THE BATTLE FOR CHRISTMAS by Stephen Nissenbaum


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 A masterful account of Christmas's transformation from a rowdy bacchanalian revel to a child-centered, domestic celebration, with all its attendant commercial glitter. It's unusual that a work of history manages to be both entertaining and intelligent, yet this is precisely the appeal of this excellent book. Nissenbaum (History/Univ. of Massachusetts) has combined considerable research with skillful analysis. He doesn't simply tell us that Santa Claus was a 19th-century American invention; he weaves a narrative that explains why a group of prominent New Yorkers created St. Nick to consciously transform the holiday. Christmas had been, even into the Jacksonian era, a season for excessive public drinking, the looting of wealthy homes, and loud street singing of bawdy holiday tunes. Nissenbaum shows how New York's elite seized the holiday and invented traditions, such as the Christmas tree, to keep raucous youth at home under their parents' watchful eyes. Meanwhile, the growth of Christmas was spurred economically by the nation's rising middle class. Presents were marketed and mass-produced after the 1820s--but Nissenbaum observes that the invented Santa figure countered this development by serving as an ``anti-commercial icon''; to a new bourgeoisie uncomfortable with purchased luxury, Santa offered a reassuring throwback to a simpler time. Parents could tell their children that their assembly-line dollies and trains had in fact been made (and delivered) by Santa. Art from the period depicts Santa carving each toy with a hand-held chisel, already a nostalgic anachronism in an industrialized age. Impressive art, in fact, is a highlight of the book, especially as Nissenbaum traces the physical changes of old Santa (who first appeared looking fairly plebeian and skinny). One suspects that Nissenbaum, like the proverbial Saint Nick, crafted this book with great care and a twinkle in his eye. It is a gem.

Pub Date: Nov. 1st, 1996
ISBN: 0-679-41223-9
Page count: 400pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 1st, 1996