The Twelve History-Books of Christmas

Tests recently graded and term projects recently submitted, it’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas for many graduate students.  Rather than avoid reading over the break, tis’ the season to sit down with a book usually not found on course syllabi or comprehensive lists.  American historiography is saturated with incisive and anecdotal studies of Christmas.  Like the commercialization of the holiday itself, studies of Christmas have been on an upswing in recent decades.  What follows is a list of the history-books of Christmas past, present, and hopefully future.

  1. James H. Barnett, The American Christmas: A Study in National Character (New York: The Macmillan Co., 1954).

Barnett argues that Christmas was made into a “National Festival” in the middle and latter part of the nineteenth century—a moment when Americans were faced with a number of important changes in the economic and social structures of their lives.  For Barnett, Christmas was all about the functional role of artistic expressions and everyday practices.

  1.  Charles W. Jones, Saint Nicholas of Myra, Bari, and Manhattan: Biography of a Legend (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978).

Taking a biographical approach, Jones’s initial question is whether or not Saint Nicholas was a historical person.  He answers this question in the affirmative, demonstrating that not one but several historical Nicholases existed.  Such a pursuit quickly gives way to a greater concern for the legends, the myths, and the symbolisms of St. Nicholas.

  1. J.M. Golby and A.W. Purdue, The Making of Modern Christmas (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986).

A folkloric approach, Golby and Purdue argue that Christmas nostalgia was not so much a trap to avoid, but an avenue for fusing elements of an older celebration with the social needs of a current generation.  They draw parallels between early carnivalesque inversions found in pagan winter festivals and Christmas traditions of nineteenth century urban populations.

  1. William B. Waits, The Modern Christmas in America: A Cultural History of Gift Giving (New York: New York University Press, 1993).

Rather than seeing Christmas as a modern version of a traditional celebration, Waits claims contemporary Christmas is fundamentally a commercial holiday created around 1880. His analysis relies almost exclusively on documents detailing the act of gift giving, and this analysis only falls in the years 1880 to roughly 1930.

  1. Daniel Miller, ed., Unwrapping Christmas (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993).

In his introductory essay, Miller foregrounds the family as the essential social unit for understanding Christmas. He also identifies a number of binary oppositions that he sees running throughout many of the volume’s essays—most notably attainment versus forfeiture (i.e. gifting) and global versus local.

  1. Penne L. Restad, Christmas in America: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995).

Restad’s book is a straight narrative history detailing the story of the American Christmas.  The strength of the book is a regional analysis practices of Christmas while varying practices of Christmas were simultaneously influenced by underlying regional differences on the economic, social, and cultural levels.

  1. Leigh Eric Schmidt, Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1995).

At the heart of Schmidt’s analysis is the trite expression that “time is money.”  Linking this modern phrase back to pre-modern understandings of religious time and the ways religious festivals were specifically designed to shape time, Schmidt argues that many jeremiads against the commercialization of Christmas are either short-sided—that is failing to recognize that religious festivals have frequently entailed abundance, consumption, and indulgence—or, such critics are really attacking “festival itself.”

  1. Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1995).

Starting around the 1820s after the Puritan suppression of Christmas had long dissipated, New Englanders and more importantly New Yorkers began to feel uncomfortable about the rowdiness of the street Christmas which featured crowds of working class men drinking, shouting, and moving in mass from house to house demanding money from the wealthy.  Nissembuam’s account is a sophisticated and lively look at Christmas-conflict in the public sphere, with a great deal to teach about modernization, urbanization, and commercialization.

  1. Karl Ann Marling, Merry Christmas!:  Celebrating America’s Greatest Holiday (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2000).

Marling wants to test the hypothesis that Christmas represented a “Universal Memory”—that is, something unavoidable.  Her analysis relies on writing small biographies of a variety of Christmas objects including: holly boxes, wrapping paper, lights, ornaments, cards, and department store display windows.  Her best read comes early on when she peaks at the artificial Christmas villages popular with many Americans.

  1. Sheila Whitely ed.,  Christmas, Ideology and Popular Culture (Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2008).

Many of the essays in this volume consider Christmas as a kind of reflecting-pool offering glimpses at peoples’ reactions to major events in their lives.  One clear example of this is Christine Agius’s essay, “Christmas and War,” which looks at, among other cases, Americans’ reactions to the attacks of 9/11.

  1. Bruce David Forbes, Christmas: A Candid History (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2007).

The heart of Forbes’s book is a “snowball” metaphor which describes the process of Americans borrowing a variety of European ethnic groups’ traditions and rolling these into a bigger American Christmas.  A case in point of this process is the example of the Christmas tree: while brought over by either Hessian soldiers fighting for the British or by German immigrants settling in Pennsylvania, the tree still required decades of accommodation to the unique cultural landscape of America before it saw an upswing in popularity in the 1840s.

12.  I wanted to leave number twelve open to anyone wanting to post a comment about a not-yet-written, new, or old book that belongs in the historiography of Christmas.

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One thought on “The Twelve History-Books of Christmas

  1. Courtney M. Baxter

    Great list of books. I took a class in undergrad titled “History of Christmas” and we read the Restad book which does a pretty good job of discussing Christmas in America’s past. Three other books from the class we read in the class, focused more on the beginnings of Christmas celebration and Church history, were:

    1) Joseph F. Kelly, The Origins of Christmas (Collegeville, Minnesota: Liturgical Press, 2004).
    Kelly deals with a number of questions about Christmas and themes in this book. He covers from the biblical story of Jesus’ birth to the popular acceptance of the holiday. It is very readable.

    2) Susan K. Roll, Towards the Origins of Christmas (Kampen, Netherlands: Kok Pharos Publishing House, 1995).
    Roll’s book is dense and highly intellectual. It’s concerned with how Christmas was established as a holy day in the liturgical calendar and the establishment of that date in the early Church; the debate between the Calculation theory and the History of Religions theory.

    3) Edward Sri, Dawn of the Messiah: the Coming of Christ in Scripture (Cinncinati, Ohio: Servant Press, 2005).
    This book simply deals with how the biblical scriptures surrounding Jesus’ birth have been and are currently interpreted. Sri is definitely writing from a Catholic perspective.

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