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Christmas struggle

Claude Fischer, professor of sociology | December 21, 2010

U.S. Sen. Jim Inhofe announced Nov. 30 that he will not participate in Tulsa’s Parade of Lights until organizers put ‘Christ’ back in the event’s title.” This incident is one more volley in the battle to put Christ “back” into Christmas and in a wider struggle to “reclaim” a presumed tradition — the reverential, family-based Christmas.

Christmas stampYet the traditional Christmas was not a sweet, sacred, domestic event; for generations, many Americans have been trying to make it one. (For an overview, see here.) The struggle to take the shopping — and the shooting — out of Christmas goes back a couple of centuries.

Puritan Christmases

Reacting against the drunken celebrations common to the English Christmases of the 17th century, the Pilgrims and Puritans simply banned the holiday – temporarily — by legislation in 1659. Even without a law, the custom of ignoring Christmas held sway in New England, according to historians (including this one) for about 200 years. The Episcopalians and then the Catholics managed to sneak in their celebrations in later generations. Then, as gift-giving grew among these other faiths, Congregationalist children – descendants of the Puritans – found the holiday yet more tempting. One minister fought a rear-guard battle, writing in 1835 that no one knew the real date of Christ’s birth, that the Bible countenanced no such holiday, and that it led to “a fearful amount of reckless mirth and impious feasting.” But, by the mid-19th-century, New England had caved. For example, state offices closed on the date and Santa Claus showed up in the newspapers.

Christmas “celebrations”

The 19th-century Christmas, at least outside of New England, was a carryover from European revels and hardly in the spirit of Handel’s Messiah. One historian writes:

For most of the nineteenth century respectable Philadelphians condemned Christmas as a disgrace. Philadelphia’s Christmas was then an essentially public celebration, unfolding in taverns, alleys, and squares . . . . Riot and revelry, disguise and debauch gave police and property owners reason to fear the approach of the holiday. . . .   Christmas comprised a week of amusements and celebrations such as horse races, pig chases . . .  harlequinades and minstrel shows . . . . [often escalating into violence].

But it wasn’t only in the cities. A German immigrant wrote of Christmas in 1830s Missouri (quoted here):

A religious observance was out of the question, nor were gifts exchanged. . . . There was just shooting. On Christmas Eve, a number of young fellows from the neighborhood banded together, and . . . went from house to house. They approached a house as quietly as possible and then fired a mighty volley, to the fright of the women and children, and, if someone did not appear then, another volley no doubt followed. But usually the man of the house opened the door immediately, fired his own gun in greeting and invited the whole company into the house. There the whiskey jug made the rounds, and some pastry was also handed around. After everyone had chatted for a little while, the whole band set out for the next farm, where the same racket started up anew.

In mid-century, middle-class families  – partly in fear and also influenced by A Christmas Carol and “’Twas the Night Before Christmas” – withdrew from these scenes. They turned to a more hearth-and-home version of Christmas, the sort depicted in Currier and Ives images. (This is another good source.) By the end of the century, middle-class Americans had pressed the authorities into repressing Christmas boisterousness – some of which moved to New Year’s Eve. House-to-house visiting was left to carolers rather than shooters.

A buying Christmas

As Americans focused their Christmases more at home, the role of gift-giving (originally a New Year’s custom) grew. “There are worlds of money wasted . . . in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got,” wrote one woman – Harriet Beecher Stowe – in 1850. Newspapers blared “toys, toys, toys” and “dolls, dolls, dolls.” The modern Christmas is becoming “a time for barter, for display, for acquisitiveness,” complained the New York Tribune — in 1895.

christmas shopping bag

Flickr_Jane's Designs

And a century later most American adults agreed. In the 1990s, four of five survey respondents complained that the holiday was too commercialized; most said they did not enjoy Christmas shopping; and about a third said they would just as soon do without exchanging gifts. Economists (for example, this one) have pointed out how inefficient it is for people to buy each other gifts, guessing what the other would enjoy. Yet modern Americans buy many Christmas gifts nonetheless, as they have since about the 1830s.

One explanation for the persistence of Christmas shopping despite its frustrations is that once such a gifting system is in place, not fully participating in it is difficult. Sociologist Theodore Caplow systematically analyzed Christmas gift-giving in 1970s Muncie, Indiana (here and here). The whole process made people anxious, in large part because of the social signals it sent. To give too little – or too much, or inappropriately – was to send a “message” — a message, for example, that the giver was angry at the recipient, or thought of a child as childish. No one person could easily back out of the giving cycle without sending the wrong signals and endangering his or her social ties.

To really end the “getting of things nobody wants” that Stowe complained of might require everyone to get off the whirligig all at once. But then, what would happen to the American economy which now depends so much on the holiday season of “barter . . . display . . . acquisitiveness”?

Cross-posted from Claude Fischer’s blog, Made in America: Notes on American life from American history.