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The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday [Paperback]

By Stephen Nissenbaum (Author)
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Item description for The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday by Stephen Nissenbaum...

Reflecting on the social and cultural forces transforming American life, a history of the celebration of Christmas in America examines the ways in which a conflict between materialism and a spiritual, family-centered celebration have shaped the holiday. Reprint.

Publishers Description
--The New York Times Book Review
Anyone who laments the excesses of Christmas might consider the Puritans of colonial Massachusetts: they simply outlawed the holiday. The Puritans had their reasons, since Christmas was once an occasion for drunkenness and riot, when poor wassailers extorted food and drink from the well-to-do. In this intriguing and innovative work of social history, Stephen Nissenbaum rediscovers Christmas's carnival origins and shows how it was transformed, during the nineteenth century, into a festival of domesticity and consumerism.
Drawing on a wealth of period documents and illustrations, Nissenbaum charts the invention of our current Yuletide traditions, from St. Nicholas to the Christmas tree and, perhaps most radically, the practice of giving gifts to children. Bursting with detail, filled with subversive readings of such seasonal classics as A Visit from St. Nicholas and A Christmas Carol, The Battle for Christmas captures the glorious strangeness of the past even as it helps us better understand our present.
Christmas . . . too often fails to wholly satisfy the spirit or the senses. How and why the yuletide came to this is the subject of historian Stephen Nissenbaum's fascinating new study.

Citations And Professional Reviews
The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday by Stephen Nissenbaum has been reviewed by professional book reviewers and journalists at the following establishments -
  • New York Times - 12/21/1997 page 24

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Item Specifications...

Studio: Vintage
Pages   1111
Est. Packaging Dimensions:   Length: 8.1" Width: 5.2" Height: 0.81"
Weight:   0.8 lbs.
Binding  Softcover
Release Date   Oct 28, 1997
Publisher   Vintage
ISBN  0679740384  
ISBN13  9780679740384  

Availability  23 units.
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More About Stephen Nissenbaum

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Stephen Nissenbaum received his A.B. from Harvard College in 1961, his M.A. from Columbia University in 1963, and his Ph.D. from the University of Wisconsin in 1968. He has taught at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst since 1968, and is currently professor of history there. He has been the recipient of fellowships from the National Endowment for the Humanities, the American Council of Learned Societies, the American Antiquarian Society, the Massachusetts Historical Society, and the Charles Warren Center at Harvard. In addition, he was James P. Harrison Professor of History at the College of William and Mary, 1989-90. Active in the public humanities, he has served as member and president of the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities, and as historical advisor for several film productions. The Battle for Christmas was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in History in 1997.


Stephen Nissenbaum currently resides in Amherst, in the state of Massachusetts. Stephen Nissenbaum has an academic affiliation as follows - University of Massachusetts.

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Product Categories

1Books > Subjects > History > Americas > United States > General
2Books > Subjects > History > Americas > United States
3Books > Subjects > Nonfiction > Social Sciences > Customs & Traditions
4Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Holidays > Christmas > General
5Books > Subjects > Religion & Spirituality > Christianity > Holidays > Christmas

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Reviews - What do customers think about The Battle for Christmas (Vintage)?

Give this to someone who wants an "old-fashioned" Christmas  Dec 12, 2007
It was difficult to choose a title for this review - it could have been "Christmas celebrations as economic class struggles" or "Nothing to do with the so-called war on Christmas" both of which are important points to make. Another possible title for the review could be "How Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore invented Christmas."

First, this has nothing to do with the Religious Right's claims that there is a so-called "War on Christmas" going on in the 21st century. The book was written in 1996, and the period it covers ends at the beginning of the 20th century, pretty much. Second, it's a work of anthropology, in a way, and history, economic sociology, perhaps. It has nothing to do with the religious significance of the day, only how people celebrate it.

Perhaps a single sentence from a later chapter will illustrate the main theme:
"A key reason for the enduring popularity of this holiday may well be that it has provided a profoundly ritualized means of helping people come to terms with their own complicity in a larger system that they realize must breed injustice."

He's talking specifically about slavery in the US in the first part of the 19th century, in that chapter - but the sentence also applies to the whole system of industrial capitalism, especially as it's played out in the USA. Although Nissenbaum isn't calling capitalism bad, per se, he does use several occasions to point out that industrial capitalism has, over the past couple of centuries, greatly increased the inequality between the rich and the poor, commercialized MANY types of transactions that used to be non-commercial (not just Christmas), and enabled the rich to distance themselves more from the poor, replacing any personal knowledge of conditions with, instead, impersonal donations to organized charities.

Some of the very interesting things you'll find in here: newspaper delivery boys demanding tips at Christmas goes back further than you think. The origin of seasonal Gift Books. (During the week I was reading this, our local newspaper had an article about the 20th-anniversary edition of "Uncle John's Bathroom Reader" coming out in time for Christmas this year, which in conjunction with the idea of the 19th-century gift book just sent me into helpless laughter.) The Christmas tree was more usually a New Year's tree.

Another nice coincidence for me was that the week before I read this book, I had gone to the Winterthur Museum (just outside Wilmington, Delaware) to see their Yuletide Celebration; the Yuletide tour of the DuPont mansion included many things that I found later in this book, with more detailed explanations - but also, one of the illustrations in the book is one of the very prints that was on exhibit at Winterthur!

Although "The Battle for Christmas" does not go into the 21st century, after reading it, I could not help but frame the modern rituals of shopping in the mall vs. shopping online in terms of the same economic struggle and public-vs.-private pendulum that Nissenbaum has discussed. Indeed, shopping at the mall involves a mix of the classes, a lot of noise, pushing, even violence; incessant, annoying music (just like the wassailers!), and a lot of travelling from place to place - very much mimicking the peasants going from house to house to beg for gifts from the aristocracy. Meanwhile, shopping online - in the peace of one's own home, with no personal interaction with any craftspeople or tradespeople, let alone lower classes (and the unspoken truth that even nowadays it's still usually the upper half of the economic classes who have computers at home, credit cards, and the sort of education that allows them to find unusual things online) - reflects the upper classes' desire to distance themselves from the whole mess. Why, you can even donate money to charity online, without ever having to go past a Santa Claus ringing a bell in front of a store! Read the book, you'll see what I mean. And then, go out and do some non-spectator hands-on charity with delivering boxes of food or serving meals or wrapping Blue Santa toys. You'll need a dose of something like that to feel less guilty.
The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum  May 12, 2007
For those curious about the evolution of Christmas celebrations as we know them, this remarkable book by University of Massachusetts professor Nissenbaum is thorough and fascinating. As the Druid festivals of the winter solstice gave way to early Christmas revels, the world needed to sort through customs and behaviors that would be appropriate for the civilized celebration of the Christchild's birth. Nissenbaum shows the importance of social class structure in the evolution of gift-giving, and introduces the reader to many of the people instrumental in making Christmas what it is today (Dickens, Clement Moore, etc). Nissenbaum makes the case that Western civilization has been largely influenced by Christmas, Santa Claus, and the social pressures brought upon growing children and adults to behave well and to show charity.
A "battle" to read some parts of the book.........  Jan 23, 2007
I know the title of my review makes it sound like I'm going to trash this book, but some parts of the book were very slow getting through it. Don't get me wrong, overall the book was great, but it does delve fairly deep in some explanations of how Christmas evolves over time. This is definitely not a trivial book, there is a lot of historical references and "tie ins" to help substantiate the claims the author makes. I did find the beginning of the book very interesting and towards the end as well, especially with how the South celebrated Christmas during the time of slavery. But what I was most glad with was the epilogue! Don't pass by the epilogue, like a lot of people may do, it really helps wrap up the authors thoughts about Christmas and gives added insights that aren't mentioned in the main part of the book. Be prepared to have your belief in how Christmas came about turned upside down and read this book with an open mind or you won't find it very interesting at all!
An Old Fashioned Christmas  May 20, 2006
Today the topic of Christmas comes charged with so much emotion. The importance our retail culture places on the holiday and the mythology it's collected through years of story-telling and movie-making almost guarantee that anyone living in American culture will have some definite and personal feelings about it. Nissenbaum's wonderful social history of the holiday describes how Christmas has carried a significant political and emotional charge for a good long time.

As other reviewers mention, what's perhaps most interesting is that the holiday as we celebrate it today is a fairly recent invention. Nissenbaum gives a detailed picture of the social and economic growing pains in 19th Century America which were the genesis for the holiday many of us assumed was as old as Christianity, itself.

The book may give a bit more detail in some places than some readers expect, but it's all necessary to support his thesis. And, in the end, it's a thoroughly satisfying story.
The Amazing History of Christmas Revealed  Mar 15, 2006
People often say that it is sad that Christmas is more about Santa Claus than Christianity. This book, however, shows that Christmas as we know it has always been about Santa and that before Santa Christmas was so horrible that Christians preferred not to celebrate it at all. Amazingly our Christmas tradition is based on the "Night Before Christmas" poem first published in a New York newspaper in 1823 and this tradition had taken its current form with all of its commercialism by 1830. Nissenbaum is to be commended for digging out this history and showing what the problems with Christmas were over a number of centuries and especially in the colonia American period and how the author of the poem altered and shaped other sources, particularly contributions by Washinton Irving, to alter social behavior around this holiday. The book also discusses the coming of the Christmas tree, the place of Dickens in our Christmas myths, and the role of the Christmas tradition in Black history. The book may need to be revised, however, since there seems to be some controversy about who the author of "The Night Before Christmas" really was. Other more recent books now seem to be available on this piece of history, but this book is the original research on the subject.

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