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The Battle for Christmas Paperback – October 28, 1997

4.5 out of 5 stars 53 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

This scholarly analysis of our modern celebration of Christmas pulls together a thoroughly convincing case for the widely accepted notion that it is a 19th-century creation, indeed a deliberate reformation and taming of a holiday with wilder pagan origins. Christmas was set at December 25 in the fourth century, not for any biblical link with Christ's birth, but because the church hoped to annex and Christianize the existing midwinter pagan feast. This latter was based on the seasonal agricultural plenty, with the year's food supply newly in store, and nothing to do in the fields. It was a time of drinking and debauchery from the Roman Saturnalia to the English Mummers. The Victorians hijacked the holiday, and Victorian writers helped turn it into a feast of safe domesticity and a cacophonous chime of retail cash registers. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Christmas in America hasn't always been the benevolent, family-centered holiday we idealize. The Puritans of the Massachusetts Bay Colony so feared the day's association with pagan winter solstice revels, replete with public drunkenness, licentiousness and violence, that they banned Christmas celebrations. In this ever-surprising work, Nissenbaum (Sex, Diet, and Debility in Jacksonian America), a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, conducts a vivid historical tour of the holiday's social evolution. Nissenbaum maintains that not until the 1820s in New York City, among the mercantile Episcopalian Knickerbockers, was Christmas as we know it celebrated. Before Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore ("A Visit from St. Nicholas") popularized the genteel version, he explains, the holiday was more of a raucous festival and included demands for tribute from the wealthy by roaming bands of lower-class extortionists. Peppering his insights with analysis of period literature, art and journalism, Nissenbaum constructs his theory. Taming Christmas, he contends, was a way to contain the chaos of social dislocation in a developing consumer-capitalist culture. Later, under the influence of Unitarian writers, the Christmas season became a living object lesson in familial stability and charity, centering on the ideals of bourgeois childhood. From colonial New England, through 18th- and 19th-century New York's and Philadelphia's urban Yuletide contributions, to Christmas traditions in the antebellum South, Nissenbaum's excursion is fascinating, and will startle even those who thought they knew all there was to know about Christmas. Illustrations.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 400 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage (October 28, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679740384
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679740384
  • Product Dimensions: 5.2 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 12.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.5 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (53 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #120,000 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Top Customer Reviews

Format: Paperback
Stephen Nissenbaum shows us that there is no "real" Christmas to which we must return to be authentic. While some will find his demystification of our cherished traditions depressing, I found it liberating. Christmas has always been a malleable tradition, according to Nissenbaum. That means that while it may be an "invented tradition", it is one we are free to reinvent for ourselves. Many of us are concerned about the extreme materialism and consumerism that rules our societies and hijacks our family and community life. The Battle for Christmas provides a roadmap of where we have been, and suggests where we might go to recapture the magic of this seasonal festival.
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Format: Paperback
This is an intriguing book which shows how deeply many of our Christmas traditions are rooted in social anxiety. In particular, Nissenbaum successfully argues that Christmas in America has always been infused with a pragmatic spirit of paternalism, and he explores several different guises this cultural tendency has taken. In making his point, Nissenbaum concomitantly shatters the pervasive myth that rampant consumerism at Christmas is a post-war phenomenon. The author is a wonderful scholar, and he is a master at gleaning telling details from the great mass of sources he has consulted. I am a student of literature, and Nissenbaum's study broadened my own perspective on how Christmas is portrayed in nineteenth century fiction. Many things I always found confusing in literary depictions of Christmas now make much more sense. I read this book while I was finishing my dissertation (in a completely unrelated area), and I found Nissenbaum's writing itself to be a real inspiration. This is what scholarly writing should be: lucid, to-the-point, substantial, and engaging. Nissenbaum's style is flexible and approachable, his scholarship impeccable. That's a rare combination! I definitely want to read other of Nissenbaum's works.
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Format: Hardcover
How many of us feel guilty each year as the holiday season approaches, feeling that we are not celebrating the holidays with the spiritual ferver and simplicity of our ancestors? Well, it turns out that our ancestors, at least until the 19th century, were probably getting drunk, partying, and possibly taking in a bit of "chambering" (an old euphamism for fornication) during the Xmas season. This is a fascinating book that shows through solid data that our preconceived ideas of what Xmas used to be are largely incorrect. Cotton and Increase Mather both preached against the celebration of Christmas from the pulpit because the celebrations at the Xmas season in their lifetimes were seen to be so immoral as to be unfit for Christians. I found this book to be so interesting and pertinent that I spent a hour in a church class explaining its contents to my fellow churchgoers. I highly recommend this book for any curious and thoughtful person and bet it will liberate you from guilt and stress based on incorrect perceptions of Xmases past.
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Format: Hardcover
UMass professor Stephen Nissenbaum's Pulitzer-Prize nominated "The Battle For Christmas" is an engrossing, sober look at a holiday celebration reformed from reaction to drunken revelry. Its 317 pages do not debunk so much as dissect traditions which seemed to "stand outside history." He sees larger points within about 18th and 19th century societal, racial, and cultural divides and Christmas' role in spurring American consumerist society.
Nissenbaum bookends "Battle" with accounts of New England's "wassail" tradition and of Christmas celebrations in the slavery South. He finds similar tales of pauper (peasant class, slave) trading places with prince (gentry, slavemaster) with wild costumes (German Belsnickle, African John Canoe, Boston-Philadelphia "mumming"), endorsed begging, whiskey-soaked revelry and feasting, bawdy songs, wanton sex, vandalism and violence equal parts Halloween and Mardi Gras. Nissenbaum successfully argues that this role reversal behavior was tolerated, even encouraged to reinforce traditional class roles.
Nissenbaum builds his unsentimental holiday history between these pillars. He reinterprets beloved, seemingly eternal seasonal traditions (Dickens' "Christmas Carol," decorated trees, St. Nicholas) as creations to refocus the celebration on temperance, home, and family (especially children). He links their manufacture and deliberate spread to 19th century revisionist views: abolition and the role of freed blacks, new child rearing and education theories. Nissenbaum redefines "Twas The Night Before Christmas" nearly line-by-line, showing the social satire within Clement Moore's detailed descriptions and figurative redrawing of the "jolly old elf.
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Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
Readable, researched, and endlessly interesting, The Battle For Christmas is the best history of our modern holiday available. Nissenbaum writes with a clear voice, and presents a mountain of research flitered through a keen eye for culture. He debunks many of the myths surrounding the holiday, and shows where our modern traditions truly came from (mostly Victorian invention, not medieval tradition or Christian dogma). It's an interesting mix of invention, suppression, and substitution that really aimed to create a holiday for everyone (not just Christians) ... and has, as the years have passed, actually begun to fulfil that promise.

This book quite literally changed the way I viewed Christmas. I appreciate the holiday and enjoy the season much more than I used to!
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