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What Scrooge and the Grinch Learned and Santa Forgot



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.




Old Saint Nick

Enter artist Thomas Nast.  After attacking corrupt politicians with his biting cartoons, and practically inventing Uncle Sam, the Republican elephant, and the Democratic donkey -- Nast drew his famous Santa Claus for Harper's Weekly in the mid- 1860s. Originally a benevolent 4th century Turkish cleric, Saint Nicholas was transformed into a chubby pipe-smoking, red-suit wearing, gift-toting American icon, and it didn't take advertisers long to catch on.  Victorian era ads, though larger and more visual, still suggested conservative gift choices for Christmas.  How about a nice pen set, or some chocolates?  By the turn of the century Santa could be seen hawking Victrolas, Kodaks, bicycles and sleds.  By the 1930s a highly commercialized Saint Nick, adapted from Nast's caricature, was swilling Coca-Cola and puffing on Lucky Strike cigarettes.  In America, Santa even gave away lung cancer.

From there, it was a race to the bottom. Giant department stores, color magazines and children's books, popular music, the rise of lucrative corporations, radio and then TV shows, movies with Christmas themes – they all got in on the grift. Santa was ubiquitous. He kept a secret file on every kid on Earth and employed an army of elves. There was no stopping him.

Improved transportation, mass production, cheap foreign labor, mail order catalogs, the isolation of war and the poverty of Depression -- pick your own culprit. The American addiction to stuff and more stuff became our national pastime. By the Baby Boom era of the 1950s, it was all over. Madison Avenue Santa had won. Everything and everyone was for sale. Christmas and now Hanukkah merchandise accounts for as much as 60 to 80 percent of some companies' annual revenue.

The anti-Santas

Since Santa Claus is an artistic invention, it makes sense that he stands opposed to two other Christmas creations -- Scrooge and the Grinch. Charles Dickens and Dr. Seuss knew exactly where to strike at the Anglo-American psyche. These hard-hearted figures are cartoon reminders of our Puritan past. They represent us at our worst -- greedy and self centered. Both Scrooge and the Grinch eventually discover the Christmas Spirit. Both become obsessive givers, overtopped only by the arrival of Oprah Winfrey. Both are characters in books that have sold millions of copies, not to mention movie rights and soundtrack albums.

But on closer analysis, what Scrooge and the Grinch really discover is their humanity. They find that they are accepted and loved by their neighbors despite their miserly nature. They are not required to change, but they change all the same. And when they too become consumers – all’s right with the world.

Maybe we’ve missed the point that Dickens and Dr. Seuss intended. Maybe it the answer is not to bring toys to all the boys and girls of Whoville or to bring Tiny Tim the fattest goose in town. Maybe we are not supposed to embrace our innter-Santa, but cast him out. What if the message is not about filling stockings with care, but instead about the feast itself? What if the best gifts are those given to people we’ve never met, like an unknown baby lying in a stable in a bed of straw?

What the Grinch and Scrooge discover is the real meaning of charity, and not in the modern sense of the rich giving to the poor. Charity has more to do with equality than sympathy. It is an Old French language word that derives from Latin. Charity was not about giving stuff, or even money, but about having “a kindly and lenient attitude toward all people.” It’s pretty much the opposite of what we see in American politics these days. We give to those in need, in the ancient sense of the word, because at some point we are all needy. We give because we are human. Charity in its purest form, historically speaking, is not something given from advantaged to disadvantaged people or from me to you. Charity is us giving to us – without judgment or conditions – because we are all in this together.

Perhaps John Harvey was right. Could it all be so simple? We could all just head to our local bookstore – miraculously there are still a few left – and rediscover reading. Books make the perfect Yuletide gift, according to Mr. Harvey, so it must be true. It says so right there in his full-page newspaper ad.


Copyright © 2011 by J. Dennis Robinson, all rights reserved. Robinson’s history column appears in the Portsmouth Herald every other Monday and exclusively online at his independent Web site His 10th history book, America’s Privateer: Lynx and the War of 1812, is now available at select local shops and online as a “collectible” item in the author’s bookstore.

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