Blogs > Skipped History with Ben Tumin > Professor Stephen Nissenbaum on Santa Claus’ Elitist Origins

Dec 18, 2022

Professor Stephen Nissenbaum on Santa Claus’ Elitist Origins

tags: history,Frederick Douglass,capitalism,New York,holidays,Christmas,Santa Claus,skipped history,knickerbocker,wassail

To learn more about the holiday season’s jolliest, most iconic figure—Santa!—I spoke to Stephen Nissenbaum, a professor emeritus at UMass Amherst. Professor Nissenbaum specializes in early US history. His book, The Battle for Christmas, was a Pulitzer Prize finalist.

Professor Nissenbaum and I discussed the debauchery that used to characterize Christmas, and how elite New Yorkers in the early 1800s invented Santa Claus to quiet growing social unrest. A condensed transcript edited for clarity is below. Paying subscribers can access audio of the conversation here (~42 minutes), which includes an exploration of how Santa disguised the growth of commercialism in US society.

Ben: Thank you so much for being here, Professor Nissenbaum. I admit I’m a little gleeful about cutting Santa Claus down to size.

SN: I’ll do my best to help you.

Ben: Let’s begin in early modern Europe. How was Christmas celebrated from the years 1500 to 1800?

SN: Well, Christmas has always been celebrated in a variety of ways, and there have always been people who have tried to make it a purely religious holiday. But I don't think those people have ever actually been in control of Christmas. 

The majority of people saw the Christmas season as a time to let loose. December was the one time of year when there was virtually no work to be done (at least for males in the temperate zones of Europe and North America). It was also the only time of year when fresh meat, wine, and beer were ready to consume. So, Christmas was a season of drunkenness, overeating, and debauchery. 

To give you a sense, one English clergyman in the 1700s thought that Christmas caroling, of all things, should be gotten rid of because it involved cross-dressing and was “generally done, in the midst of rioting and chambering.” (“Chambering” was a common euphemism for sex.)

Ben: Ah, that helps contextualize Christmas songs like “Do You Hear What I Hear?”

Ummm, I really hope not! Get a room!

SN: Right, uh, yes. Another tradition associated with Christmas was wassailing, which included singing but was more or less a form of begging. Bands of mostly young males would go around to the houses of the well-to-do and demand the best food, the best wine, the best beer—the stuff that you’d typically save for your family. 

But on this occasion, the well-to-do gave gifts to the wassailers. This was part of a long tradition of what you might call “social inversion” on Christmas. At every other time of year, the poor owed their labor and sometimes their goods, the product of their labor, to the rich.

But December was the one time of year when those roles were reversed. The rich felt a moral obligation to give to the poor—in exchange, peasants offered their goodwill for the rest of the year. This tradition served a purpose. Far from destroying the social hierarchy, it sustained and reinforced the hierarchy for the rest of the year. It allowed lower classes to vent within clearly defined limits.

Ben: On a related note, can you describe how similar rituals of social inversion existed in the slaveholding South?

SN: Yes. In all of my research, I wasn’t able to find a single instance where white enslavers didn’t give enslaved Africans a day off at Christmas time (at minimum). Enslavers often provided food and liquor for reveling, and though enslaved peoples often enjoyed Christmas, abolitionists criticized how, like in Europe, the holiday celebrations were intended to maintain order.

Ben: In your book, you quote Frederick Douglass, who wrote “these holidays serve as conductors, or safety-valves, to carry off the rebellious spirit of enslaved humanity.”

SN: Mhm. I’ll add, too, that a lot of enslaved people took their time off as an opportunity to escape. 

Ben: A subject worthy of another interview in itself. Shifting to Santa and the North, how did Christmas celebrations change entering the 1800s?

SN: Earlier, when peasants would go around demanding gifts from the rich in their villages—wassailing also occurred in the northern colonies—each side knew the other on a personal basis. But entering the 19th century, Christmas traditions underwent their biggest transformation in the last thousand years, at least as far as I can tell.

The change coincided with the rise of industrial capitalism. As the industrial revolution accelerated in the late 18th century, cities like New York exploded in growth. Accordingly, the tradition of wassailing became more impersonal, and the rich increasingly viewed groups of young people in the streets during the Christmas season as threatening mobs. In fact, by the late 1820s, in direct response to gang activity in New York during the Christmas season (think Gangs of New York crossed with wassailing), the city introduced a professional police force.

So that was one way of changing and controlling Christmas during this new era. Let’s call that the stick. Wealthy New Yorkers decided that the carrot to go along with the stick ought to be new Christmas traditions; traditions that moved Christmas from outdoors to indoors and changed the recipients of the wealthy’s largesse from poor peasants to members of their own families. That way, the ritual of social inversion would still exist, but the rich would no longer have to interact with the poor.

Ben: This brings us to Clement Clarke Moore, author of “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas.”

SN: Yes, Clement Clarke Moore wrote “The Night Before Christmas” (or “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) in 1822. He was a patrician’s patrician. His father had been the Episcopal Bishop of New York and in fact, had given Alexander Hamilton his last rites after dying in the famous duel with Aaron Burr.

Ben: If I’m not mistaken, the last rites were, “Your name is Alexander Hamilton, and there's a million things you haven't done. Just you wait... just you wait.”

SN: …that seems to be correct.

And Moore wrote his famous poem amid what he viewed as very disturbing developments in the city. At the time, he owned the Chelsea estate, which encompassed a vast area (the modern-day neighborhood in New York is named after this estate).

Ben: Moore was an enslaver himself, no?

SN: Yes. Slavery was still legal in New York at this time—Moore forced five enslaved people to work on his property—and he opposed growing calls to abolish slavery.

He also opposed the gridding of New York. In 1811, the New York City Council implemented a plan to construct a regular grid system of numbered streets and avenues that would crisscross Manhattan. By 1821, Moore went from being listed as living in the Chelsea estate to living on the corner of 23rd Street and 8th Ave. The city seized much of his land through eminent domain.

This was a momentous change in Moore's life, and he was livid. He published a pamphlet attacking the development of New York, insisting that the city was going to be ruined; that it was falling into “destructive and ruthless hands,” the hands of people who did not “respect the rights of property.”

So the Santa Claus he described in “Twas the Night Before Christmas” was a direct result of this frustration, as well as Moore’s fear of the growing “misrule” on New York City streets during Christmas. In a nutshell, the poem contains the new, quieter Christmas that Moore and other patricians wanted to devise.

Ben: The first line of the poem is, “‘Twas the night before Christmas when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse.” I suppose that’s an aspirational view of Christmas considering the unrest actually occurring outside Moore and his pals’ houses.

SN: Yes, and immediately after those opening lines, you get a symbolic household invasion, but it’s a totally unthreatening one. This character who we learn to be Saint Nicholas comes down the chimney, uninvited, and scares the business out of the narrator of the poem, who’s presumably the father of the household. Most of the poem goes on to describe this jolly figure and to make it clear to the narrator and of course to the reader that this house invader has not come to take, but rather to offer.

You can see the whole poem as a reference to outside wassailers demanding entry into the patrician narrator’s house—but this time it's harmless, and this Santa Claus figure has come to bring gifts to kids who, again, replaced the poor as the recipients of largesse.

Ben: Where did this idea of Santa come from? Did it exist before?

SN: Moore was part of a group of conservative men who called themselves Knickerbockers. The Knickerbockers were fond of inventing Dutch traditions that harkened back to a supposedly calmer and more peaceful time. To be clear, the Knickerbockers weren’t Dutch, but they used the fact that a couple of hundred years earlier the Dutch had controlled New York (then called New Amsterdam) to invent a mythical, quaint Dutch tradition. 

Ben: So did the Dutch celebrate Christmas with Santa Claus? Or was Santa kind of like Häagen-Dazs in that he was a “Dutch” tradition created by non-Dutch New Yorkers?

SN: Häagen-Dazs originally comes from the Bronx?

Ben: Yeah.

SN: Well, yes, then kind of like Häagen-Dazs, I don’t want to say Santa was fake but he was almost fake.

Technically there were Dutch people who, going back in time, celebrated Christmas with a St. Nicholas figure who’d come to punish bad kids and give gifts to good kids. Catholics practiced this tradition but notably, the Dutch who populated New Amsterdam were almost exclusively Protestant, and they insisted on getting rid of exactly those kinds of celebrations of saints.

So, there was a faint glimmer of historical fact in saying that Santa Claus was an old Dutch tradition, but he wasn’t part of New York history and really he was invented by Knickerbockers like Clement Clarke Moore.

Ben: Wow. So modern-day Santa Claus was largely the invention of an anti-abolitionist looking to go back to the good old days when his power wasn’t threatened.

SN: Yeah, I think that's clearly on one level what Santa Claus is about. 

Ben: Oof. So often on Skipped History, we end up exploring different efforts to paper over the structural ills of society. Santa seems to be yet another example: a manifestation of New York’s upper classes' eagerness not to address the ills of industrial capitalism but to push them out of sight. Does that seem like a fair assessment to you?

SN: I think that's eloquently put. I would only add that by the 1830s and 1840s, celebrating Santa Claus on Christmas wasn’t just an upper-class ritual. Rather, thanks to the reprinting of Moore’s poem, which proved indelibly popular, the tradition spread very quickly among the middle classes and even those aspiring to join the middle classes. So celebrations of Santa rapidly permeated all of American society and transformed Christmas into a private celebration.

Ben: The widespread embracing of Santa reminds me of the conclusion to your book, where you write: “Perhaps the very speed and intensity with which rituals like Christmas were claimed as timeless traditions shows how powerful was the need to protect children and adults from understanding something troublesome about the world they were making.

“In our own time... that protection may be an indulgence we can no longer afford.”

Looking at calls for fairer wages and working conditions this holiday season—whether in the railroad industry, at the University of California, or at The New York Times—your conclusion seems particularly resonant today.

SN: Yes, I agree. My only add-on is that maybe the dynamics we’re seeing today have been present forever; that people who have means have always tried to come up with meaningful disguises for the lives of people without means, lest they have to confront the disparity between the two.

Ben: An astute point and I guess, now that we've traversed history from forever until today, we've reached a logical endpoint. I really appreciate your time and insights, Professor Nissenbaum.

SN: Thank you for the opportunity.

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