Plum pudding in the melting pot

Christmas in America by Penne L. Restad Oxford, pounds 17.99; From Santa Claus to `Away in the Manger', many of our best loved Christmas traditions are American imports, according to a new cultural history. By Christina Hardyment

Don't be put off by the limited sphere of reference implied by the title of this seasonal but far from trivial offering. Penne Restad's account of how Christmas came of age in America is both informative and illuminating, a gem of cultural history. Best of all, Restad offers an intelligent and richly furnished answer to all the Christmas killjoys who shake their heads over modern materialism and secularism.

If anything, she argues, Christmas today is a good deal more civilized and charitable than it ever used to be. Those polite little bands of carol- singers rattling their collecting tins to strains of "The First Nowell" are in fact the last vestiges of the wild and entirely self-indulgent revellers who once roamed the streets banging on doors and letting off guns. For Christmas, season of the Roman Saturnalia and the Norse Yule, was never exclusively religious: far from deserting its true origins by making it a season of party-going, we have maintained them.

In the 19th century, increased prosperity saw Christmas retreating from the streets and becoming concentrated on the family. Nativity became uppermost; the wild Germanic forest festivities were tamed into tiny tabletop trees. Gifts, dismissed by the early puritan settlers as pagan pleasures, became an important expression of communal and familial ties.

"Christmas won't be Christmas without any presents" opens Louisa May Alcott's Little Women, that most family-centred of children's classics. It set the agenda for the acceptability of the gift as an expression of love, while at the same time emphasising that it was the giving rather than the gift which matters. Marmie's dutiful daughters give what they have to the deserving poor, but still contrive, through personal sacrifice and effort, to signal their love for each other in small keepsakes. The ultimate gift they themselves receive is the return of their father from war.

Little Women is by no means the only significant Christmas text we have adopted from America. Restad claims that we owe Santa as we know him today to New Yorker Clement Clarke Moore, who in 1822 dashed off a rollicking ballad, now universally known as "The Night Before Christmas". It could have remained hidden in the family's album, but a visitor copied it out, and the next year it appeared in a New York magazine, the Troy Sentinel. From then on, chimneys, reindeer and a rosy-cheeked, portly Santa Claus peeking out of department store grottoes became part of the canon.

Christmas cards and carols may have originated in Europe, but by the time the Americans had finished with them they, like Santa, had been infinitely embellished. The cultural melting pot of the new nation took an eclectic mixture of Christmas traditions - Dutch, Scandinavian, English, Italian - and rolled them all up together into a new whole, every bit as rich and varied as plum pudding. "Rudolf the Red-nosed Reindeer", "Jingle Bells" and even "Away in a Manger" all came to us courtesy of the good old U.S. of A.

Occasionally, a xenophobe might feel that Restad overstates her claims. "The North Pole elves were not unlike immigrants working in the nation's sweatshops", we are told. Dickens, she asserts, owed the inspiration of his 1842 Christmas Carol to a visit to America. "Prior to then Dickens had not showed much interest in the holiday". By the 1880s, "Americans had reinvented Christmas ... as a lens through which to envision, as a people, from whence they came and who they had become." But for the most part she succeeds in establishing a compelling argument for the value of this oldest of all our traditions.

Although the book concentrates on the development of Christmas traditions in the 19th century, her last chapter offers some provocative observations on the effect of mass media and international marketing techniques on the festival. The Christmas Eve promenade to see the city centre en fete and choose gifts for one's nearest and dearest has been steadily extended into a four, five or even six week Nightmare before Christmas.

She concludes, some would say optimistically, that we have driven rather than been dragged towards our present hectic celebrations. For all the commercialization, "we do not give up. Christmas remains the most important holiday on our nation's calendar... It causes us to examine relationships with our families, our community, and our faith. At Christmastide we must, directly or even by omission, set our priorities, establish our tolerances and square our hopes with reality."

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