The domestic and gift-giving aspects of the holiday also developed simultaneously and played a large role in the construction of the middle class. A domestic, family focused, and child oriented Christmas was able to reconcile the aspect of consumption that was evolving as a result of the commercialization of the holiday. Christmas legitimized the merge of seemingly paradoxical ideologies: capitalist consumerism and domesticity. The domesticity of the holiday was able to overshadow the consumerist aspect and give the impression that gift giving and other domestic rituals were more important than money and business as they held a deeper significance. The gift, paradoxically, became a necessary method of justification for the middle class.
Gift giving fed into people’s need to tie their consumerist habits to something deeper, with true values beyond the marketplace. Stephen Nissenbaum calls this phenomenon a “domestic ideology” and argues that the Christmas gift was a “veritable celebration of domesticity.” This new ideology placed the family and children at the center of the celebration, ideals that were important to members of a growing urban middle class. The middle class were largely responsible for the growth of commercially bought Christmas gifts and the cultural shift that accompanied the change in tradition. Urbanization and progress meant a complete societal transformation, Christmas was a holiday that assisted a developing middle class in defining their values and traditions. Christmas seemed to stand the test of time, and represented the celebration of traditional ideals within a new, urban society.
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Instead of prohibiting the cultural shift, Christmas aided it. As Restad argues, “Growing cities created societies of strangers and fostered a new middle class bent upon defining an appropriate familial and public life for America. For them, sobriety, gentility, moral living, prosperity, and a well-ordered civic existence became ideals for the entire nation.
” Christmas and gift giving served as a ritual that served both to promote moral values while still allowing and indeed encouraging an indulgence in consumerism. Furthermore the ability to enjoy, celebrate and partake in the domesticity and indulgences at Christmas time additionally defined one’s social class. As a result of the commercial industry, the middle class were defined as those that were able to consume, indulge and participate in constructed Christmas traditions. Those who were unable to participate in such rituals were cast aside, forced to find their own methods of celebration. Alongside the indulgence in luxury items and domesticity that became associated with Christmas came a growing disparity and conflict between the middle and working classes.Dire poverty and extreme wealth coexisted in the urban cities. Urbanization and the power of industry completely changed American society, and led to extreme inequality.
The working class faced job insecurity and low wages, while the wealthy enjoyed luxury and surplus. The differences between the middle and working classes became increasingly apparent as the holiday unfolded throughout the nineteenth century. The middle class enjoyed the abundance the holiday was becoming associated with. They could afford to splurge and participate in the growth of commercialization.
The working class, on the other hand, experienced Christmas as a time of distress, scarcity and overall hardship. For the working class, Christmas became a time to disrupt public order through violence and public disturbances as a means of protesting the upper classes and the widening gap of societal inequality. Christmas time in particular illuminated stark differences between the middle and working class.
Indeed, Susan Davis articulates, “Desperation often combined with customary license to turn suburban lanes and central streets into scenes of beggary, drunkenness, and riot. From early in the century observers found this face of Christmas both alarming and disgraceful, a threat to public order”. This “street Christmas” developed in opposition to the celebration of the middle and upper classes. While the wealthy could afford to splurge on gifts, the poor were out of work, freezing on the streets, begging for money, and creating riots. A New York Times article from 1851 further exemplifies the differences between the classes, it states, “in view of the impending great distress among the poor this Winter.
..those who contemplate making rich and handsome presents during the coming holidays.. may serve to make them hesitate and consider whether they cannot dor more good to those poor creatures who are now, and will be more, in want of bread to keep them from actually starving.
” The article demonstrates different ways in which the upper and lower classes experienced Christmas which ties into a greater context of growing disparity in America. Toward the middle and end of 19th century, there was a desire to recapture the religious element and bring Christmas back to the traditional values of giving. Charity emerged out of the spirit of gift-giving as a way of “giving” to the poor to neutralize class difference if only for the holiday. An emphasis on charity was a result of an increasing number of poor people throughout the 1830s and 1840s, and a realization that Christmas was drifting from its original meaning. The growing disparity between rich and poor brought a desire to bring the holiday back to its roots.
There was a desire to bring elements of giving to the needy as an exercise of selflessness, much akin to the selflessness associated with gift-giving. There was a realization that Christmas was become completely commercialized, and creating a large disparity between the rich and poor. Major cities were the most greatly affected by the juxtaposition of great wealth and dire poverty, and also made efforts to encourage people to donate to the poor during the holiday season. A New York Times article from 1893 titled “Christmas a Day of Charity,” demonstrates an emphasis on the role of giving to the needy as it articulates the lack of food, shelter, and overall state of misery that poverty entails, arguing that no one should have to spend Christmas in such a state. It boasts of the benevolence and charity that was demonstrated in New York City at Christmas–”With food to eat and garments to wear, and with a warm and cheerful sun shining overhead Christmas lost much of its contrasting and dispiriting misery for the poverty-stricken of the great metropolis.” The emphasis on charity and benevolence that was demonstrated in New York City was a way of “giving nobly” to the less fortunate. Ironically, the holiday that contributed to such conflict between the classes was trying to now be the savior of the and act as an equalizer.
The sentiment behind charity was that the poor should be able to enjoy their holidays as well, even if they are impoverished, Christmas time should be an exception. The evolution of Christmas was largely in response to social, cultural, and economic factors that played a role in the construction of familiar traditions. The construction of Christmas as a national holiday was a result of the changes that engulfed and transformed America. Christmas largely contributed to the definition and legitimization of a new system which allowed for both the growth of a burgeoning middle class, and a rapid increase of poverty.
The history of Christmas is multifaceted, and must be examined within the context of urbanization and commercialization that were catalysts for such dramatic societal changes which allowed for the values of Christmas to become celebrated as they are today.