November 28th, 2011

xmas cats

Very perceptive

I have been re-reading one of my favorite books, The Battle for Christmas, by Stephen Nissenbaum (1996). Nissenbaum examines the development of the modern American Christmas -- what we call, "an old-fashioned Christmas." Actually, the truly old-fashioned Christmas was a rowdy affair that American colonists (and then, citizens) were tired of, and tried to suppress. The domestic holiday of commercial gift giving centered on children was invented out of whole cloth in the early nineteenth Century, gathering steam rapidly after about 1820.

Here is a fascinating bit of detail from Nissenbaum's work, in the chapter on buying gifts (note that books and Bibles were among the first products to be advertised specifically as gifts).
Near the beginning of Susan Warner's runaway best-seller of 1851, The Wide, Wide World, the young heroine, Ellen Montgomery, is taken by her mother to visit a book shop. As mother and daughter enter the shop, Ellen senses "a delicious smell of new books" (staring with "[c]hildren's books, lying in tempting confusion near the door" -- that is, placed right at the entrance). And when Ellen heads for the Bibles, her "wits were ready to forsake her" . . .

Ellen is bewildered. She has "lost the power of judging amidst so many tempting objects. . . ." Finally, . . . Ellen picks "the red one."

This was the best-selling novel of its day. Susan Warner's point is clear, and her scores of thousands of avid readers must have responded to it: There was simply too much stuff. The very choices buyers faced made them feel helpless. Middle-class America was consumer heaven, but consumer heaven was also consumer hell. The Bible itself -- the Book of Books, the one book that offered a certain guide through the labyrinth of human existence -- had become a part of the labyrinth, another overwhelming commodity.

Nissenbaum's book is not only perceptive about the social event we call Christmas, but about religion itself. Christmas and consumerism are Siamese twins in our society, and the Bible (not to mention, religion itself) has become just another commodity.