Fun With Research: The “War on Christmas” Edition

21 Nov 2011

I was just helping a student do some research for a history essay. The mission: find 3 primary documents from the 19th Century that reveal something about the spirit of the age. Her topic: Christmas shopping.

We did a database search of all the articles from the New York Times published before the year 1880, using the terms “Christmas” and “Shopping,” and got a measly 40 hits on 2 pages, a good number of them tiny classified ads. The first article, written in 1870, was titled, The Enemy of the Family, and was a complaint about “middle men” running up the prices of goods at Christmas time. Other titles included:

PERU.: How Christmas was celebrated in Lima—Peruvian Ladies—Their Lack of Refinement—Political Matters.

COMMERCIAL AFFAIRS.: Sales at the Stock Exchange Dec. 16.

THE SPECTRE SHIP

And, lumbering in at #24:

CURRENT ENGLISH TOPICS: POLITICAL AND GENERAL NOTES. THE MAN WHO KNOWS EVERYTHING THE EASTERN QUESTION BRAGGING JOHN BULL COCKNEYISM IN LONDON TWO PUGILISTIC WAR CORRESPONDENTS THE PRIVILEGES OF PROTECTION AND THE IRON TRADE.

This last one very nearly crushed her spirit. We were stymied.

Then I remembered that I’d recently read Land of Desire: Merchants, Power, and the Rise of a New American Culture, by the historian William R. Leach. According to Leach:

Before 1880 business like department stores did not exist…In the next twenty years, however, cities throughout the country would be filled with large retail establishmentsmultifloored, multiwindowed buildings of great concentrated selling power.

These huge department stores were the result of a deliberate, concentrated culture of shopping,

unconnected to traditional family or community values, to religion in any conventional sense, or to political democracy. It was a secular business and market-oriented culture, with the exchange and circulation of money and goods at the foundation of its aesthetic life and its moral sensibility.

In the case of Christmas,

when the large department stores first began to overshadow retail districts, Santa Claus’s status also started to metamorphose. The big merchants laid claim to him and to the imagery of the Christmas holidays. Urban merchandising began to give substance and form to the Christmas rituals.

So, on a hunch, I suggested to the student that we change the search criteria to articles published between 1880 and 1900. A few clicks of the mouse later, and we had 406 citations on 21 pages. The title of the 1st article was:

MUCH CHRISTMAS SHOPPING: The Season of 1898 Has Been the Best in Many Years. THE FINAL RUSH LAST NIGHT Belated Buyers Crowded the Stores—A Great Year for Mistletoe and Other Greens.

Some others were:

CHRISTMAS STREET SCENES.: JOSTLING CROWDS OF SHOPPERS IN THE RETAIL STORE DISTRICTS. (1888)

FOR THE COMING HOLIDAY: Suggestions to the Christmas Shopper and Home Worker. THE SEASON’S RARELY LAVISH DISPLAY What a Round of the Shops Offers — Prices and Quality Most Satisfactory — Designs for Home Work. (1895)

STORE THIEVES AND DETECTIVE: Both Have Already Appeared in the Mass of Holiday Shoppers That Crowd the Big Shops. (1899)

And, of course:

Killed After Christmas Shopping Trip. (1900)

Thank you, Santa! The student left happy, if a little over-burdened, and now I’m looking forward to reading a fine essay.

And to Bill O’Reilly and all the other commentators who complain yearly about the government and the forces of political correctness storming the Christmas gates, I offer this line from The Odyssey:

But come now, change thy theme, and sing of the building of the horse of wood, which Epeius made with Athena’s help, the horse which once Odysseus led up into the citadel as a thing of guile, when he had filled it with the men who sacked Ilion.

Christmas lost the war a long time ago, taken from within before it even knew it was vulnerable.

***

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One Response to “Fun With Research: The “War on Christmas” Edition”


  1. On the Advanced Placement test the Document Based Questions have half a dozen documents support the thesis statement and there are half a dozen with contrary facts and the student defends or refutes the statement with citations from the documents and outside information to give the essay completeness. This assignment of yours was used by me on occasion to have the students research the documents. Then the groups exchanged tests. It was great practice in both writing and research.


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