Saturday, December 25, 2004

Class Struggle at Christmas

Leonard Peikoff of the Ayn Rand Institute merrily declares: "It is time to take the Christ out of Christmas, and turn the holiday into a guiltlessly egoistic, pro-reason, this-worldly, commercial celebration" ("Why Christmas Should Be More Commercial," December 24, 2003). Why? Because "Christmas as we celebrate it today is a 19th-century American invention," says Peikoff (December 24, 2003).

True, Christmas as a time of gift-giving among family and friends is indeed a 19th-century invention, but Peikoff gives us ideology rather than history when he says: "The freedom and prosperity of post Civil War America created the happiest nation in history. The result was the desire to celebrate, to revel in the goods and pleasures of life on earth. Christmas (which was not a federal holiday until 1870) became the leading American outlet for this feeling" (December 24, 2003).

What motivated bourgeois families to invent a new domestic ritual of Christmas was class struggle:
In the real world of New York, misrule came to a head at Christmastime. . . . [T]his season had traditionally been a time of carnival behavior, especially among those whom the knickerbockers considered "plebeians." Bands of roving youths, lubricated by alcohol, went about town making merry, making noise, and sometimes making trouble. Ritual usage sanctioned their practice of stopping at the houses of the well-to-do and demanding gifts of food and especially drink -- a form of trick-or-treat commonly known as "wassailing." After 1800, this Christmas misrule took on a nastier tone, as young and alienated working-class New Yorkers began to use wassailing as a form of rambling riot, sometimes invading people's homes and vandalizing their property. One particularly serious episode took place during the 1827 Christmas season; one newspaper reported it to have been the work of a mob that was not only "stimulated by drink" but also "enkindled by resentment." The newspaper warned its readers not "to wink at such excesses, merely because they occur at a season of festivity. A license of this description will soon turn festivals of joy, into regular periods of fear to the inhabitants, and will end in scenes of riot, intemperance, and bloodshed." . . .

Washington Irving and John Pintard were both nostalgic for the days when wassailing had been a more innocent practice, and both were concerned about the way Christmas had lately become a season of menace. Each, in his own way, engaged in an effort to reclaim the season. Irving wrote stories of idyllic English holiday celebrations (he did much of his research at the New-York Historical Society), and Pintard went about devising new seasonal rituals that were restricted to family and friends. His introduction of St. Nicholas at the Historical Society after 1804 was part of that effort.

And "The Night before Christmas," published in 1823, became its apotheosis. What these enduring verses accomplished was to address all the problems of elite New Yorkers at Christmastime. Using the raw material already devised out of Dutch tradition by John Pintard and Washington Irving, the poem transformed stern and dignified St. Nicholas into a jolly old elf, Santa Claus, a magical figure who brought only gifts, no punishments or threats. Just as important, the poem provided a simple and effective ceremony that enabled its readers to restrict the holiday to their own family, and to place at its heart the presentation of gifts to their children -- in a profoundly gratifying, ritual alternative to the rowdy street scene that was taking place outside. "The Night before Christmas" moved the Christmas gift exchange off the streets and into the house -- a secure domestic space in which there really was "nothing to dread." And don't forget that in real life, prosperous people did have something to dread -- after all, those wassailing plebeians might not be satisfied to remain outside.

"The Night before Christmas" contains a sly allusion to that possibility: for Santa Claus himself is a personage who breaks into people's houses in the middle of the night at Christmastime. But of course this particular housebreaker comes not to take but to give -- to wish goodwill without having received anything in return. "The Night before Christmas" raises the ever present threat -- the "dread" -- but only in order to defuse it, to offer jolly assurance that the well-being of the household will not be disturbed but only enhanced by this nocturnal holiday visitor. (Stephen Nissenbaum, "There Arose Such a Clatter: Who Really Wrote 'The Night before Christmas'? [And Why Does It Matter?]," Common-place: The Interactive Journal of Early American Life 1.2, January 2001)
Ironically, the first professional police in New York City was established in 1828 in response to a violent Christmas riot.

1 comment:

Clara Listensprechen said...

There's not a "class war" that doesn't happen without the people who fancy themselves to be the upper crust starting one for the purpose of flaunting their wealth, to showcase what they've got that you don't. In this country were "all men are created equal", not only do they indulge in this practice but they blame it on "the working class" for starting it. Add to that neocon mix the "war on Christmas"--a war they started and now blame on "liberals"--they get to not only play martyr about class, but martyr about religion as well.

Nothing gives a neocon a bigger orgasm than to play martyr for a "cause" no matter how fictional.