The War in Christmas: Santa Claus and Middle-Class Americans

"Santa Claus in Camp," Harper's, 3 January 1863; courtesy of Library of Congress

“Santa Claus in Camp,” Harper’s, 3 January 1863; courtesy of Library of Congress

Sometime in the 2000s, as far as I remember, the “War on Christmas” became an annual tradition. Starting around Halloween each year, the research department at Fox News apparently starts googling “happy holidays” and “winter break,” while writers at the Huffington Post and the Daily Show respond by checking back through their bookmarks for snarkable references to the Puritans and Advent. Meanwhile, people in some parts of the country start wishing each other an especially vehement “Merry Christmas” in the checkout lines at department stores, with visible triumph, as if they’re in a bar in Casablanca singing the Marseillaise together in 1941.

The height of absurdity, maybe, is that the American Family Association keeps a color-coded list of “top retailers and how they recognize Christmas.” It includes a red list of “companies AGAINST Christmas,” two of which are officially under AFA boycott. Their crime, apparently, is not using the name of Jesus often enough when selling khaki trousers.

I wouldn’t be the first person to conclude that there’s something fishy going on when a conservative Christian group censures a secular company for failing to adequately co-opt a religious holiday. It seems particularly strange in light of some earlier protests, which attempted to reclaim the holiday as a religious event; the same sorts of people who wanted to “put Christ back in Christmas” now seem more worried about putting Christmas back in the Banana Republic. And I’m certainly not the first person to notice that most observances of Christmas in America are essentially secular anyway. It might be fair to say that “Christmas” is a name shared by two radically different holidays that happen to coincide on the calendar.

On the other hand, the truth is that the modern American Christmas — a day of family-oriented gift-giving — isn’t an originally religious or domestic holiday that was exploited and tarnished (or liberated) by secular forces of commercialism. Santa Claus isn’t just an inoffensive later substitute for a controversial religious figure. On the contrary, Christmas as Americans understand it exists in the first place because of anxieties about religious belief, political culture, and economic values — in other words, because of culture wars much like the ones we see today. The gift-oriented holiday, and Santa Claus himself, embodied these tensions from the start.


The quintessential American saint was anointed by Washington Irving in 1809. Strictly speaking, St. Nicholas is a Greek (or Turkish) saint from way back. In Western churches, his feast day is December 6. But it was Washington Irving who, for slightly complicated reasons, made him into an icon of New York City when he published Knickerbocker’s History of New-York in the first decade of the nineteenth century.

Irving’s comic “history” of New York was, among other things, a generally good-natured satire on the New-York Historical Society, which had been founded in 1804. According to a classic article by Charles W. Jones, the N-YHS had adopted St. Nicholas as a patriotic answer to foreign patron saints (George for England, Andrew for Scotland, Patrick for Ireland, David for Wales). Irving, never missing an opportunity to lampoon American pretensions to distinction, took the conceit a bit further. As Irving had it, the original Dutch settlers of New Amsterdam had crossed the Atlantic in a ship called the Goede Vrouw, which took St. Nicholas as her protector and literal figurehead. The settlers had first established their colony at Communipaw, New Jersey, but then St. Nicholas had come to one of them in a vision to direct them to settle on the tip of Manhattan Island instead.

Here’s how Irving described his apparition:

[L]o! the good St. Nicholas came riding over the tops of the trees, in that self-same wagon wherein he brings his yearly presents to children. … And he lit his pipe by the fire, and sat himself down and smoked; and as he smoked the smoke from his pipe ascended into the air, and spread like a cloud overhead. … [T]he great volume of smoke assumed a variety of marvelous forms, … [and] shadowed out palaces and domes and lofty spires, all of which lasted but a moment, and then faded away, until the whole rolled off, and nothing but the green woods were left. And when St. Nicholas had smoked his pipe he twisted it in his hatband, and laying his finger beside his nose, gave the astonished Van Kortlandt a very significant look, then mounting his wagon, he returned over the treetops and disappeared.

You could say that in this story, the great metropolis of New York City itself was a gift from Santa Claus. Already some key Claus attributes were present in an early form: the flying wagon laden with presents, the clay pipe, the finger, and the wink. And also the city bustling with commerce.

As Stephen Nissenbaum explains in The Battle for Christmas, between 1809 and 1822 this Manhattanized St. Nicholas became a useful symbol for elite New Yorkers (who, truth be told, were typically Episcopalians of Anglo-Saxon, not Dutch, ancestry). Irving had parodied them in Knickerbocker’s History, but as Elizabeth Bradley writes, it didn’t take long for them to embrace his book as an anthem for their city and class.

For them, according to Nissenbaum, Irving’s St. Nicholas came to represent old-fashioned, genteel values. The elite found him attractive largely because he was a polite alternative to the rough popular entertainments and carousing that they saw in urban streets during the holiday. Whereas these carnivalesque democratic Christmas celebrations threatened order and authority, St. Nicholas represented a proper social arrangement. The gifts bestowed to children by St. Nicholas on December 5 or 6 (not yet on Christmas Day) metaphorically took the place of the patronage ties that had once bound together gentlemen and their tenants. In a city obsessed with commerce and gain, St. Nicholas was supposed to represent an economy based on other values. Generosity flowed down from the rich (or parents); deference and loyalty rose up from the poor (or children).

Irving himself made the association with gentry values explicit in several stories he published at New Year’s in 1820. In The Sketch-Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Irving, who was now living abroad, depicted Christmas celebrations the way “an old English country gentleman” supposedly might still observe them. Already in these stories, a merry Christmas was depicted as something old-fashioned, something out of place in a world where people earned money by working by the hour in cities. (Even the word “merry,” you’ll notice, is deliberately anachronistic and Olde-Englande-flavored.) There was not a great distance between Irving’s paternalistic rural English Christmas of 1819 and the Christmas put on by Charles Dickens’s old-fashioned avuncular employer Fezziwig in A Christmas Carol in 1843; they were both — already in the early nineteenth century — suggesting that the soul of Christmas was premodern and somehow alien to profit and competition.

Robert Walter Weir, 1838 painting held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Robert Walter Weir, 1838; painting held by the Smithsonian American Art Museum

Substantially, the Santa Claus myth was fixed in 1823, when Clement Clarke Moore, a conservative and wealthy seminary professor — in this case, “wealthy” means he owned Chelsea — allegedly published “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” Moore (if Moore was the author) included details straight from Irving’s story: swirling pipe smoke, a knowing look, and a finger laid beside the nose. But he also added the details that substantially completed the modern American St. Nick: reindeer, chimney plunge, Christmas Eve, bundle of toys, obesity. The poem hinted that St. Nicholas’s power was a form of elfin magic and not anything to do with Christian sainthood. And most importantly, this St. Nicholas descended directly into the home of a nuclear family, bearing toys from outside, as a jolly parental ally. He was a St. Nicholas ready for the age of the consumer middle class.

There was already a tension in this figure of Santa Claus. On one hand, he represented religious tradition, unease about the pace and values of modern life, and especially a desire for the sanctification of the home. He stood apart from the world of business; his toys arrived by magic, not by manufacturing or by the exchange of money. On the other hand, he was no rural squire or generous master. His gifts were recognizable as consumer goods; they were toys that came fully formed from outside the household, where presumably someone else made and sold them. (Later stories, of course, would supply Arctic factories staffed by elves as a way to defer the often-uncomfortable answer to this question.) These gifts were an intrusion into the self-contained household economy. Or rather, they suggested that the household was no longer self-contained at all. The instruments of parental authority and family loyalty came from the marketplace outside.

In fact, St. Nicholas was a fairly obvious disguise for the consumer market that was reshaping American urban households. (According to Nissenbaum, he was already being used in advertisements in New York in the mid-1820s, and he was commonplace in New York and Philadelphia marketing by the 1840s.) As he became a central figure in American Christmas traditions, St. Nicholas was simultaneously criticizing and driving the market economy’s penetration into American homes. Through him and in spite of him, commerce was shaping Americans’ emotional interpretations of childhood and parenthood, and of play and work.

This tangled, frustrating relationship between the economy and the family persists today in many Americans’ experiences of Christmas. And it persists both because and in spite of St. Nicholas’s place in American Christmases. It’s largely because of Santa Claus that we make gift-giving the central rite of the holiday; Nicholas’s traditional delivery of presents to children in early December has evolved into the multilateral gift exchange of December 25. But it’s also because of the domesticity he represents that we feel so guilty about the annual Christmas rush. St. Nick sends us out into stores to spend money on the products of foreign sweatshops and keep shop clerks on their feet on Christmas Eve, and then he makes us feel guilty for missing the “true” meaning of a time we should spend quietly and moderately with people we love.

Meanwhile, as Leigh Eric Schmidt points out in Consumer Rites, historically there’s no clear distinction between religious and commercial holiday observance in America. Churches have been involved in the buying and selling of Christmas goods, and stores have been trading in religious representations, from the beginning of the modern holiday. Business is just the form that desire and devotion take in a market economy. To take mass consumption out of Christmas, we’d have to stop living life as a mass of consumers.


So perhaps it’s not so strange, after all, that a Christian nonprofit and a corporate media conglomerate would join forces to defend the distinctive religious identity of an annual consumption frenzy. If religious faith is finally about a community’s deepest desires — or “ultimate concern,” as Paul Tillich would have it — then it stands to reason that the most deeply meaningful events in a consumer society would also be the most lucrative.

For better and worse, the rites that constitute Americans as an ostensibly middle-class nation are rites of accumulation and exchange. Our most crowded public spaces are privately owned stores. Our defining narratives, including news stories and religious texts, are copyrighted and sold (either to consumers or to advertisers). Our life stories are organized around entry into, and then retirement from, a career. The first question we ask a stranger is “What do you do?” In a liberal and democratic society organized on a large scale, with few other transferable proxies for personal merit, money is often the most convenient measure of an individual’s character and authority. In the end, that means it’s also the most reliable measure of ourselves.

Santa Claus, the symbol of the gift-oriented consumer holiday, signals that disillusionment about the sources of pleasure and love is a natural part of growing up. At some point, the American child learns that there’s no such thing as a free gift or supernatural source of wealth. Presents are things grownups go out and buy with money, things they exchange with each other, once they can, to signify that they maintain independence within their love. The passage from a premodern (organic, hierarchical, and religious) understanding of wealth to a modern and liberal understanding is thus dramatized in an American rite of passage that each child experiences as a genuine internal shock. While the illusion lasts, however, it gives adults a few years to stage a hierarchical and mystical critique of their own grownup lives.

So when people defend the commercial Christmas, they are also defending the critical Christmas. When they grouse about the spectacular consumption and luxury of the holiday, they are also participating in one of the rituals of a luxury society. And when they take part in the utterly secular and materialistic holiday, they are also participating — in the most meaningful ways now available to most of them — in the ancient religious holiday underlying it.