Friday, December 30, 2011

I Do Love a Good Academic Study

One of the scenes in my book takes place at a Christmas party, and I always felt a little unsure that I had portrayed the scene in historically correct fashion. I knew from a basic Google search that Christmas as we know it didn't really start to take shape until the 1820s, which is the time frame for my story. However, those changes started in the big northeastern cities, so I'm sure it would have taken awhile for them to filter down to the South (specifically Nashville). So...what was Christmas like in the South in 1823?

To help me in my research, I found a book called The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum. I found what I needed for my story relatively quickly (and I'm not going to go into what that was in this post - you'll just have to wait and read the book someday, ha ha), but I became fascinated by the book and decided to read the whole thing.

What I find intriguing about this book is that it shows how an institution we take so much for granted -- Christmas -- was once completely different, and in fact, was created to be the way it is now, for specific purposes to benefit the higher classes in society. Nissenbaum makes a pretty convincing argument for his thesis, that Christmas was overhauled to go from the "season of misrule" to being a home-centered, child-centered, commercial holiday to reduce the threat of harm to property and the annoyance of the ways the lower classes celebrated the season. Most of what we think of as time-honored Christmas traditions apparently came about as part of this campaign.

I love to think about how different our world was only 200 years ago. At the turn of the 19th century, people were apparently quite rowdy! Celebrations of Christmas had for centuries been more like our Halloween, in which groups of people (usually young men, apparently, and specifically, servants or working class people) came to the homes of the landowners and demanded (through wassail songs) food and drink, with a veiled threat if none was forthcoming. ("Now bring us a figgy pudding," anyone?) Nissenbaum recounts some examples of how the tradition carried over into the "New Country." As the economics of American society changed and people were no longer "attached" to specific landowners, Christmas wassailing evolved into a tradition of bands of young, lower-class men roaming the streets, drinking and making as much noise as possible. Of course, "respectable" middle-class/upper-class people like Clement Clark Moore and John Pintard saw this as a threat, and thus began the move to re-invent Christmas.

I won't detail everything I've learned from Nissenbaum's book, but let me just say every night as I'm reading I have an "ah-ha!" moment. One of the most entertaining has to do with the reason my husband and I (both of us teachers) are getting a Christmas break. Apparently, young scholars (male, of course, since girls didn't go to school) had a practice of "barring out" the schoolmaster during the Christmas season - yes, they literally nailed themselves into the schoolroom and kept the schoolmaster out so they could have a period of several days in which they partied in the schoolhouse. Nissenbaum doesn't say that's why we have Christmas vacations from school, but it doesn't take a huge leap of speculation to say someone, somewhere, decided "Why fight it? Let's just suspend school for a couple of weeks during the Christmas season." 

I love that kind of stuff!


Mary Obrink Schaffer said...

Very interesting. I've been trying to piece together my thoughts about Christmas this year, but they swarm on the page. This challenges me to prepare for next Christmas.

lil red hen said...

Very interesting; I had seen something about this on the History Channel.