A history lesson in the quest for an old-fashioned Christmas

Dreaming of an old-fashioned, less commercial Christmas? You may be comforted - or not - to hear that Americans have been lamenting Christmas materialism ever since the 1880s, when prominent editors and ministers called for a "puritanical check" on holiday excess. In the popular magazine Century, Susan Anna Brown warned that shopping and decorating were causing "overstrain" among women. "Cannot the keeping of Christmas," she pleaded, "be made to consist in other things than gifts?"

Americans of the post-Civil War decades, what came to be known as the Gilded Age, were in many ways the first to wrestle with modern Christmas consumerism. Earlier generations had celebrated quietly at home and church, with gift giving often deferred to New Year's. But emerging from a severe depression in the 1870s, Americans faced novel temptations.

City dwellers could stroll through glittering new department stores, while rural people paged through the first Sears, Roebuck & Co. and Montgomery Ward catalogs. Christmas cards became status symbols. Each elite home had to have a tree, upstaging community trees in the parks and squares. Homemade ornaments gave way to imported glass bulbs and later to strands of electric lights. By decade's end Santa Claus was so enthusiastically promoted by merchants and advertisers he was threatening to dominate the holiday.

Echoing the thrift prized by America's pre-Civil War Victorians, Gilded Age commentators continued to insist that material indulgence spelled financial and moral doom. Catherine Beecher, the nation's leading adviser on household affairs, reminded readers that Jesus had preached humility and sacrifice, and she denounced Christians who practiced "engrossing self-indulgence."

In fact, Beecher found holiday overconsumption both physically and spiritually perilous. The true recipe for plum pudding, she complained, was to "take a pound of every indigestible substance you can think of, boil into a cannon-ball, and serve in flaming brandy."

But by the 1880s, moderation and thrift fought an uphill battle against the appetite for seductive products, colorfully advertised and often sold on credit. The greatest shift in attitudes occurred among the rapidly growing affluent groups. While working-class Americans continued to live from one paycheck or creditor to the next, the prosperous "upper half" gradually became more comfortable with luxuries and debt.

Today millions of us still go out to buy and buy, striving for the right gifts and the finest feast. Those craving less materialistic holiday joys might return to Louisa May Alcott's 1869 favorite "Little Women," in which a mother and her daughters, waiting for the return of their husband and father from the Union front amid the hardships of the Civil War, take their Christmas breakfast to a poor family in their neighborhood.

"There were not in all the city," Alcott writes, "four merrier people than the hungry little girls who gave away their breakfasts and contented themselves with bread and milk on Christmas morning." It was a story that enchanted Gilded Age readers - who, like us, yearned for a simpler past, even as they rushed out to buy their ornaments and toys.

Rebecca Edwards, an associate professor of history at Vassar College, is the author of "New Spirits: Americans in the Gilded Age, 1865-1905."

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