SOCIOLOGICALLY, T. S. ELIOT GOT IT wrong. For many Americans December is the cruelest month, Christmas the season that mixes "memory and desire." A holy day for some, a holiday for all, Christmas is above all an anxiety-producing amalgam of family intimacy and rank consumerism that too often fails to wholly satisfy the spirit or the senses. Jolly it often isn't.
How and why the yuletide came to flow this way is the subject of historian Stephen Nissenbaum's fascinating new study, The Battle for Christmas (381 pages. Knopf. $30). In this telling, Santa is more central to Christmas than Christ, and tradition is the dream of the present. "There never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism," writes Nissenbaum, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts. From the beginning, he insists, Christmas American style has been "commercial at its very core."
In the very beginning, in fact, there was no Christmas. The Puritans of New England suppressed it, even for a time forbidding it by law. For one thing, they argued, the New Testament gives no date--or season--for the birth of Christ. For another, Christmas was identified in their minds with pagan rites and (although Nissenbaum doesn't mention it) with papist practices. But Puritan rule proved quite brief. Colonial Christmas was more like carnival time, when rowdies sullied the streets with public displays of eating and drunkenness. One custom was particularly disruptive: the "wassailing" in which packs of lower-class youths and workers would lay siege to the homes of the well-off, demanding free drink and food in a menacing game of trick or treat. Appeals to religion were unavailing. In Boston, first the Universalists and then the Unitarians opened their church doors on Christmas in the hope of bringing order to the yuletime chaos. But that brief experiment failed to dampen the raucous public spirit.
Until the first decades of the 19th century, Nissenbaum observes, Christmas "was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one." But by the end of the century it would be both. In cities like New York and Philadelphia, the "misrule" of Christmas mobs had become so widespread that it threatened civic life. Members of the emerging urban proletariat no longer confined their seasonal revels to their own neighborhoods. The wealthy hired guards to protect their property. Shopkeepers barred their doors; innocent pedestrians stayed home.
Lacking anything like the sanctioned religious festivals of Catholic Europe, Protestant America invented a tradition for celebrating Christmas. In one of his many astonishing acts of historical reconstruction, Nissenbaum shows how Washington Irving and other New York "Knickerbockers" created in their stories a "tradition" of old Dutch family Christmas gatherings in the Netherlands that featured entertaining friends and family at home. But stories were not enough--Christmas needed a myth.
Enter Santa Claus. In his poem of 1822, "A Visit From St. Nicholas," Clement Clarke Moore, the immensely wealthy son of New York's Episcopal bishop, gave Americans precisely the kind of nonthreatening but "plebeian" night visitor whom all classes could welcome. (His pipe, Nissenbaum notes, was short--the kind workingmen smoked--not long, like those of the gentry.) No longer a bishop, St. Nick still played the patrician role of distributing gifts to the dependent class. But instead of the working poor as a whole, the object of his largess was children.
Within five years of its publication, Moore's poem became a Christmas staple. More to the point, newspaper editorials began to speak of Christmas as "a festival sacred to domestic enjoyments." Although public drinking and merrymaking continued--as it does in some precincts to this day--the "real Christmas," Nissenbaum notes, was gradually identified with rituals that centered on children and took place in the quiet of homes. The old yule spirit of "letting go" in December was transformed: what was let loose, says Nissenbaum, was the purse strings of parents. If Christmas was a time for giving gifts, they had to be purchased. By midcentury, Santa Claus was a common figure in stories and advertisements. And here was the greatest transformation. In the benign figure of Santa Claus, the commercialization of Christmas was hidden behind the most tender of parental emotions. It was a miracle for 34th Street. No wonder Christmas is so exhausting.