Michigan State University


The few selections that we have under the heading of holidays deal with Christmas and Thanksgiving though many other books in the collection touch on holidays. In a sense, they reflect similar transitions that were associated with the Temperance movement, both an accommodation of popular culture and an attempt to put an evangelical stamp on the secular aspects of American life. Before 1800, the celebration of Christmas was a wild rabble ridden affair. By the Civil War, the lineaments of the modern Christmas celebration centered on family and gift giving were clear. Thanksgiving, a civic celebration of Puritan struggle was largely an invention of the nineteenth century.

With its origins in a Puritan harvest festival, a National day of Thanksgiving had been declared by Congress as early as 1777, but this was in commemoration of the Battle of Saratoga not Plymouth Rock. By the 1840s when the Puritan holy day had largely given way to the Yankee holiday, Thanksgiving was usually depicted in a family setting with dinner as the central event. The press popularized the holiday in its new guise as a secular autumn celebration featuring feasting, family reunions and charity to the poor.

Thanksgiving became an important symbol of the new emphasis on home life and the necessity of enforcing family virtues. Sarah Josepha Hale, editor of the influential Godey's Ladies Book, lobbied for a national holiday which was established by Abraham Lincoln in 1863. Hale's notion of the holiday would combine the domestic with the religious and moral qualities in a way that we see through out this collection.

The Puritans proscribed the celebration of Christmas because the holiday had turned into "a pretense for," as one observer said, "drunkenness, rioting, and wantonness." "Kind of a December Mardi Gras," as Stephen Nissenbaum puts it. According to Nissenbaum, In the early part of the nineteenth century, in some cities, the English tradition of wassailing became a source cultural and class antagonism. In New York City and Philadelphia, bands of young men would march into houses of the wealthy, who were expected to proffer gifts of food and drink, sometimes in exchange for a song or an expression of goodwill. Often exchanges included "an explicit threat."

By the early 1820s, Christmas celebrations had turned increasingly boisterous and sometimes violent. In 1828, according to Nissenbaum, New York City organized its first professional police force in response to a violent Christmas riot. A concerned group of New York patricians that included Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, reputed author of "A Visit From St. Nicholas," began a campaign to bring Christmas off the streets into the domestic sphere. By 1859, the general attitude towards Christmas had changed sufficiently for the Sunday School Union to accept the holiday to such a degree that it published hymns and accounts of celebrations and these are in evidence in this sampling.

— Stephen Rachman, Department of English, Michigan State University

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