Once upon a time the holiday season was a quiet time spent with family and friends — simpler, less commercial, more spiritual, nothing like today’s frenzied orgy of soulless consumption.
“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,” one observer noted recently.
Well, not so recently.
Harriet Beecher Stowe wrote those words in 1850. By then, the holiday was already well on its way to becoming the retail orgy it is today.
“Every generation for the last 250 years tends to think it was only in the last generation that it got commercialized,” said Stephen Nissenbaum, an emeritus professor of history at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst.
In his book “The Battle for Christmas,” Nissenbaum puts that myth to rest by tracing the history of the holiday from colonial New England to the turn of the 20th century.
Nissenbaum shows that powerful social interests have always advanced their agendas through Christmas, and describes how the holiday we celebrate today had its origins in the New York City of the 1820s. Christmas, it seems, has always been a holiday of excess.
For most of its history Christmas was a free-for-all, more New Year’s Eve or Mardi Gras than the domestic idyll described in Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem, “A Visit from Saint Nicholas” (better known today as “The Night Before Christmas”). The holiday has its origins in the Roman festival of Saturnalia, a weeklong winter solstice celebration that featured feasting, drinking, gambling and sex. Men dressed like women, women dressed like men, and masters waited on their slaves in a raucous reversal of the social hierarchy.
Such behavior was almost inevitable during the weeks surrounding the winter solstice in the preindustrial societies of northern Europe, thanks to what Nissenbaum refers to as a “combustible mix” of leisure time, abundance and alcohol.
The work of the harvest done, young men had plenty of time on their hands, much of it in the form of long, dark nights tailor-made for mischief.
In a world without refrigeration, the arrival of cold weather made fresh meat available for the first time in months. But most importantly, December meant beer. By mid-month, whatever grain surplus their hard summer’s labor had produced would have been fully fermented and ready to drink.
In the northern Europe of the late middle ages, gangs of young men would engage in “wassailing,” a cross between Christmas caroling and home invasion. The gangs would visit wealthy homes, often in disguise, and sing songs that threatened violence if they were not invited in for food and drink.
In agrarian societies, practices like wassailing served as a critical safety valve, giving people at the bottom of the social ladder a release that would keep them in line during the rest of the year.
But with the arrival of the Industrial Revolution, factory owners didn’t want their employees wandering off for weeks of drunken merriment. During the 1820s, after a series of particularly raucous holiday seasons in New York, the city’s elite began campaigning for a more restrained, domestic Christmas. Central to that campaign was the tradition of purchasing gifts, especially for children.
Christmas and America’s consumer culture have fed off one another ever since, said Russell Belk, a professor of business at the University of Utah. His research has shown that the more materialistic people are about Christmas, the less satisfaction they derive from the holiday.
There’s no doubt Americans are materialistic about Christmas. Almost half of all Americans crammed stores on the day after Thanksgiving this year, the traditional beginning of the holiday shopping season. By the time the Christmas shopping season is over, the country will have spent in the neighborhood of $150 billion, most of it on gifts. That’s an average of $500 for every man, woman and child.
The retail industry so relies on holiday spending that business news outlets report the progress of the annual shopping spree almost on a daily basis, beginning with that fateful Friday after Thanksgiving.
“It’s as if we’re cheering for people to spend more money, and the more we cumulatively spend the better it is,” Belk said.
There are still some opportunities for carnality during the holiday season, such as New Year’s Eve and the office Christmas party. But by and large we’ve substituted unrestrained spending for uninhibited behavior, a swollen credit-card balance for a throbbing head.
In surveys well over 90 percent of Americans say they celebrate Christmas. A study performed in the 1990s concluded that the average person buys 36 gifts for 14 recipients, though the number is likely to have increased since then.
“There’s a socio-cultural expectation that we ought to get caught up in it,” said Cele Otnes, a professor of business administration at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign.
And the commitment is not a slight one. Christmas trees and other decorations have to be put up. Baking needs to be done. Children need to be driven through heavy traffic to rehearsals for holiday pageants. Presents have to be purchased, wrapped and occasionally mailed. Relatives must be visited — about one in five people travel during the holiday season. And then when it’s over, there are the gift returns.
And all of this transpires in a society where the vast majority of parents work. The burden ends up falling most heavily of women, who tend to do more of the gift buying, tree trimming and cookie baking.
“For all the joy it promises it really puts intense pressure on people,” Nissenbaum said.
Perhaps that’s the biggest difference between Christmas present and Christmas past. A holiday that began in ancient times as a debauched escape from everyday chores has become exactly the opposite — a frenzied season full of expectations, obligations and stress.