Nissenbaum’s main points in the last three chapters of his book focused on how the celebrations of Christmas changed in the 19th Century due to a combination of external pressures and internal reforms. Among the changes that Nissenbaum chronicled were: a) A change in the “Battle for Christmas” from a class struggle, to more of a generational struggle; b) The rise of the middle class / working class; c) The increasing focus on children, and; d) The change in gift-giving. Lastly, Nissenbaum wrote about Christmas in the Antebellum South, which served as a microcosm and a comparison for his earlier assertions about how Christmas celebrations used to be observed, and how they changed, in areas such as New York and Philadelphia.
What do the changes in how Christmas is celebrated tell us about what changed in 1800’s America?
The main changes that occurred in how Christmas is celebrated that were also seen in America’s social history during the 19th Century include: a) The changing roles / authority within a typical household; b) The growing focus on children; c) The growing influence of a status-conscious middle class, and; d) The growing influence of industry.
During the 19th Century, the typical American household (working / middle class)
changed in terms of paternal and maternal roles.
Over time, the father became the “external” agent of the household, and the mother became the “internal” agent. By that, I mean that the father was most-often the primary wage-earner, and focused much of his attention to such areas as politics (and in many instances, taverns). The mother became the “moral center” of the household, focusing much (if not most) of her attention on the children, and in other areas such as religion and charitable work. As a general trend during the 19th Century, women worked much harder at home, not only during the Christmas season, but every day in a domestic sense. And, to add to the overall stress level, many women also worked part-or-full time as well. One of the reasons why the Temperance Movement gathered steam in the 19th Century is that activists tapped into a vein that resonated with many “internal” agents: “Get my man out of the tavern so I have some help at home!”
During the 19th Century, in general, households focused more-and-more attention on children. While the concept of childhood had already been “conceived”, America during this period started not only to acknowledge the existence of childhood, but to center domestic life around them, not only during Christmas, but for the rest of the year. During the 19th Century, fewer-and-fewer Americans were embracing the Puritan model of “breaking a child’s will” during their development. The strategy that was becoming more common was a Universalist approach to “train” children to be, among other things, less selfish. The “Catch-22” in this approach was acknowledged by some of its proponents: by “training” children in this way, more attention was being given, and children may in fact become more selfish as a result. The evolution of how the Christmas tree was used in many households during the 19th Century was, in part, to encourage children to be more unselfish without using the heavy-hand of physical punishment.
In the 19th Century, an American middle class became one of the “anchors” in society. As an example for the influence of the middle class on Christmas, “misrule” became less frequent due to a growing and more influential middle class. If a household has more property and wealth than previous generations, then “misrule” represents more of a potential threat to what is possessed. If an increasing number of Americans have more property and status to protect than ever before in our history to that point, then fewer Americans will value “misrule” during the Christmas season, or “shenanigans” (one of my most favorite words) outside of the season. Nissenbaum discussed an interesting link between children and social status for adults that occurred during the 19th Century. If I have his argument straight, he stated that children were not responding to their gifts in a manner that their parents had wanted and expected during Christmas, so “public charity” became more common.
In addition to such things as clothing and manners, this type of charity allowed many middle-and-upper class Americans to increase or validate their status by experiencing the recipients of their charity “gushing” over their efforts on a public stage. I would think that towards the end of the 19th Century, when the Gilded Age was in full force, that this type of status-enhancing charity became not only more common during the Christmas season, but more over-the-top as well.
The last change I will discuss is the growing influence of industry in American society during the 19th Century. At the beginning of the century, it was still true that December was mostly down-time for most Americans, and extended Christmas celebrations were the result, whether-or-not Christmas was declared a legal holiday. As industry become more influential in American society, there were more Americans than ever before working just as hard in December as they were in the other months of the year. One of the realities of an increasingly industrial America during the 19th Century was that, state-by-state, Christmas was declared a legal holiday to politically satisfy, or even mollify, the large segments of American society that needed a physical and mental break from the factory.