Christmas: A Revolutionary Holiday?

By Joe Perry 

Christmas as revolutionary holiday? The idea seems paradoxical if not outlandish. After all, Christmas seems to be an age-old traditional holiday that celebrates the central pillars of social stability: religious faith, family togetherness, material prosperity, and “Peace on Earth, Good Will to Humanity.”

Yet revolutionary eras invariably produce new celebrations and festivals—consider the many traditions invented by the French revolutionaries—and Christmas bears traces of revolution in its history. The “first” Christmas, inaugurated in 366 CE by Roman Emperor Constantine in an effort to unify a fractious empire and gain adherents to the new state religion of Christianity marked a radical turn away from paganism. New holiday rituals associated with the birth of Jesus were arguably a revolutionary appropriation of already existing, popular observances associated with the winter solstice and the Roman Saturnalia. [1]

Even the modern holiday we know and love today, which took shape in German- and English-speaking lands in the decades around the Napoleonic wars, represented a definitive and transformative break with existing festive practices. The Christmas tree, gifting on Christmas Eve or Day, a visit from Father Christmas, the sentimental enactment and memorialization of family life and history: all testified to the growing influence of the western bourgeoisie, that most revolutionary of social classes. “The bourgeoisie, historically, has played a most revolutionary part,” Karl Marx reminds us. In their hands, “all fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away.” [2] Christmas, in many ways, was part of the sweeping.

Book cover with St Nicholas riding a sleigh pulled by reindeers.

Like the Constantine Romans who first invented the holiday, the social elites who remade Christmas in the early 19th century — primarily members of the educated, “encultured” German-speaking bourgeoisie [3] — reworked existing celebratory forms. Christmas Eve gifting as an expression of family love replaced the aristocratic, courtly rituals of gift giving on New Years Eve. The generous and genteel Father Christmas replaced the various “wild men” who terrorized children around the year. The red-suited patriarch also stood in for the masked artisans who demanded recognition and rewards from social superiors in winter mumming processions. The mummers’ threatening demands for handouts ultimately morphed into Christian exhortations to share charitable alms with the most needy in the holiday season. [4] Domesticated Christmas Eve/Day observances replaced the raucous array of Saint’s Days and minor church holidays that dotted the calendar in November and December. To celebrate these feast days, early modern Europeans once devoured perishable harvest goods in grand festivals of drunken excess and abundance; now, the ever-growing middle classes enjoyed a staid and formal (albeit sumptuous) family dinner, followed, perhaps, by a glass of brandy.

Drawing of a family hanging ornaments on a Christmas tree.

In short, across several decades, the European bourgeoisie standardized and formalized Christmas. They moved the holiday indoors, and cleaned it up, until the gentle acts of loving reciprocity performed around the Christmas tree epitomized the ritualization of middle-class lifestyles. Christmas celebrations, repeated year in, year out, represented the peak moment of domestic practices. The holiday’s tamed yet still prodigious excesses confirmed the bourgeois family values embodied in the myriad other, more minor rituals performed throughout the year (such as praying before dinner, or the kiss good-bye as the husband leaves for work). [5]

These bourgeois values were themselves transformative, pitched as natural and universal by those who cherished them. As Marx asserted, “each new class which puts itself in the place of one ruling before it, is compelled, to represent its interest as the common interest of all the members of society…it has to give its ideas the form of universality, and represent them as the only rational, universally valid ones.” [6] The growing popularity of compassionate marriage, the extension and idealization and even sacralization of childhood, the lionization of romantic love as the highest social bond, the privatization of family life — that is, the invention of the nuclear family across the nineteenth century [7] — required new methods of ritualized representation to universalize these emergent values and practices.

Painting of a family holding hands around a Christmas tree.
Frohe Weihnacten, Gemälde von Viggo Johansen, 1891

New family rituals allowed the bourgeoisie to mark boundaries and establish dominance over competing social groups. Outraged by the licentious, incestuous affairs of the aristocracy? Shocked and dismayed by the bestiality, poverty, and simple bad manners of the lower orders? Seeking a means to display the social/cultural superiority of your own professed family and moral beliefs? Christmas, overflowing with meaning, offered an aesthetically attractive, emotionally appealing, and fun way to consolidate, commodify, and disseminate bourgeois beliefs and practices. Indeed the holiday’s fabulous success, embodied in its growing popularity up and down and across social hierarchies in the nineteenth century, and its spread to non-Christian lands in the twentieth (e.g. the Middle East, East Asia), testify to its revolutionary effects in world historical terms. [8]

Revolutions exhaust themselves and become self-caricatures; as Marx put it, “the tradition of all the dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brain of the living.” [9] Today Christmas may seem an overworked cliché, a rote embrace of increasingly tenuous family ties, awash in a sea of commercialism and bad faith. Ponder, then, the radical inventiveness of the early nineteenth-century bourgeoisie. As this nascent middle class strode in all confidence on to the world stage, “set in sparkling brilliants; ecstasy…the everyday spirit,” [10] it sought to consolidate its status in a vast spasm of creativity and inventiveness that would transform human society. Christmas? A most revolutionary holiday indeed!

Joe Perry is associate professor of modern European and German history at Georgia State University and the author of Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History (2010). He is currently writing a book about electronic dance music and the Berlin Love Parade.

[1] Daniel Miller, “A Theory of Christmas,” in Unwrapping Christmas, ed. Daniel Miller (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993): 3-37; Eric Hobsbawm and Terrence Ranger, eds., The Invention of Tradition (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983).

[2] Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, “The Communist Manifesto” (orig. 1848), in The Marx-Engels Reader (2nd edition), ed. Robert C. Tucker (New York: Norton, 1978), 475-76.

[3] Jonathon Sperber, “Bürger, Bürgerlichkeit, Bürgerliche Gesellschaft: Studies of the German (Upper) Middle Class and Its Sociocultural World, Journal of Modern History 69 (June 1997): 271-97.

[4] Phyllis Siefker, Santa Claus, Last of the Wild Men: The Origins and Evolution of Saint Nicholas, Spanning 50,000 Years (London: McFarland, 1997).

[5] John R. Gillis, “Ritualization of Middle-Class Family Life in Nineteenth-Century Britain,” International Journal of Politics, Culture, and Society 9 (Winter 1989): 213-35.

[6] Karl Marx, “The German Ideology” (orig. 1845-46), in The Marx-Engels Reader, 174.

[7] Michelle Perrot, “Introduction,” in A History of Private Life, vol. 4, ed. Michelle Perrot, trans. Arthur Goldhammer (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990): 1-5.

[8] Here one might conjoin my Marxist-derived analysis of Christmas and modernity with one more rooted in Foucault, in which Christmas serves a productive role in the apparatus for implanting the modern self. Discipline assured by the panoptic gaze of Santa Claus — he knows when you are sleeping, he knows when you’re awake — children develop a docile body with the appropriate sentimental feelings tied to the requirements of middle-class family life, an intrinsic part of modern subjectivity. But that is material for another post….

[9] Karl Marx, “The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte” (orig. 1851), in The Marx-Engels Reader, 595.

[10] Ibid., 597.

Further Readings:

Connelly, Mark. Christmas: A Social History. London: I. B. Tauris, 1999.

Gillis, John R. A World of Their Own Making: Myth, Ritual, and the Quest for Family Values. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1997.

Nissenbaum, Stephen. The Battle for Christmas. New York: Knopf, 1996.

Perry, Joe. Christmas in Germany: A Cultural History. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2010.

Pleck, Elizabeth. Celebrating the Family: Ethnicity, Consumer Culture, and Family Rituals. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Restad, Penne. Christmas in America: A History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1995.

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