Material History of American Religion Project

The Battle of Christmas

Advertising poster featuring Santa Claus from 1882 Cover from "Whose Birthday Is It, Anyway?"

A holiday founded to honor the birth of the Christian savior, Christmas has become a battlefield of religious devotion. Merchants and marketers have seized on the season as a time to encourage shopping, buying, and giving. Meanwhile, some clergy have struggled to take back control of the holiday. Most American Christians live somewhere in between, appreciating the spiritual messages while also celebrating the abundance and excitement of the secular holiday. This battle between the two religions of Christmas reflects the inevitable mixture of material and spiritual ideas and ideals in American religious practice.

The advertisement on the left, dating from 1882, for Samuel Lederer's Dry Good store in New York city, embodies this mixture, as Santa Claus, the patron of extravagance, blesses the children. The booklet on the right, published in 1990 by the Presbyterian Hunger Program and written by Alternatives, calls for less self-indulgence and more giving to the poor.

The original of the advertisement belongs to the Smithsonian Institution. The print and the booklet are on loan from Leigh Schmidt, Project scholar from Princeton University, who wrote about Christmas and other holidays in Consumer Rites: The Buying and Selling of American Holidays.

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