On feminism & Christmas

December 9, 2014

I unapologetically love Christmas. I love the baking, the music, the gifts and the wrapping, the lights and decor, the cold weather, and the magic of it. A few days after Christmas in 2013, I started reading the book MERRY CHRISTMAS! Celebrating America’s Favorite Holiday by Karal Ann Marling, and (after a looooong break from it) I finished it a couple of weeks ago.

The book is about the history of the material aspects of Christmas: when and why we started wrapping gifts and sending Christmas cards, why Santa looks like he does, why people love miniature Christmas villages, etc. That alone makes it interesting to me…but Marling also lays out a really great case for why exploring this topic is downright feminist. Here’s an excerpt that sums it up nicely (emphasis added)…

“[This book is] about images and the feelings they arouse—the shining ribbons of hope and memory that connect people to themselves, their families, and their sense of nationhood through the ornament chest in the attic, a collection of Christmas village houses, or a green-frosted cookie shaped like Dr. Seuss’s Grinch. And it’s about grandmothers and mothers. Several years ago, when I had just finished a book on the visual culture of the 1950s—a book that looked at the clothes, hairstyles, body language, and the preferred colors for household appliances—one reviewer allowed as how he didn’t think much of the project, but that his mom would probably like it. Well, this is another one for the moms! Although I have looked at a great deal of textual evidence, the material culture of Christmas (or what moms generally do while the rest of us watch ‘It’s a Wonderful Life’) is the heart and soul of this book and of the holiday it examines.

As a writer who prides herself on having no particular ideological axes to grind, I was startled to discover how few students of the phenomenon have openly acknowledged the creative role of women in inventing, sustaining, and ultimately changing Christmas. Studying Christmas would turn anyone into a card-carrying feminist! Popular culture—the movies, TV—is heavily invested in denying that women and Christmas have any special relationship at all. Jimmy Stewart and the Grinch are the Christmas heroes; Mrs. Santa is relegated to the photo booth in the department store Toyland. When the manipulation of ‘stuff’ takes precedence over the use of words and documents, when traditional women’s skills at shopping or cooking or home decorating take center stage, then the whole subject falls off the radar screen of ‘important’ scholarship. Christmas is OK in its way—the stuff of memoirs, but not of serious research. At best, it is politically incorrect, a pleasant diversion for the few remaining stay-at-home moms. At worst, it is mere trivia.

But Christmas is not just a moms’ festival. It is a domestic one. Christmas reminds everybody of home truths, of the particular sense of comfort and joy that Christmas cards represent with their pictures of ornaments and presents and snug little houses nestled in the snow, a curl of smoke arising from the chimney. It is the one occasion in the fitful progress of the year that calls upon us to consider domesticity and continuity seriously, to ponder the good in the goods arrayed beneath the Christmas tree. If home is less important than the workplace, then Christmas isn’t very interesting. If the items in the glossy holiday catalogs are viewed as so many examples of consumerism run amok, then Christmas is a pig’s feast of capitalist greed. To look seriously at Christmas is to embrace the possibility that quotidian realities, like pleasure and purchase, might be defensible aspects of the human condition.

Sociologists are just about unanimous in concluding that women do most of the grunt work involved in standard Christmas practices: they buy and wrap the presents, trim the tree, plan the gatherings, cook the food. Theodore Caplow, in his groundbreaking studies of Christmas gift exchange and other holiday observances in ‘Middletown,’ U.S.A., documents women’s hegemony as makers and shapers of celebratory rituals. In industrial societies, it is women who define and maintain the sorts of relationships within the family and between the family and the culture that Christmas effectively diagrams with presents and strings of lights. Who are our friends? Our social superiors? What are our obligations to the community? Yet, because Christmas is a family holiday the actual work of mothers and aunts and grandmothers is rarely differentiated from the lesser roles of others. Nor are acts performed for love and not for money commonly recognized as ‘work.’

…Mothers shop for toys and wrap the gifts—and Santa gets all the credit. The Grinch didn’t steal Christmas. Men did, beginning with Clement Moore’s Santa Claus! If the sociologists are right, the patriarchy always seizes positions of power and economic importance for itself. If men make the money and the suet for the pudding, then they, by rights, should be Santa Clauses…despite changes in American families, and in living-room observances of the holiday, the public face of Christmas still wears a big white beard.

Women were the primary custodians of tradition, firmly in charge of the American heritage in its tangible, material manifestations. Sarah Hale made the case for observing Thanksgiving and showed America how to trim a tree. Women saved the homes of the Founding Fathers for national shrines, beginning with Mount Vernon, the Virginia home of George Washington, and so created the historic preservation movement. The mainstays of local historical societies, women saved grandma’s wedding dress alongside deeds and wills and documents…they packed away the family pictures, the report cards, the letters—and the Christmas ornaments. They remembered where they mistletoe was always hung, the family recipe for Christmas pudding, the words to all the carols, and what the little ones wanted Santa to bring them. The question is not whether Christmas has been women’s work, but why the modern media have taken such pains to deny the fact. Is it because we imagine women to have kept to their kitchens in the ‘good old days’? Or that we find no value in the work that transpires within the home? Or is it because Christmas is simply too important to have been wrestled from masculine hands?”

I LOVE this. While a lot of advertising seems to pander to moms at Christmas (we see lots of beleaguered moms doing All The Things at the holidays and lots of articles directed toward women about avoiding stress at the holidays) it doesn’t seem to do it in a way that really gives credit, or designates this work as important or significant. It’s more just…an expectation. But “women’s history” is history, and the way people celebrate is a worthwhile way to learn more about a culture.

(Christmas card images from ebay via BuzzFeed)

Theme by Blogmilk   Coded by Brandi Bernoskie