Saturday, December 12, 2015

Christmas Has Been Out of Control for Centuries

*I saved this newspaper article I read from a local edition here on Dec. 24, 2006 and recently uncovered it again in a stack of my papers.
I thought it apropos to post here word-for-word this Holiday Season.
The book it highlights is worth seeking out for a read if you are a fan of social history.

Please note, that the figures quoted at the end of the article are for 2006 so it's a tad higher in today's 2015 figures.


Credit to writer Matt Crenson of the Associated Press.

Christmas Has Been Out of Control for Centuries

Once upon a time the holiday season was a quiet time spent with family and friends--simpler, less commercial, more spiritual, nothing like today's frenzied orgy of souless consumption.

"There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got", one observer noted recently.

Well not so recently.

Harriet Beecher Stowe worth those words in 1850.  By then, the holiday was already well on its way to becoming the retail orgy it is today.

"Every generation for the last 250 years tends to think it was only in the last generation that it got commercialized, " said Stephen Nissenbaum, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.

In his book "The Battle for Christmas", Nissenbaum puts that myth to rest by tracing the history of the holiday from colonial New England to the turn of the 20th Century.

Nissenbaum shows that powerful social interests have always advanced their agendas through Christmas, and describes how the holiday we celebrate today had its orgins in the New York City of the 1820's.  Christmas. it seems, has always been a holiday of excess.

For most of its history Christmas was a free-for-all, more New Year's Eve or Mardi Gras than the domestic idyll described in Clement Clarke Moore's 1823 poem, "A Visit from Saint Nicholas"(better known as "The Night Before Christmas").

The holiday has its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a week long Winter Solstice celebration that featured feasting, drinking gambling and sex.  Men dressed as women, women dressed like men, and masters waited on their slaves in a raucous reversal of the social hierarchy.

Such behavior was almost inevitable during the weeks surrounding the Winter Solstice in the pre-industrial societies of norther Europe, thanks to what Nissenbaum refers to as a "combustible mix" of leisure time, abundance and alcohol.

In the northern Europe of the late Middle Ages, gangs of young men would engage in "wassailing", a cross between Christmas caroling and home invasion.  The gangs would visit wealthy homes, often in disguise, and sing songs that threatened violence if they were not invited in for food and drink.

In agrarians societies, practices like wassailing served as a critical safety valve, giving people at the bottom of the social ladder a release that wold keep them in line during the rest of the year.
But with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners didn't want their employees wandering off for weeks of drunken merriment.

During the 1820's after a series of particularly raucous holiday seasons in New York, the city's elite began campaigning for a more restrained, domestic Christmas.  Central to that campaign was the tradition of purchasing gifts, especially for children.

"Christmas and American's consumer culture have fed off one another ever since", said Russell Belk, a professor of business at the University of Utah.  His research has shown that the more materialistic people are about Christmas, the less satisfaction they derive from the holiday.

There's no doubt that Americans are materialistic about Christmas.  Almost half of all Americans crammed stores on the day after Thanksgiving this year, the traditional beginning of the holiday shopping season.  By the time the Christmas shopping season is over, the country will have spent in the neighborhood of $150 billion, most of it on gifts.  That's an average of $500 for every man, woman and child.


  1. I am starting to think Christmas has gotten a bad rap for encouraging over indulgence. It's the excuse, not the cause, and coupled with end of year resolutions, expectations, and bonuses, people that care nothing really about the Christian holiday use it to justify spending and more spending. It bothers me when people say they don't do Christmas but have traditions to do church and gather with loved ones. That is Christmas. Gifts, food, and decorations aren't Christmas but can, in moderation, enhance the celebration of it.

  2. Interesting article. I say I wish Christmas were a calmer more reflective time, but judging by the amount of decorations I have put up in the house I feel I am one of the biggest hypocrites.


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