Considering the alternative, says Rich Barlow, we should all be thankful for our big, fat capitalist Christmas. In this photo holiday shoppers crowd the ground floor of department store Macy's, in New York, on Dec. 11, 1931. (AP)

After Black Friday’s mall pummelings, we all can second the rant from one woman about Christmas materialism: “Dear me, it’s so tedious! Everybody has got everything that can be thought of.” What do you get “for people that have more than they know what to do with now? … There are worlds of money wasted, at this time of year, in getting things that nobody wants, and nobody cares for after they are got.”

That was Harriet Beecher Stowe, letting off steam through one of her characters in a holiday story—from 1850. Two years before she assailed slavery in “Uncle Tom’s Cabin,” Stowe was one of many who were fed up with the whole Christmas scene. A letter writer to a magazine in 1834, dazed by the sheer mass of Christmas merchandise in stores—including junk—was amazed “at the cunning skill with which the most worthless as well as most valuable articles are set forth to tempt and decoy the bewildered purchaser.”

Both examples come from “The Battle for Christmas,” Stephen Nissenbaum’s Pulitzer-nominated debunking of the notion of the holidays’ good old days. When someone says old-fashioned Christmases weren’t commercial, Nissenbaum’s 1996 book makes clear, they’re wrong, unless by “old-fashioned” they mean before the 1820s, when an onslaught of gift-giving became the yuletide SOP. And while it’s hard to believe, this capitalist Christmas was a good thing. We should all lift a glass of eggnog to it this season.

The short version of Nissenbaum’s history: Christians didn’t settle on Dec. 25 to celebrate Jesus’s birth until the fourth century, and then only to compete with Rome’s pagan festival of Saturnalia. (The Bible doesn’t date the Nativity.) This Christian counterpoint itself became an occasion for what we would consider criminality. For three centuries until the early 1800s, European and then American revelers made gluttons and drunks of themselves in public at Christmastime, occasionally becoming violent and sexually assaultive, and forced their way into rich people’s homes to demand food and drink in exchange for singing. You needn’t take Nissenbaum’s word for it; New England Puritans, he says, famously banned Christmas for these very reasons. He quotes an 1833 Philadelphia newspaper account:

Throughout almost the whole of Tuesday night—Christmas Eve—riot, noise, and uproar prevailed, uncontrolled and uninterrupted in many of our central and most orderly streets. Gangs of boys and young men howled and shouted as if possessed by the demon of disorder.

This “inversion” of the social order, as Nissenbaum calls it, with the poor sticking it to the Man, might cheer some (until they reflect that these home invasions hardly sowed sympathy for helping the needy). Anyway, things changed beginning in the early 19th century, when affluent Americans, led by literary types, sought to tame Christmas. Rather than public rowdiness and gifts extorted from the haves, they designed a family-centered holiday with presents for children. Clement Clarke Moore’s beloved “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” first published in 1823, was a crucial step in this direction. Also that decade, Gift Books—literary anthologies for women and young people—became the first mass-marketed Christmas presents.

Shoppers ride escalators between floors during Black Friday shopping at Macy's on Black Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, in Chicago.(Andrew A. Nelles/AP)

Shoppers ride escalators between floors during Black Friday shopping at Macy’s on Black Friday, Nov. 29, 2013, in Chicago.(Andrew A. Nelles/AP)

“It would be unfair to conclude that these books were purchased and given away simply as a display of conspicuous consumption,” Nissenbaum writes. “Christmas gifts had to be (or appear to be) expressions of personal sentiment, designed to signify or enhance intimate personal bonds—bonds between parents and children, husbands and wives, suitors and those they courted. And that is surely what parents, husbands, and suitors wanted them to be.” Christmas presents coincided with a cultural shift to viewing children as cherished human beings, not merely economic assets (workers) for the family, he says.

In short, capitalism not only ensured us all a tranquil night’s sleep during Christmas, it helped produce our modern, kid-beloved, peace-on-earth-and-in-the-streets holiday.

Capitalism not only ensured us all a tranquil night’s sleep during Christmas, it helped produce our modern, kid-beloved, peace-on-earth-and-in-the-streets holiday.

None of this excuses today’s hysterical avarice. Commercialized Christmases were supposed to replace rowdy, violent ones, making all the more offensive the mobs trampling each other for a crummy TV at Wal-Mart. (To think that stores force their employees to work Thanksgiving catering to these doofuses.) I’m among those for whom worship services are an essential part of a good Christmas, the historical Nativity’s unknown timing notwithstanding.

But if we can shear commercial Christmas of its excesses, Nissenbaum offers a healthy dose of perspective: “There never was a time when Christmas existed as an unsullied domestic idyll, immune to the taint of commercialism. The domestic Christmas was the commercial Christmas — commercial from its earliest stages, commercial at its very core.”

Tags: Family, History

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  • MO

    “Sewed” sympathy? I think you mean “sowed”.

  • northeaster17

    False choices make poor arguments

  • Pointpanic

    so the only alternative to drunken riotuous christmas was crass consumption? Ithought public radio was supposed to be “free of commercial influence”Ask people, sleeping in the streets if capitalism has “ensured a tranquil nights sleep during Christmas…”Ask fast food employees who need public assistance the same question. I can’t believe this PR piece for the corporate elites passes for “cognoscenti”

    • Alice

      I think you’re misunderstanding the point of the article. the writer isn’t trying to make some grand socioeconomic statement about the morality of capitalism: he’s just trying to write a concise, bite-sized response that you can send to the annoying nostalgia-fetishists who, year after year, complain about how we have somehow, in the space of a generation, sullied the “true meaning of Christmas.”

      It’s a gentle prompt for said fetishists to remove their rose-tinted glasses. One that they’ll probably ignore with a guttural ” bah, well, in my day,” mind, but it’s short enough that they’ll possibly even finish it before launching into aforementioned future-phoibic tirade.

      • Pointpanic

        Alice, I don’t think so. Just look at the pullquote. No it’s not a big grand ideological statement but it is a pitch for capitalism.

    • darius035

      Aunty Amelia got a new blue Land Rover LR4 only from working part time off a
      home computer… helpful hints J­a­m­2­0­.­ℂ­o­m

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  • had2ask

    So this is a book report? I’m having trouble seeing the “Thinking That Matters.”

  • Dana

    I’m getting a little tired of the American tendency to conflate earning profit with capitalism.

    There are two major ways to earn monetary income that don’t involve robbing people, burglarizing a house, or getting a benefit check from the government:

    1. earning money directly through labor (wages)


    2. earning money indirectly through capital (interest/dividends)

    Capitalism is method two, not method one. The problem with earning through labor is you must be able to work and someone must be willing to hire you. Absent those two conditions, you ain’t earning squat.

    You have to have disposable income to benefit from capitalism. If you’re poor, you don’t usually have disposable income. When you do get your hands on extra income, it’s usually not enough to earn significant interest or dividends. We’re talking a few dollars a year at most.

    This is why the poor and advocates for the poor bad-mouth capitalism. Especially when you consider that those interest and dividend payments usually can only happen because the bank paying the interest or the corporation paying the dividends shorted their employee wages. That’s one of the methods by which these institutions financially profit.

    And that’s your Economics 101 lesson for the day. You’re welcome.