Merry conflictual Christmas

Despite all that sometimes-forced mirth, the history of America's holiday season has been a battle for centuries.
Despite all that sometimes-forced mirth, the history of America's holiday season has been a battle for centuries.

“BackStory,” one of my favorite NPR programs, often features the History Guys making some of the best conversation on radio today. Each is a specialist in a particular era of American history, and in a lively back-and-forth they explain to each other the customs and concepts that prevailed in the century each knows best, about matters such as courtship, death and mourning, or the concept of “objective” reporting.

In “Naughty & Nice: A History of the Holiday Season,” broadcast on KUOW Christmas Day, the History Guys start out by wondering how today’s so-called War on Christmas fits into the historical flow of changes in America’s holiday season. Has conflict always played a part in our holiday celebrations over the centuries?

Yes, a starring role, in fact. In the 18th-century winter solstice season the drunken poor went around banging on rich people’s doors, threatening dire consequences unless they were given refreshments and sometimes money. It was a ritualized kind of social inversion in which people who got bossed around most of the year got to be the bosses for awhile. The soot-soiled Santa arriving on your lawn is a version of these ragtag rapscallions, tamed into the more charming role of giving instead of demanding gifts. And the Christmas tradition of ritually excessive indulgence in alcohol was eventually assigned a not-entirely-roped-off space called New Year’s Eve.

So how did America’s very public holiday ruckus evolve into a celebration of peaceful comfort around the family hearth? When did children, once treated like servants, become the objects of lavish gift-giving? What’s the true story behind the Hanukkah candles? How did anti-Semitism influence the way the American Hanukkah was defined? Why did we start wrapping presents? Listen to "Naughty & Nice: A History of the Holiday Season" online, and catch up on other superb conversations of the History Guys in BackStory’s archive.


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