Oh tannenbaum: A tradition unlike any other

Nissenbaum shows that Unitarians, a century before anyone had ever heard of shopping malls or Saturday morning television ads, were troubled by American materialism. They were also among the most enthusiastic fans of the child-rearing philosophy of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi, a sort of Swiss Dr. Spock, who had gained a worldwide following. In the 1820s, Pestalozzi was assailing what he saw as the traditional Christian moral teaching that “willfulness” was a danger to children’s souls. Since a child’s will could only impede the working of divine grace, the old theory held, the best thing a parent could do was break it. Pestalozzi thought this was wrong. The will needed not to be broken, but to be trained. In fact, uncorrupted children probably had more reliable wills than adults, and could serve as role models; adults might do well to imitate their innocent joy. Pestalozzi’s disciples saw modern Christmases as a way to use various emotional triggers to fill the house with the joy of childhood. Surprise was important (as joy’s occasion and inducement). So was the mystery of the gift-giver Santa Claus (to keep children from trying to manipulate the real gift-givers, the parents, thereby tainting the innocence of that joy). So were Christmas trees (as joy’s magical backdrop).

The typical American Christmas, then, was the invention of secularizing cultural elites. But the yeoman culture of the country was too strong to let it remain exclusive. The snob appeal of Christmas was undermined by the pious people who cared most fervently about it. “Much of the emphasis on profound worship that now shows itself in the American Christmas owes its vigor not to the mainstream English stock but to later immigrants,” wrote University of Pennsylvania professor Tristram P. Coffin in his Book of Christmas Folklore in 1973. “With their pyramids of candles, their crèches, poinsettias, and tannenbaums, they have brought back into the commemoration a wonder that had almost disappeared.” Today’s Christmas is the result. It has elements of both a high-class holiday (from the Nutcracker Suite to the Dickensian craft fair) and a low-class holiday (from “Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer” to the Black Friday “Door-Buster” sales at shopping malls).