A little history with your holidays

We’re pleased to join with a group of other NYC blogs in a collaboratively produced 2009 holiday guide. See the bottom of this entry for links to participating sites.

nissenbaum.jpgHow about putting a little history in your holiday basket? Stephen Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas is a perennial favorite around these parts.

Nissenbaum, in a highly entertaining narrative, shows not only that the American version of the holiday has been commercial from the start (the Macy’s Thanksgiving Parade was a late arrival on that front), but also that it’s what you’d call an “invented tradition.” All the bits about Dutch origins were part of an effort among nineteenth-century New York gentry — the self-anointed Knickerbocker set — to create a colonial cultural heritage for themselves by establishing the social preeminence of their Dutch lineage, real or imagined. A byproduct: Santa Claus was able to sidestep an earlier Puritan bias against celebrating Christmas in the American colonies. Cyrus has summarized Nissenbaum’s argument here before, but Santa Claus was smuggled into New York by the group of patricians also responsible for the New-York Historical Society (especially John PIntard) and writer-friends such as Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore.

Irving doesn’t need so much introduction, but many readers may not have heard of Moore, or if they have they know him only for his poem “A Visit from St. Nicolas,” more familiarly known by its first line: “Twas the night before Christmas.” But Moore left his imprint all over the city, especially in Chelsea, the neighborhood named after his family estate. (His father was both the president of Columbia College and New York’s Protestant Episcopal Bishop; his grandfather, a British officer, had purchased farmland in Chelsea in the 1750s, but the Moores had owned land in Queens since the 1650s.) After graduating Columbia as valedictorian in 1798, Moore dabbled in belles lettres and anti-Jeffersonian pamphleteering, compiled a two-volume English-Hebrew lexicon, and donated the land for the General Theological Seminary, where he was a professor of classical languages for three decades. (The seminary still stands, filling the entire block from Ninth to Tenth Avenues between West 20th and 21st Streets.)

Nissenbaum’s The Battle for Christmas is especially good on making Moore’s famous “A Visit from St. Nicolas,” written in 1822, come alive in new ways. Ever wonder why the poem’s narrator was so quick to spring from his bed to see what was the matter (rhymes with “clatter”)? He probably thought a house-break was in progress. Christmas in early nineteenth-century New York, Nissenbaum suggests, had started to take on some of the elements of English seasonal misrule. But what had traditionally served as an escape valve — allowing laborers to let off some steam but ultimately keeping social order in check — was turning increasingly violent as a new industrial order demanded more of workers without giving much back. The mobs of working-class carolers who had traditionally demanded that rich folk bring them some figgy pudding — insisting that they wouldn’t leave until they get some — were evolving into “Callithumpian bands” parading in the street making noise and committing acts of petty larceny. (One contemporary described these roving bands as made up of “Negroes, servants, boys, and other disorderly persons.”)

I won’t give much more away, but Nissenbaum argues that the significance of Moore’s poem was to silence a little of that seasonal clatter, tame it to protect polite audiences. Santa Claus is a housebreaker, sure, but he’s bringing gifts for the kiddies. The “patron-client exchange” that had defined seasonal misrule (“We won’t go until we get some!”) shifted to a parent-child exchange that made Christmas a domestic holiday rivaled only by the invented tradition of American Thanksgiving, taking shape around the same time. Moore’s poem helped make Christmas “a practical simple ritual that almost any household could perform.” The upshot: we have nineteenth-century New Yorkers, not seventeenth-century New Amsterdammers or their Old World parents, to thank for the cult of St. Nick and for Christmas trees. (Speaking of Christmas trees …)

How to thank Mr. Moore? You might, like Cyrus’s family, make his poem part of your own holiday ritual. (He recommends the pop-up edition by Robert Sabuda.) Or try one of these annual Moore Advent events:

Chelsea Community Church (346 W. 20th St.) holds an annual candlelight service and reading of Moore’s poem. This year’s event happens on December 13 at 6 pm. According to the NYC Parks & Rec website, at the nearby Clement Clarke Moore Park (W 22nd St. at 10th Ave.), neighborhood folk gather on the Sunday before Christmas for a reading of his poem. A similar event takes place uptown, in Washington Heights, at the Church of the Intercession (155th St. and Broadway), where people gather for carols, a reading of Moore’s poem, and a candlelight march to Moore’s grave site, in the Trinity Cemetery on 155th Street. This celebration has apparently been going on since 1911; this year it takes place December 20 at 4 pm.

A few other historically oriented seasonal suggestions:

If you’d like to seek out a patrician New York Christmas that predates Moore’s poem (and hence is decidedly not Santa-centered), check the seasonal calendar for the eighteenth-century Van Cortlandt House Museum in the Bronx.

Jewish historians of Christmas, Episcopalian compilers of Hebrew lexicons, and Tin Pan Alley’s Jewish Christmas Broadway musicals notwithstanding, maybe Christmas just isn’t your thing? Then you probably already know the traditional alternative for December 25 is dim sum. We’re not exactly sure when this practice started, but the big decision, these days, is whether to go with Jing Fong or Golden Unicorn. When you’re finished eating, work off some calories on Big Onion’s 19th Annual Dec. 25 walking tour of the old Jewish Lower East Side.

George Balanchine’s Nutcracker has been a tradition in New York City since 1954. The very thought may make you yawn. If so, did you know that Uptown Dance Academy has been performing Black Nutcracker since 1995? Catch it at the Apollo Theater on December 22nd; proceeds go toward a new studio for the kids.

If you’d like to revive a non-commercial historic NYC holiday tradition, try “calling on” (visiting) as many friends as possible on New Year’s Day. You’ll need to bring the equivalent of a photographic calling card to leave behind. I suppose you could do something like this on Facebook, but we’re fans of the slow media version that requires actual travel from house to house. We wrote about it last holiday season, as did our friend Esther at Ephemeral New York.

A final suggestion for those who’d prefer to bring a little misrule back to your yule: you might consider joining in the annual Parade of Santas in Santacon NYC 2009, on December 12. Be warned: though some participants will be decked out in period costumes, you may also encounter pub crawlers with puke in their beards. (Putting the ho back in ho! ho! ho! since 1994. A little Santacon history here.) We suggest it in the spirit of the nineteenth-century Callithumpian bands, mentioned above.

Discover lots more in the 2009 “NYC Bloggers Do the Holidays” Guide:

Brooklyn Based:
Home for the Holidays

Give and Get:
Tis The Season to Volunteer

the improvised life:
unwrapping the holidays

Manhattan User’s Guide:
The Gift Guide

Mommy Poppins:
Offbeat and Multicultural Family Holiday Events

NY Barfly:
It’s the Holidays, Time to Drink

NewYorkology:
Big-ticket holiday shows: Nutcracker, Rockettes, Wintuk

offManhattan:

Ten Holiday Getaways Near NYC

the skint:
30 days of skintmas – a cheap (or free!) holidays-in-nyc-treat for every day of the season

The Strong Buzz:

Holiday Eats Old and New

WFMU’s Beware of the Blog: Happy Freakin’ Holidays Playlist
Walking Off the Big Apple
:
The Thin Man Walk: A New York Holiday Adventure with Nick and Nora Charles

If you write a NYC-oriented blog and would like to contribute to a future group post, please let us know!

Bookmark and Share

Tags: , ,