DECEMBER 25TH: The Joys of Christmas Past by Phillip Snyder

DECEMBER 25TH: The Joys of Christmas Past

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Charming, surprise-stuffed social history of Christmas, a holiday much reviled and resisted during its birth pangs last century. In 1874, Henry Ward Beecher, the American Protestant clergyman, declared, ""To me Christmas is a foreign day, and I shall die so."" In part the American Christmas blended Europe's St. Nicholas Day (December 6th) with New Year's Day. ""In Old England, Christmas was an excuse for gluttony, drunkenness, dancing, gambling, sexual license, and mass begging. The Puritans would have no part of it."" Under Cromwell, the keeping of Christmas was forbidden. Americans, of course, went at religion tooth and nail last century, and the holiday's Roman Catholic taint faded only with the lessening of hostility between militant Protestants and Roman Catholics. Snyder's cornucopia of ravishing snippets from last century's New York papers dramatizing the Christmas Eve marketing at Fulton and Washington Markets, with the chickens, ducks, pheasants, hares, black bears, partridges, quail, squabs, prairie hens, elk, deer, sides of beef, mutton, boars' heads, fish, cheeses, vegetables, dates, figs, mandarin oranges--and turkeys and turkey stuffings of oysters and Italian chestnuts--will have the stoniest anti-Christmasite rethinking himself. Snyder's detail is marvelous: ""The market floor was slippery with ice and grease. Near the poultry stalls, a carpet of feathers was strewn; elsewhere the sawdust was churned up by passing feet."" Old-fashioned Christmasses also were marked by ""noise, earshattering noise, concussive, uproarious, tumultuous noise. . .Guns, cannons, firecrackers, and tin horns. . .contributed to the annual racket."" Gift-giving began midcentury, so rapidly ""that there is nothing to compare with it in the whole field of popular customs. Suddenly there were December rivers of diamonds in big-city jewelers' windows; the philanthropic mill owner ordered a thousand turkeys for his employees. . . Many masters gave their slaves gifts at Christmas, such as cheap jewelry, pocket knives, pipes, and special rations like coffee and molasses."" The pioneering business venture in Christmas greens raised its resinous fragrance in the New York market about 1840, and spread until Sears, Roebuck found itself mailing out artificial trees with 56 limbs for $1. Not a page that doesn't water the spirit or hit the palate like plum pudding with white sauce.

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1985
Publisher: Dodd, Mead