The Christmas Conspiracy

There was a conspiracy to create Christmas. This is a fairly standard historical interpretation of the American Christmas celebration.

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What if I told you that Christmas—the holiday we know and love so well—was a capitalist Conspiracy to indoctrinate the working class into bourgeois culture and values? At one end of the Conspiracy was the very real circle of New York City antiquarians and aristocrats trying to snuff out earlier forms of the holiday, replacing these folk practices with the distinctly quiet, calm, peaceful, productive, contemplative, bourgeois form of the holiday we know today. At the other end stands their greatest creation—the defrocked bishop Santa Claus and his apparently vast, never-ceasing workshops fed by partially enslaved elf labor.

Clement Clarke Moore, “A Visit from St. Nicholas” (1823)

Pintard, Letters, Vol. II: 1821-1827; Vol. II: 1828-1831

Clark, Christopher. Social Change in America: From the Revolution Through the Civil War. Chicago: Ivan R. Dee, Publisher. 2006.

Penne Restad, Christmas in America: A History, Oxford University Press. 1996.

Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Social and Cultural History of Our Most Cherished Holiday, Vintage. 1997.

Anthony Comegna: What if I told you that Christmas, the holiday we know and love so well, was a capitalist conspiracy to indoctrinate the working class into bourgeois culture and values? At one end of the conspiracy was the very real circle of New York City antiquarians and aristocrats trying to snuff out earlier forms of the holiday, replacing these folk practices with distinctly quiet, calm, peaceful, [00:00:30] productive, contemplative, bourgeois forms of the holiday we know today. At the other end stands their greatest creation, the defrocked Bishop, Santa Claus and his apparently vast never ceasing workshops fed by partially enslaved elf labor. This classic product of American culture was specifically designed to infiltrate your mind and integrate you more fully into the scheme of bourgeois interests.
[00:01:00] Welcome to Liberty Chronicles, a project of libertarianism.org. I’m Anthony Comegna. I asked what would you say. If you tell my I’m crazy, well frankly you’d have a point. Yet this is a fairly standard historical interpretation of the American Christmas celebration, right down to the slave master Santa. Historians very often fall into traps like that, reading far much into their sources and forgetting to consider that people may [00:01:30] have genuinely preferred our modern Christmas to forms that came earlier. It’s easy to assume that new cultural products or movements are foisted on an unthinking public, but methodologic individualists know better. People are always and actively choosing to spend their money and time rather than yammering on and on about how commercialized and capitalized Christmas has become.
It is much more useful to know why we celebrate Christmas the way we do. [00:02:00] Who came up with this modern holiday? Why? If indeed it was a capitalist conspiracy, why did people so widely accept it into their lives? If you were to clear your mind and put the phrase “American Christmas” in pictures, chances are it would look at lot like the initial setting in Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from Saint Nicholas.” It’s late at night Christmas Eve or early Christmas morning. There’s a fire slowly sputtering out in the hearth. The children’s [00:02:30] stockings are waiting, hung from the mantle. Everyone is asleep upstairs, and the word is Santa will drop by at some point before morning to fill up the house with new toys. Clement Clarke Moore was not reflecting common practice when his poem was published in 1823. He was inventing a new tradition, almost out of whole cloth. Let’s remind ourselves what he came up with.

Speaker 2: A Visit from Saint Nicholas, [00:03:00] Clement Clarke Moore, 1823. “Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house, not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; the stockings were hung by the chimney with care, in hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there; the children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar plums danced in their heads; and mamma in her kerchief, and I in my cap, had just settled our brains for a long winter’s [00:03:30] nap, when out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash. The moon on the breast of the new-fallen snow gave the luster of mid-day to objects below, when, what to my wondering eyes should appear, but a miniature sleigh, and eight tiny reindeer, with a little old driver, so lively and quick, I knew in a moment it must be St. [00:04:00] Nick. More rapid than eagles his coursers they came, and he whistled, and shouted, and called them by name; ‘Now, Dasher! Now, Dancer! Now, Prancer and Vixen! On, Comet! On Cupid! ON, Donder and Blitzen! To the top of the porch! To the top of the wall! Now dash away! Dash away! Dash away all!’
As dry leaves that before the wild hurricane fly, when they meet with an obstacle, mount to the sky, so up to the house-top the coursers they flew, with the sleigh [00:04:30] full of toys, and St. Nicholas too. And then, in a twinkling, I heard on the roof the prancing and pawing of each little hoof. As I drew in my hand, and was turning around, down the chimney St. Nicholas came with a bound. He was dressed all in fur, from his head to his foot, and his clothes were all tarnished with ashes and soot; a bundle of toys he had flung on his back, and he looked like a peddler just opening his pack.
His eyes — how they twinkled! His dimples how [00:05:00] merry! His cheeks were like roses, his nose like a cherry! His droll little mouth was drawn up like a bow, and the beard of his chin was as white as the snow; the stump of a pipe he held tight in his teeth, and the smoke it encircled his head like a wreath; he had a broad face and a little round belly, that shook, when he laughed like a bowlful of jelly.
He was chubby and plump, a right jolly old elf, and I laughed when I saw him, in spite of myself; a wink of his [00:05:30] eye and a twist of his head, soon gave me to know I had nothing to dread; he spoke not a word, but went straight to his work, and filled all the stockings; then turned with a jerk, and laying his finger aside of his nose, and giving a nod, up the chimney he rose; he sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, and away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight, ‘Happy Christmas to all, and to all [00:06:00] a good night.’”

Anthony Comegna: Clement Clarke Moore is an interesting figure from a transformative time in New York history. From 1790 to 1835 the city’s population rose nearly nine times from 33,000 to 270,000, mainly poor Irish-Catholic immigrants. City planners responded by turning Manhattan into a vast grid work of numbered streets. People crowded into the city’s first [00:06:30] all poor neighborhoods and hedged the wealthy into their old estates, now often guarded by armed watchmen. New York’s upper crust consisted primarily of Episcopalians of British descent.
Moore’s father was an Episcopal Bishop, and his family history lay on the Tory side of the Revolution, then the Federalist side of the Constitution. Clement Clarke Moore himself wrote tracks attacking Jeffersonianism, which he thought radical. He even owned five slaves at [00:07:00] the time his famous poem was published. He was also one of the city’s wealthier land owners. He inherited Chelsea, yes the whole neighborhood, from his mother. The property stretched from 19th to 24th Street and 8th to 10th Avenue. It was valued at about half a million dollars in 1830, but as early as 1818 the city’s new population pressed in on Moore from all angles.
That year the city ceased and purchased a strip of his estate to build 9th Avenue right up the middle. [00:07:30] Moore resisted New York’s market revolution in some ways, yet he was a key participant in it and a major figure guiding it in what he thought a more healthy, stable direction. He moved his family out of Chelsea mid-Century and spent much of his later life grumbling about the world steadily democratizing when once it had been so respectable.
Earlier in his life Moore focused on a set of Reformist cultural products evolving out of the New York Historical Society. At the NYHS [00:08:00] a small set of antiquarians conspired over the decades to resist many of their society’s ongoing changes and to transform, invent or channel others in more bourgeois directions. The conspirators included Clement Clarke Moore of course, but also Washington Irving and the banker/philanthropist Jonathan Pintard. They were acutely aware of how quickly their city was changing, and their main mission was to write history so they would not be swept aside by it.
[00:08:30] Pintard in particular was a Reformer at heart, a lover of folk culture who recognized the functional purposes of celebrations like those which came before A Visit from St. Nicholas. The first important fact about premodern Christmas was that it was a seasonal celebration, stretching through much of the winter. Europeans used the holiday to play with periods of misrule, during which the normal rules of acceptable behavior relaxed or inverted, social hierarchies were temporarily suspended or inverted [00:09:00] for a time of carnival, or enjoyment of the flesh, and dressed as animals the Revelers might elect a child their Bishop or assemble the lords of misrule to preside over the festival.
Holidays were a period of blowing off steam, having fun, and relaxing the standard social and political tensions that ruled their world with iron fists. The English Puritans abolished these sorts of pagan and Catholic celebrations, but 18th Century English continued to engage in wassailing. Wassailers [00:09:30] were essentially drunken mobs, which paraded through town, marched up to the local lords’ doorstep and demanded the use of the house and tribute in goods or money. Landlords who refused the crowd must’ve seemed a lot like wealthy residents of neighborhoods invaded by poorer children on Halloween today. If they complained, they seemed terribly uncharitable to people they could easily help.
In the old days of Feudalism lords were supposed to protect the people and keep them fed in times of famine. [00:10:00] In the new early modern world of private, enclosed estates and wage labor, though, those old social obligations broke down and transformed. Holiday misrule made for the perfect moments of releasing social tensions, times when the wealthy could safely meet the poor’s demands for relief without actually abolishing or disrupting the social order.
In a letter to his daughter in January 1822, Jonathan Pintard described [00:10:30] an encounter with a New Years Callithumpian band, basically wassailers playing ruckus, noisy, unpleasant music. Callithumpian bands, or parades, were usually not complete without heavy drinking and fist fights between large numbers of seasonally unemployed factory workers. The factories were closed of course because their water mills were frozen over. What’s a hand to do then but go cause some trouble for men of estate, like Pintard?
Pintard’s recollection of New Years Eve is very [00:11:00] similar to Moore’s poem published a year later, but Moore takes the Callithumpians who disturb Pintard’s sleep and turns them into the mythical Santa Claus, rewarding good little bourgeois children for staying indoors and behaving themselves.

Speaker 2: Letters from John Pintard to his daughter, Eliza Noel Pintard Davidson, 1816 to 1833. New Years morn, 1821. “I closed the old year by attending divine service last eve [00:11:30] in the Lutheran Church where some elegant and appropriate hymns and music were performed. After a most delightful morn, the afternoon was clouded o’er and the evening threatened a snow storm. Wet prevented mama and sister from accompanying me. I had determined to rise early in order to commence the New Year with the dawn, and to have a few moments to chat with my dear daughter before breakfast.
For this purpose I desired Tamar, our domestic servant, to kindle a fire in my office. She is a very early riser, but [00:12:00] through fear of oversleeping herself she had risen about half past 4:00 and went upstairs to look at the clock for the time. Sister’s room is directly over the back parlor. She heard someone take the key and deliberately open the door and called to mama, who with her masculine spirit rose to light a candle by the lamp. I threw on my clothes in haste, and down we sailed, found the back parlor door ajar but nothing out of place.
We went downstairs to examine the street door, when Tamar explained the mystery. On retiring to [00:12:30] rest again the bands of music, band pipes, drums and fifes, and boys bells rang, proclaiming ‘Happy New Year’, interrupting all repose till daylight when I arose, leaving mama and sister to take a little rest till 9:00 when I shall call them. The day is beautiful.
After church, the ceremonial and friendly visits will take up my time till 3:00 when our little family party will assemble round our festive board, and when your healths will be drunk with all affection and old fashioned [00:13:00] formality. Among other visits the trustees of the Savings Bank are to wait on West Bayard Esquire at half past 1:00 to play the compliments of the day as a mark of respect for the faithful and diligent discharge of his duty as president of this benevolent institution.
I did not get home from the bank on Saturday night till past 10:00. We took in $10,101 from 127 depositors, and our receipts at the close of the last 18 months amount to nearly half a million, half [00:13:30] the sum, which my warm anticipation had allowed to be deposited in seven years. My dear little grandchildren were not forgotten.
Monday 2nd, New Years Day being very fine, the old good custom of mutual visitings and cordial greetings was observed with unusual animation. After an excellent discourse from my French Pastor, I went to the Savings Bank, which was crowded especially with children with their gold pieces and bright dollars, New Years gifts. We took in nearly $7,000 [00:14:00] and had to dismiss many who came too late in order to wait in a body on our president and the mayor in company. I did not get home from my tour till past 3:00 when I found Aunt Helen, Craig and Davis, and we sat down to an excellent dinner of venison, the first in many years at your father’s table, and drank all your healths individually. Mother, Father, and children, wishing you every joy and comfort.
Minced pies and all the assortments of pastry, which your sister so well prepares, abundantly garnished [00:14:30] the dessert. We passed a social afternoon, grateful for the blessings we were enjoying. While the ladies were entertained, I read my sober books, musing on the rapid flight of time, the fewness of my remaining years, and reflecting on departed friends and how few remain of the companions of my youth and of my immediate family.”

Anthony Comegna: In swiftly sprawling cities like New York during the Market Revolution, these temporary moments of folks social leveling often turned into exercises [00:15:00] in democratic oppositional politicking. That is what people like Pintard and more were so worried about. Pintard especially wanted to create a distinctly middle class winter holiday that could channel the sociological need to release tension into productive bourgeois practices. Over three decades he experimented in his own life, first celebrating St. Nicholas’ feast day on December 6th, then shifting to New Years and finally settling on Christmas [00:15:30] with help from co-conspirator, Clement Clarke Moore.
Both men grasped something which Washington Irving hinted at in his sketchbook stories. If you mythologized New York’s old Dutch culture in just the right ways, you could invent new traditions all New Yorkers could adopt of their own free will as part of their local identity. Irving’s sketchbook stories introduced the familiar version of Santa, presented as the patron saint [00:16:00] of New Amsterdam.
Pintard was one of the circles’ keener historical thinkers, and he recognized that American Protestantism did not have these kinds of social releases, like the Catholics had festivals and Saints Days. He explained his point of view in another letter to his daughter, May 1823.

Speaker 2: Tuesday, 27, May 1823. “On Saturday, the Linnean Society celebrated the birthday of Linneas at Flushing, [00:16:30] about 200. The day was fine and the ceremonial and festivity went off in high style with much pleasantry. I was not present for the best reason. Not being a member nor invited, a proof of my extreme sequestered life, though it would’ve been an agreeable relaxation after many weeks of assiduous duty. Still, on the whole it is best that I should refrain from these public parties altogether. My spirits like bottled champagne are too apt to effervescence and overflow by the excitement [00:17:00] of company and mirth, which the flamatic are too apt to impute to an excess of that potation, which can alone can exhilarate them. This impression not easily refuted is unfavorable, and for my soul I cannot repress my generous feelings nor wear the mask of hypocrisy.
Had I not been a secretary of the American Bible Society, I think that once for all and on so great an occasion I should have attended the spectacle yesterday. I am not one of those severe moralists who reprobate [00:17:30] public amusements in the gross. Although to avoid offense, I partake so little of them. The hard working part of society must have occasional relaxations. Our Protestant faith affords no religious holiday and processions like the Catholics.
From the period of the Jews and heathens, down through the Greeks and Romans, the Celts, the Druids, even our Indians all had and have their religious festivals. England retains numerous Red Letter Days, as they are called, which afford intervals of rest together [00:18:00] with the Christmas, Easter, and Witzen holidays for all the public offices, banks, and company, but with us we have only Independence, Christmas and New Year, three solitary days, not enough and which causes so much breach of the Sabbath in this city of youth pent up. Mechanics and laborers will seek fresh air and rural exercise on that day, in spite of all human laws to the contrary.”

Anthony Comegna: If America’s Protestant culture [00:18:30] did not naturally allow for holiday festivities, so necessary when the poor were crowding in so quickly on the rich, men of historical vision like Irving and Pintard would have to invent it themselves by constructing an ideal past complete with holidays for social venting. The conspirators hoped to control the course of their city’s present and future.
The Irish-Catholics weren’t the only ones who knew how to have fun. For God’s sakes, people, keep it in your own [00:19:00] homes. What the historical society needed was a way people could celebrate the winter season at home with their own families without the ability to so quickly shake themselves into a disruptive and demanding mob. Pintard provided the methods of celebration, Irving the respectable, likable holiday hero, and Moore put it all in verse.
Irving’s Santa Claus in the sketchbook stories was still a saint, still noticeably [00:19:30] a Bishop with a Dutch long pipe to boot. Moore’s Santa, you’ll remember, is a jolly old elf who smokes a short and stubby pipe. In old New York culture everyone recognized the long pipe as an aristocrat’s device, a holdover from the days before cheap and disposable clay pipes. Working class people broke their pipe stems for no other clear reason than to differentiate themselves from elites. Over time, the difference between pipe size could often tell your place in New York social [00:20:00] standings.
Moore and Pintard took Irving’s saintly patron of New Amsterdam and dressed him up as one of the working people themselves, the bringer of joy to private households of well behaved little bourgeois fine children. Kids who grew up with benevolent figures like this, but with a patriarchal judge of good and bad, and an endless stream of rewards for obedience, these children would never turn Callithumpian. They wouldn’t drift towards spiritually dangerous or politically disruptive Catholicism [00:20:30] and democracy. They would remain good little Protestant business people with their minds on their own affairs and their hands always diligently busy at their work, which would be dutifully rewarded by the powers that be.
There it is, the conspiracy that created Christmas. Before we attribute too much power and influence to this handful of moneyed antiquarians, let’s remind ourselves that culture is a communicative, meaning building process. Like any other kind [00:21:00] of communication, it requires at least two parties: a speaker/performer and a listener/receiver. Without either, there can be no sharing of meaningful information. Irving, Pintard, and Moore clearly had their own reasons for wanting to make their version of Christmas supreme. What about the hundreds of millions of Americans who have adopted it and celebrated it since then? Can we really say that all of those people are merely passively absorbing a plot to fool them [00:21:30] into compliance with modern capitalism, right down to loving that cruel master of elf labor, that huckster of Coca Cola, Santa Claus, a holiday figure now greater than Christ himself?
The truth is there was indeed a conspiracy to create Christmas, but to understand why we celebrate the way we do today, you’ll have to ask the millions of Americans who had nothing to do with the New York Historical Society. Why did they choose more and more every decade [00:22:00] to celebrate by buying presents for close family members, holding private meals in individual households, and visiting perhaps a few close relatives and friends, and then returning back to work? The holiday was invented from above, for sure, but as Pintard knew well it had to serve a purpose from below to be of any constructive use in a democratic age.
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