Revisiting “Revisiting ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas’”

The following is work I recently completed for my American Cultural History course.  It is a criticism of historiographical reductionism based in conceptions of collective action rather than Austrian methodological individualism…Enjoy!

The “Market Revolution” is an historiographical concept often used to explain practically every change in American life during the Jacksonian period (1815-1845).  Historian Christopher Clark defines the Market Revolution as follows:  “the creation of a national market [leading] to the coordination over long distances of the production, distribution, and consumption of goods of all kinds, so that families and individuals throughout the [country] were drawn into the various facets of this market.” He continues, “market developments promoted significant concentrations of many forms of economic activity.”#  The creation of such national markets, the promoters of the concept contend, led to the widespread dissemination of ideas as well as goods and a general homogenization and bourgeoisie-ifying of America.  One of the champions of the Market Revolution, Stephen Nissenbaum, has even tried to extend the Market Revolution’s reach to the conception and celebration of a uniquely American Christmas.  In his article “Revisiting ‘A Visit From St. Nicholas,’” and his book The Battle for Christmas, Nissenbaum argues that the large, impersonal, and unstoppable force of the Market Revolution, rather than choice-making cultural consumers, fundamentally changed the way Americans both understood and celebrated the most important holiday of the year.  This essay will examine Nissenbaum’s argument as well as similar arguments put forth by other Market Revolutionists and critically assess the theoretical basis for such an understanding of the cultural shift in American Christmases.
Nissenbaum begins his exposition by examining the nature of the American Christmas prior to 1822, which witnessed the critical date for Nissenbaum’s narrative, the publishing of the poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  The pre-“A Visit from St. Nicholas” Christmas was characterized by inverting social strata.  Nissenbaum notes that the exercise of “misrule” was rampant and the lower classes used the holiday season as an excuse to engage in lurid and sinful behaviors each of which could be assigned its own Deadly Sin.  The Christmas season hearkened back to the European tradition of Carnival and “Callithumpian parades.”  In a Callithumpian parade, bands of drunken revelers would march along block after block of the city streets shouting, laughing, fighting, and being generally disruptive of the peace.  In the changing world of the Market Revolution, the industrial centers of the Northeast were becoming less conducive to such behavior.  As manufacturing jobs became more prevalent and kept more Americans employed throughout the winter months, there were fewer and fewer people available to constitute a Callithumpian band and, as Nissenbaum states, “their employers insisted on business as usual.”#
The modern American Christmas was invented in the New York Historical Society by such upper- and middle-class reformers as Johnathan Pintard, Washington Irving, and, of course, Clement Clark Moore.  Pintard was especially important in starting the New York Historical Society’s Christmas movement.  Aghast at the separation of the classes during the holiday season, Pintard sought for a way to reinstate the traditional misrule nature of Christmas so long suppressed by Puritan culture into the mainstream while maintaining the respectability of an upper-class industrialist.  He sought “the forgotten spirit of the old Christmas season, when rich folk and poor, old and young, would mingle together in genial harmony in the streets of the city.”  The Historical Society set its publication machine to work, churning out figures such as the friendly, non-religious variation of St. Nicholas created by Washington Irving, and scenes such as the Christmas Eve in Moore’s infamous poem.#  Nissenbaum contends that these select few wealthy antiquarians were able to propound such a powerful view of what Christmas should be in an industrializing, middle-class society, that as the middle class adopted the Moore model of Christmas, the laborers of New York City adopted the very same model.  Through the influential tools of the emerging mass media, this bourgeois version of Christmas spread and took root throughout the country.  The newly-expanded markets and increased transportation allowed for quick transmission of popular customs from one section of the country to another and an increase in published materials spread such fashions.  Thus, Nissenbaum concludes, the demands of the Market Revolution necessitated a change in cultural patterns such as the celebration of Christmas in America and the force of the Market Revolution cemented such changes in place as necessary aspects of bourgeois, industrial society.#
Nissenbaum’s thesis is reinforced by various historians.  Penne Restad states that “the creation of an American Christmas was a response to social and personal needs that arose at a particular point in history, in this case a time of…the unsettling processes of urbanization and industrialization.”  Restad examines the reconstruction of the need for community into a holiday conducive to inter-class interaction.  Also like Nissenbaum, Restad asserts the power of the Market Revolution by stating that “the strongest impetus…came from those areas most profoundly affected by the various social, economic, and technological revolutions of the antebellum era.”#  Leigh Eric Schmidt concurs, stating that Christmas in the Callithumpian/misrule tradition was “increasingly viewed as [a] terrible impediment to work discipline and economic growth, [a] clear [occasion] for idleness, dissipation, and immorality.”  This, Schmidt states, provided the motivation for the reformist actions of the New York Historical Society.#
Nissenbaum’s work is rooted in only a few primary sources such as the personal journals of Pintard and Moore and, as such, other materials only somewhat corroborate his descriptions of Christmas celebrations in early America.  Eighteenth-century sources indicate the celebration of Christmas to have been a classic festival complete with good food, drink, and generally peaceful mirth.  An author for Lady’s Magazine stated on December 2, 1780, that “At this season of the year it has always been customary for the lower part of the world to express their gratitude to their benefactors,” and that
With the generality, Christmas is looked upon as a festival in the most literal sense, and held sacred by good eating and drinking.  These, indeed, are the most distinguishing marks of Christmas:  the revenue from the malt-tax and the duty upon wines, &c. on account of these twelve days, has always been found to encrease [sic] considerably:  and it is impossible to conceive the slaughter that is made among the poultry and hogs in different parts of the country, to furnish the prodigious numbers of turkies [sic] and chines [sic], and collars of brawn, that travel up, as presents, to the metropolis on this occasion.

The same author, however, confirms a portion of Nissenbaum’s argument when he states that “As to persons of fashion, this annual carnival is worse to them than Lent or the empty town in the middle of summer.  The boisterous merriment, and awkward affectation of politeness among the vulgar, interrupts the course of their refined pleasures, and drives them out of town for the holidays.”#  Further, an author for Hibernian Magazine wrote on January 1, 1777 that “A merry Christmas has ruined many a promising young fellow who has been flush of money at the beginning of the week, but, before the end of it, has committed a robbery on the till for more.”#
While the latter two quotes indicate the upper class discomfort with Christmas presented by Nissenbaum, they offer direct challenges to the assertion that this discomfort was related to the Market Revolution which would not begin until well into the nineteenth-century.  Even sources from the nineteenth-century are lukewarm in their treatment of Christmas.  On Christmas Day, 1800, the Boston Gazette confined its mention of the holiday to a small notice that at the Columbian Museum, “for the first time, a new and correct Likeness of the late illustrious WASHINGTON,” would be displayed and “Music suited to the evening on the Grand Piano,” would be played.#  By 1831, the Workingman’s Advocate had incorporated lines from “A Visit from St. Nicholas” into its own poetry to commemorate the holiday, but there is no necessary indication of Market Revolution-induced cultural change.#
Various historians have criticized Nissenbaum and Restad on several counts.  The most popular charges are the lack of source material and the narrow scope of such studies.  Historian John Brooke states that “Nissenbaum confines himself to a surprisingly narrow range of contexts, and to some measure…[presents] a study of social and cultural transformation in nineteenth-century New York City.”#  Brooke’s criticisms of the scope of Nissenbaum’s project suggest that though Nissenbaum implies that the reemergence of Carnival holiday celebration corresponded with the rise of industrialism and was too powerful for Puritan New England to contain, Nissenbaum’s source material is so limited that “we have to wonder whether the seasonal disorders that so frightened Mr. Moore were a primordial carnival…or class antagonism in disorderly antebellum cities.”#  Perhaps an even more devastating critique is that leveled by historian Alexis McCrossen when challenging Nissenbaum and Restad on methodological grounds.  McCrossen questions the historical reductionism inherent to the Market Revolution synthesis stating that Nissenbaum’s work “fails to recognize the complicit relations between the market, the church, and the home.”#
The main theoretical flaw not directly addressed by the critics cited above is regarding the representation of changing Christmas patterns presented by Nissenbaum, Restad, et. al. and their lack of methodological individualism.  Nissenbaum presents cultural changes as being the result of large, impersonal forces essentially outside the control of common individuals.  Though Nissenbaum believes that without the cultural inventions of Pintard, Irving, and Moore, for example, the modern Christmas would not have taken shape, he presents the Market Revolution as the driving force behind the cultural changes.  This interpretation is problematic because it neglects the necessarily individualistic character of human action.  Because only individuals act, only individuals create and communicate meaning.  Because culture is the sum total of this meaning, culture is something necessarily created and shared by and between individuals.#  This means that to disconnect individual cultural consumers from cultural changes is to entirely neglect the role of cultural consumers in changing cultural patterns, thereby neglecting the implacable logical necessities of human action.#  Thus, while Nissenbaum very well may have satisfactorily explained the market-driven motivations for the creation of the modern Christmas as well as the reasons certain individuals might adopt such a Christmas, his interpretation rests on the fallacy that forces disconnected from individuals can shape culture.
Further, Nissenbaum’s narrative suffers from a confusion that popular, invented culture is, of necessity, the dominant culture.#  There is no reason to believe, and neither Nissenbaum nor Restad demonstrate, that the popular culture created in the New York Historical Society became dominant through any other means than by expanding upon and incorporating preexisting folkways.  Indeed, the primary sources cited above show a distinct continuity between many aspects of the modern Christmas and the pre-“A Visit from St. Nicholas” Christmas.  Restad takes this mistake to the extreme by suggesting that not only was the modern Christmas entirely invented by the upper classes to facilitate their newly-burgeoning market exchanges, but that very same upper class dominated the minds of the lower classes with Christmas imagery entirely disconnected from the actual individuals themselves.  He engages in what some would call rhetorical overstatement in saying that:
[T]he charming notion that Santa and his tiny helpers supplied all the Christmas toys encoded a highly romantic vision of American capitalism.  This Santa reigned without opposition over a vast empire.  In a world of practicality, he prospered as a highly successful manufacturer and distributor of toys.  From his fur coast to his full girth, he resembled the nation’s Gilded Age presidents and its well-fed captains of industry…Labour conditions were idealized as well.  A work force of skilled and reliable elf-labour helped secure Santa’s place in the pantheon of American business…[The elves’] existence made manifest a maxim that hard work and a cheerful attitude benefited all.

Clearly, Restad does not consider the consumers of culture to have any choice or effect in or on the culture they consume.
In conclusion, while the proponents of the Market Revolution may indeed have a strong case for listing market expansion as one of the most important factors (if not the most important factor) in inspiring certain choices in cultural production and transformation, they fail to provide an adequate perspective through which to view the cultural events of early American history.  Stephen Nissenbaum and Penne Restad provide their readers with a great deal of evidence and argument to suggest that the creation of the modern American Christmas grew out of the minds of a few New York antiquarians pressured by the demands of the new market economy.  Their methodological shortcomings, however, are too vast to be overlooked.  They fail to focus their analysis on the individual–the proper target in historical analyses.  They fail to provide an adequate explanation of why individuals would choose to consume such a method of celebrating Christmas.  They fail to recognize the link between American Christmas patterns prior to their focal period and the continuities with the celebration patterns shown in Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nicholas.”  Until the proponents of the Market Revolution engage in purist methodological individualism–the only methodological system able to provide a clear understanding of culture, which is necessarily created by individuals acting through individual will–they will never be able to provide the correct perspective through which historians can analyze the effects of such sweeping changes as those which render the Jacksonian period such a fascinating time in American cultural history.

Boston Gazette.  IX, No. 33.  December 25, 1800.
Brooke, John L.  “The Battle for Christmas by Stephen Nissenbaum.”  The William and     Mary Quarterly 55, no. 1 (January 1998).
Clark, Christopher.  “The consequences of the Market Revolution in the American North”     in The Market Revolution in America: Social, Political, and Religious     Expressions, 1800-1880.  ed. Melvyn Stokes.  (University Press of Virginia:      Charlotesville)
Geertz, Clifford. “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture”. In The     Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays. (Basic Books:  New York, 1973).
Hibernian Magazine.  January 1, 1777.  47.  http://da-search-    b=h9b&AN=33127159&site=ehost-live&ppid=divp53.  Accessed:  10 April, 2009.
Lady’s Magazine; or Entertaining Companion for the Fair Sex, Appropriated Solely to     Their Use & Amusement.  December 2, 1780.  684.  http://da-search-    b=h9b&AN=35887890&site=ehost-live&ppid=divp0014.  Accessed:  10 April,     2009.
Levine, Lawrence.  “The Folklore of Industrial Society:  Popular Culture and Its     Audience” in The Unpredictable Past:  Explorations in American Cultural     History.  (Oxford University Press:  New York, 1993).
McCrossen, Alexis.  “The Battle for Christmas,”  Journal of Interdisciplinary History 29     no. 1.
Nissenbaum, Stephen.  “Revisiting ‘A Visit from St. Nicholas,’” The Mythmaking Frame     of Mind:  Social Imagination and American Culture, ed. James Gilbert.      (Wadsworth Publishing Company:  Belmont, 1993.).
Restad, Penne.  “Christmas in Nineteenth-Century America.”  History Today 45, Iss. 12 (    Dec. 1995).  13-20.
Schmidt, Leigh Eric.  Consumer Rites:  The Buying & Selling of American Holidays.      (Princeton University Press:  Princeton, 1995.)
von Mises, Ludwig.  Human Action, the Scholar’s Edition.  (The Ludwig von Mises     Institute:  Auburn, 2005).
Workingman’s Advocate No. 20, December 31, 1831.

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