What Scrooge and the Grinch Learned and Santa Forgot
Written by J. Dennis Robinson
Page 1 of 2
Someone has to be held accountable. Who started this outrageous rush to holiday gift giving? How did we devolve to the point where consumers camp outside mall stores and slug it out in the toy aisle? Let’s blame John Harvey. (Continued below)
Late in December of 1853 this humble downtown bookseller took out a full-page ad in the Portsmouth Chronicle. Harvey listed the titles of the books in his shop and suggested they were ideal for Yuletide giving. That first full-page commercial kicked off the Christmas media advertising blitz that has us shopping harder and feeling guiltier every year.
Harvey is just a local scapegoat, of course, in America's relentless slide toward the total commercialization of Christmas. The stressful holiday we know today is basically a 20th century invention. We’ve done it to ourselves. Early celebrations, history tells us, were less hectic and more festive. From Roman Catholic holidays as early as 300 AD to Shakespeare's England, the emphasis was on consuming vast quantities of food and drink, not gifts. This competitive consumption of toys, tools, jewels, and gizmos is just a few generations old.
Our grinchy founders
English Puritans, we should remember, hated feasts, masses, dancing in general, and Catholics and Church of Englanders in particular. Our Massachusetts forebears banned the holidays. Business would go on as usual, they decreed, and anyone caught shirking or enjoying himself would pay a stiff five shilling fine. Although subject to Mass Bay Colony rule in the later 1600s, New Hampshire law enforcement officials were inclined to wink at the harsh rulings. Defiant Portsmouth citizens feasted all the same on bootleg buttered oranges, mincemeat with lemon, stuffed game pigeons with boiled ox palate, and other colonial delicacies.
Christmas, the Puritans argued, was as pagan as Halloween. The selected December 25th date was, and remains, an arbitrary choice with no historic connection to the birth of Christ. The Bible offers no precedent for a holiday, they argued, other than the gift-giving story of the Three Wise Men. Giving thanks to God was okay. Tithing to the church was okay. Giving parties and gifts to random friends and family, our Puritan ancestors warned, was to play the devil's game.
Apparently the devil won.
The Matieral world
We can watch the materialistic holiday evolve by flipping through more old Portsmouth newspapers. There isn’t a single mention of the coming holiday on the front page in a December 1820 newspaper picked at random from the stacks at the Portsmouth Athenaeum. However, small print ads for "Christmas & New Years Presents" appear toward the back of the four-page weekly. Here again, only books are suggested as gifts. The newspaper offers a religious poem entitled “Hymn to Christmas.” But look closely! There is also a Christmas ad for tickets to a Vermont lottery awarding $25,000, a fortune in a day when a soft-cover book could be purchased for 3 cents.
By the Civil War, Christmas giving was coming out of the box in New Hampshire. Feasting on mince pie, turkey and oysters was the norm, Consuming specialty foods, church-going, visiting relatives, and charitable behavior still dominated holiday activities. Contractors at the Portsmouth Navy Yard, for example, put on a feast for soldiers stationed there. A longstanding tradition of paying attention to the local poor continued. Giving gifts was on the rise, but still under control. Sleighing, according to one 1862 newspaper article, was on the decline, with skating taking over as the hot activity for kids. Several hundred youths went holiday skating on the thin December ice at the mill ponds inPortsmouth that year. One fell through, but was rescued.
The same 1862 newspaper offers this first whiff of raw consumerism. One reporter commented:
"Never before, we think, has the season been so universally 'observed,' especially in the matter of presentations, which is becoming more and more general, year by year."
Presentations? Are we talking Christmas presents here, or was the writer referring to the revival of caroling and pageantry, squelched during the Puritan era? Newspaper readers were reminded to keep the wassail bowl full on Christmas morning for mummers and singers who might wander to their door. By the mid-1800s, magazine illustrations often showed an elderly man in a frosty white beard smiling within the crowd, This guy would change everything.
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