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Author Penne Restad has written an excellent historical account of how the evolution of Christmas in America since colonial times parallels the evolution of the American collective mind. Going beyond the celebration of the Nativity of Jesus Christ, America's favorite holiday has been molded in the last 300 years by the idiosyncracies and anxieties of the American people, these being reflected, for example, in gift-giving customs, the use of evergreen trees, or more poignantly in the nation's portrayal of Santa Claus. I was truly fascinated with the wealth of information Ms. Restad presented in this serious, objective book. Think for a moment that Christmas was not observed universally in America until well into the nineteenth century, especially after the Civil War; before then, a rather lukewarm observance of the holiday was not public and basically was determined by religious and ethnic background (a reflection of the days when our country's idea of nationhood was still in its formative stage). The book also covers in detail the changes Christmas brought to the celebrations of Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Ms. Restad's narrative of our celebration of Christmas brings to light the complexities of the American psyche; we become enmeshed in conflicts between the sacred and profane, the spiritual and material (the celebration of Christmas in the antebellum South could not escape the dichotomy of freedom and slavery as well). Even as it prompts us to confront and come to terms with these conflicts, "Christmas in America: A History" also acknowledges the feeling of generosity, good will, and universal brotherhood the holiday inspires in us as a people; it is a work of great scholarship.
Like much of American History, how we celebrate Christmas today and what we "believe" about its historical importance to the United States is based on either myth or marketing or both. Penne L. Restad has written an important history of this most sacred holiday over the past 300 years that will set the record straight for anyone who dares to question the status quo.
Some of what you will learn from this book includes the fact that 200 plus years ago, most Christians in America did not celebrate Christmas for various reasons from its debauched history in England to the fact that Christ was not born on December 25; the Founding Fathers did not pay much attention to Christmas, even holding Congress on Christmas Day (again, because of its importance in England) though loosely based on centuries of myth and storytelling, the modern Santa Claus is the product of corporate marketing; Christmas in America did not gain national importance until after the Civil War as way to unite a torn nation.
Though this book is an important resource on a prominant aspect of American History, and a must read for those who wish to fully understand the Christmas holiday and all of its trappings, be warned that this is a bit of a dry read; not because Restad is a bad writer, but the coupling of her historian's approach to the topic and the shear abundance of information, this book suffers a little in the narrative.
A Guide to my Book Rating System:
1 star = The wood pulp would have been better utilized as toilet paper. 2 stars = Don't bother, clean your bathroom instead. 3 stars = Wasn't a waste of time, but it was time wasted. 4 stars = Good book, but not life altering. 5 stars = This book changed my world in at least some small way.
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Restad knows her stuff and doesn't hesitate to engage controversial aspects of the season. This is part of an ongoing conversation, and should be read in dialogue with the (in my mind) better book, The Battle for Christmas by Nissenbaum. However, Restad's book is an excellent one for anyone who seeks to understand the "whys" of the cultural traditions that bombard us. As well as get some handle on the "hows" of doing things differently in your own life.
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At the time of writing this 1995 book, Penne Restad was a lecturer in American History of the University of Texas at Austin.
She writes in the Foreword, "Christmas in America attempts to chart the evolution of our Christmas from its colonial days, when the marks of religion and region were most distinct, to its incarnation by media and money in the twentieth century. For the most part, this book concentrates on events and conditions of the nineteenth century that have indelibly shaped the Christmas we keep and the attitudes we hold about it. It emphasizes the elastic and ever-changing nature of the American calendar and its holidays, as well as the interaction of political, social, economic, and religious realms. It seeks to analyze rather than moralize the issues of materialism and gift-giving, and to bring new insights to such familiar elements of the festival as trees, cards, and Santa. Ultimately, it wills the reader to understand Christmas through the lens of history and, through Christmas, the ambiguities and paradoxes of our culture."
Here are some other quotations from the book:
"Rome's Christians challenged paganism directly by specifying December 25, rather than some other date, as the day for their Nativity Feast." (Pg. 4) "It fell to Puritan reformers to put a stop to the unholy merriment and to bend arguments over the proper keeping of Christmas into an older and more basic one---whether there should even be an observance of the day. Defying the decision of the Anglican Convocation of 1562 to maintain the church calendar, the Puritans struck Christmas, along with all saints' says, from their own list of holy days." (Pg. 7) "At least some Christians had been bringing trees into their homes since the Reformation.Read more ›