a loud 'clatter' outside his door, perhaps even to enter his house, uninvited and unannounced."Santa Explains Mass Production Inspired largely by Moore's description, St. Nicholas became widely caricatured in popular magazines of the day, and by 1828 had evolved into "Santa Claas." Nissenbaum explores the invention of Santa in detail, and reveals that the man in red, along with the Christmas tree custom, represented a novel approach to the celebration of Christmas, yet one that retained its roots in Europe's longstanding tradition of social inversion: it became a "child-centered" event."Before the 19th century, children were merely dependents," Nissenbaum writes, "miniature adults who occupied the bottom of the hierarchy within the family, along with the servants ... Making children the center of joyous attention marked an inversion of the social hierarchy, which meant that a part of the structure of an older Christmas ritual "was being precisely preserved:" People in positions of social and economic authority were giving gifts to their dependents ... Age had replaced social class as the axis along which gifts were given at Christmas." And the social order would again be preserved.Christmas became not only child-centered but much more commercial during the 19th century. Consumer goods, including toys, were being mass-produced in factories. Increased seasonal advertising alerted Americans to the newest, most desirable gifts. Books, including Bibles and child-oriented Gift Books (magazine-like miscellanies which could be personally inscribed), were aggressively marketed as Christmas presents as early as 1783. Christmas stockings, cards and gift wrapping also had to be manufactured and purchased."Christmas became a crucial means of legitimizing the penetration of consumerist behavior into American society," Nissenbaum notes, in making one of many keen observations about the complex socio-economic aspects of this most popular holiday.His most important point, however, is that reactionary property owners, who had long sought to control unruly holiday behavior, created a child-oriented, domestic celebration in the mid-1800s, protecting their own holdings in the process. With the household Christmas tree as the symbolic center of attention, people stayed inside their own homes with their own families. The domestic Christmas created by a handful of rich New Yorkers successfully thwarted the old Masters of Misrule.Meanwhile, parents assuaged their own desire to see Christmas as harkening back to simpler, more innocent, less commercial times by identifying the newly-invented non-religious Santa Claus as the source for all the mass-produced toy soldiers, trains and dollies which magically appeared under the tree on Dec. 25. In that regard, Santa Claus served as an "anti-commercial icon," one which parents claimed had been passed down from the ages, to an emerging middle class uncomfortable with their newly-found purchasing power.Even after fairly reveling in the rich, colorful and spirited history of the holiday, in a short epilogue, Nissenbaum sounds a serious note of warning:"Perhaps the very speed and intensity with which these essential new rituals [such as Christmas Trees and Santa] were claimed as timeless traditions shows how powerful was the need to keep the relationship between family life and a commercial economy hidden from view -- to protect children (and adults, too) from understanding something troublesome about the world they were making. In our own time, a century and a half later, that protection may be an indulgence we can no longer afford."(Russ Tarby is a Senior Editor, covering books and music, for the Syracuse New Times, where this story first appeared.)Sidebar One: Holiday HistorianRaised in Jersey City, New Jersey, historian Stephen Nissenbaum was educated at Harvard, Columbia, and the University of Wisconsin, and has taught at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst since 1968. A Pulitzer Prize finalist, "The Battle for Christmas" features 46 eye-opening illustrations. The well-researched book also backs up its arguments with 61 pages of notes and acknowledgements.But don't let its scholarship scare you. Unlike other writer/researchers, Nissenbaum rarely gets bogged down in academese. Instead, the eminently readable text always flows clearly. The author relies almost entirely on primary sources so "The Battle" remains factual yet fun to read, as Nissenbaum takes readers on a tour of times past -- as they really were, "not" merely as we like to imagine them.Sidebar Two: The History of Christmas The Grinch isn't the only one who stole Christmas. In essence, early European Christians stole Christmas from fun-loving pagans, like those in Rome who celebrated a wild Saturnalia every December.The greatest irony of the Dec. 25 holiday is that the Roman Catholic Church established it sometime during the 4th century A.D., not so much to mark the birth of the Son of God, but to compete with long-standing Celtic and Germanic winter solstice celebrations. Jesus wasn't born in Bethlehem in December, but 4th century Christians decided to note the Nativity that month, specifically to counter-act the big bashes staged by the non-believers. It was like, "If you can't beat 'em, join 'em." Several of Christmas's most universal elements -- namely holly, mistletoe, Yule logs and wassail bowls -- were derived directly from pre-Christian pagan customs. So was the widely-accepted practice of unbridled eating and drinking. Its carnival nature led some religious groups such as New England's Puritans to actually ban the holiday, but no one ever fully turned off the taps. Eventually, a group of wealthy and creative American men encouraged the creation of a child-oriented commercial Yuletide characterized by the decorating of a family Christmas tree and the rumored appearance of a gift-bearing Santa Claus. In "The Battle for Christmas", historian Stephen Nissenbaum credits Boston-based radical abolitionists and New England Unitarians for their crucial role in America's adoption of the German Christmas tree tradition. The author also shows how the British-descended Knickerbockers of New York stole the Dutch myth of a gift-giving St. Nicholas and turned it into a non-religious, no-threatening Santa Claus. The Christmas tree can be traced to the so-called "paradise tree" which symbolized Eden in German mystery plays. Decorated holiday firs -- as Nissenbaum points out -- originated in Strasbourg, in the Alsace region of France in the early 1600s before being embraced as a popular custom in Germany and Northern Europe the next century. By the mid-19th century, the Christmas tree -- decorated with tiny wax candles, colorful fruits and toys -- were common in England and America. Dutch settlers had already brought to the New World their custom of giving gifts to children on St. Nicholas Day -- Dec. 6 -- and that custom was eventually adopted by British settlers as well, as part of their Christmas Eve celebration. Thanks in large part to poet and prominent Manhattan landowner Clement Clarke Moore, author of "A Visit from St. Nicholas" (1822) the saint swiftly evolved into Santa Claus, the name derived from the Dutch "Sinterklaas", a variation of "Sint Nikolaas".Further Reading"The Book of Christmas." By B. Lehane. (Time-Life Books, New York; 1986). Recalls early American holidays; includes a seasonal song book."Christmas Traditions." By William Muir Auld. (Gale; 1981). Seasonal traditions traced, along with excerpts from literature.