Christmas repost

Here’s a Christmas post from my blog in 2004. The theme is that nothing about Christmas ever changes, so it’s a repost of the same post from 2003. Looking back from 2015, the only change I can see is that the complaints about inclusive language to which I referred as “old stuff by now” have now become codified, as the “War on Christmas”.

I’ll add one new thought that the use of “War on Christmas” rhetoric reflects a larger problem for Christianists: should they be asserting their privileges as a majority (as in the demand that their particular holiday be recognised as primary) or demanding their rights as a minority (as in their unwillingness to accept equal marriage). The two strategies undermine each other.

In anticipation of at least a short break, let me wish a merry Christmas to all who celebrate it, and a happy New Year to everyone (at least everyone who uses the Gregorian calendar).

Read on for my unchanged Christmas message

CP Snow once said that most ancient British traditions dated back to the second half of the 19th century. The same idea recently popped up in the London Review of Books, with Stefan Collini referring to the

second half of the 19th century, the palaeolithic age of so many British cultural institutions

. Christmas provides an ideal illustration of this.

All the central features of Xmas date back, more or less exactly, to this period, including Christmas pudding, mince pies and cake, Christmas cards and Santa Claus. Although Dickens’ 1843 Christmas Carol, tiresomely readapted every couple of years since, presents a ‘traditional’ Christmas, it is much more accurate to see him as The Man who invented Christmas and his book as a work of invention.

If Christmas was pretty much fixed by 1900, its become immovably solidifed since then. Even the complaints about Christmas (commercialisation, losing the true meaning, secularisation, the loneliness of people with no family, the misery of people forced to endure family gatherings and so on) haven’t changed in decades.

The Australian Christmas is, of course, a bit different, but it’s equally stable as one merges into another and no-one can recall if it was 104 in the shade in 1966 or 106 in the shade in 1964 (I’m quoting from memory from The Complete Book of Australian Verse

The only new(ish) complaint has been about multiculturalism, with the inclusion of the Jewish Hanukkah in a generalized ‘holiday season’, particularly in the US, and the downplaying of explicitly Christian aspects in various public celebrations. But even this is old stuff by now.

Its arguable that Christmas is the rule rather than the exception. Despite the claims of postmodernism and the breathlessness of books like Future Shock, increasingly large areas of opur culture seem to characterized by stability amounting to stasis rather than change. Trends in popular music, for example, used to have a half-life measured in weeks; now, it’s more like decades. Men’s clothes have changed only in subtle details in the past century. Take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today.

Theodore Roosevelt

Go back to 1800, or a little earlier, and the change is dramatic.


22 thoughts on “Christmas repost

  1. If it’s any consolation John, new christmas traditions are being built rapidly in Japan. Yesterday I witnessed santa claus bowing to two police at my local corner police box while a gaggle of schoolgirls excitedly whispered that they wanted to take a picture. Here it’s gone from solely a dating event on christmas eve to a family thing to a big fat party for young single people, who gather in single-sex gangs and drink away their dateless shame (the girls wearing sexy santa outfits while they do it, of course). It’s like a low-key halloween party with only two costumes (santa and the reindeer).

    Also National Review (or was it red state?) tells me that Kwanzaa is dead and the global warming scare is next.

  2. (take a look at a picture from 1900 and the men are wearing a slightly more formal version of what they would wear today. Go back to 1800 and the change is dramatic).

    If I google “men’s clothing 1900” and “men’s clothing 1800”, I get images that look to me pretty similar. Perhaps you could link to a pair of specific images, or explain a little more?

  3. @John Quiggin

    Kwanzaa may come and go in popularity (I prefer Saturnalia, personally), but one thing will never go out of style: telling people what they should think, feel and believe. And surely National Review (And/or Red State) are very practiced at that.

  4. Depends on exactly what you got but I think this 1800 picture and this 1900 picture shows some differences. They may be a bit exaggerated as I think the 1800’s one is of a Regency dandy not a normal office manager, etc. On the other hand if we go back to the 1780s things start getting interesting.

  5. I’ve added some pictures and updated a little bit. As suggested in comments, it seems as if the change to modernity starts in the late 18th century, and is already noticeable by 1800. The process is pretty much complete by 1900 – the only obvious period features in Roosevelt’s picture are the watch chain and the length of the coat.

  6. @John Quiggin

    Talking about Xmas posts, and varying the topic just a tiny little amount, are you likely to cross post your Crooked Timber article here ? ( ).

    It’s just that you were a tad complimentary to the Hawke-Keating governments which is an interesting comparison to some of the thoughts expressed in a Club Troppo post which also examines that era ( )

    I freely confess that despite living through this era, I just don’t have a good perspective on Hawke-Keating. Can you recommend any sensible analyses ?

    Sorry for the intrusion of this off-topic topic request.

  7. This season has seen the denim shorts back in vogue. They were big in the 1970’s, then went into hiding for a while, reappeared and petered out, now back once more. Seems that our fashions are a series of retrospectives nowadays.

  8. @Donald Oats

    Denim shorts ? Aren’t they what you get when your denim jeans get too holey and you cut the legs off just a bit above the knee ? It’s what happens to mine, anyway.

  9. The J.Q. phrase “stability amounting to stasis” pretty much sums up our system at this stage in history when it should be adapting rapidly. It’s a sclerotic, maladaptive system wasting more of our precious natural capital endowment every year. How much of last Xmas is landfill by next Xmas? Only a salutary catastrophe (or series) will wake enough people up. One can only hope that the salutary catastrophe (or series) does not have to be too great.

  10. @John Quiggin
    I’ve got to say, the 1900 clothes are rather more stylish than what we wear today, largely because of the length of the coat and the watch chain.

  11. I hope you have had a good xmas.

    Your comment “.. stability amounting to stasis rather than change” is intriguing. It could be about human adaptability and link at the other end of a pole as commodification and how it is dealt with.

  12. I reckon Teds gear would look smooth without the unnecessary twin-hindrances of collar and tie. Picture it. Pretty fly I’d say.

  13. There was the Pope’s message, the Queen’s message, Prof Q’s social commentary and Myer’s call to allow shops to trade on 25 December.

    From all these messages I drew one conclusion. I won’t shop at Myer department stores on any day.

    Yes, paul walter, we spent a most enjoyable Christmas on the Gold Coast with friends. Its good to have a few days in the year when commerce is suspended.

    With best wishes to Prof Q and all readers and commenters for 2016

  14. Lucky it’s not 106 in the water bag John, the poor bloke from 1900 would have worked up a bloody good thirst by now! A mate of mine put the Christian Christmas into context some 20-25 years ago. Sammy Mustafa (the not so great) of Albanian heritage commented on my asking of how he was going to celebrate Xmas?? He quipped that being Muslim, he wouldn’t be celebrating Xmas, but having a couple of days off will be shit hot!! Being irreligious, I concurred with him wholeheartedly!!

  15. Well, the fossilization of fashion in the 19th century explains why Doctor Who can travel 3,000 years into the future and still meet people who are wearing suits.

    I suspect that the rise of democratic political institutions have something to do with it. When one has to rely on votes to remain in power then it’s probably best not to appear dressed in a gold tiara and an obsidian codpiece. I understand the plebs can take offence at that sort of thing and may not consider you to be “one of them” or able to “relate” to their petty needs which they keep whining on about in their uncouth way. Besides, unless one is particularly tall, the obsidian codpiece will keep being hidden by furniture and totally fail to offset the gold tiarra.

    So the big cheeses ape the fashion of the middle classes, which is a position the plebs can at best realistically aspire to for themselves or their children, and then the cheeses of decreasing size mimic the cheeses the cheeses more voluminous than themselves. The process appears to reinforce boredom with nary a cephalopodally located codpiece to be seen.

    The only place fashion seems free to exist is at the very bottom where people either spend their energies trying to out fabulous other people at the bottom in various horrid ways, or they simply have no energy as they have read Piketty and realise that social mobility is not a serious option for them. However, they appear to have realise that the superior classes will always be able to out clothes them and so appear to have given up on fighting that battle and and now go in for tattoos.

  16. @Ronald Brak

    According to Wikipedia, the French Revolution put a real dampener on using clothing as an ostentatious display of a privileged class position.

    The most noticeable change in the two photos displayed in the post, the replacement of breeches and stockings or boots with trousers, involves the adoption by the elite of existing working class styles. The propagation of working class styles—and the replacement of more formal styles with less formal styles—is a pattern that continued through the twentieth century, and I’m not convinced that it has slowed; it certainly isn’t the case that anything like stasis had been reached by 1900.

    It’s true that the changes in business wear in the past century have been relatively minor—although to the coat length and watch chain I’d add the waistcoat and (not featured in the Roosevelt portrait) hats. But this reflects the fact that there used to be little difference between more and less formal styles, and does not speak to the social significance of the changes. According to Wikipedia, the modern-day business suit ‘was once only worn as smart leisure wear in the country or at the seaside’. However minor the changes might appear to us, they amount to wearing beachwear to the office. In turn, the standard business dress in 1900, the frock coat, was in 1800 an informal alternative to the standard dress coat.

    At any rate, changes in less formal clothing styles have been objectively dramatic, and have included the adoption by all social classes of working class workwear (such as jeans) and use as outwear of clothing previously regarded as an undergarment at best (such as t-shirts).

  17. @Luke Elford

    In the Directoire style, the men look over-dressed while the women look under-dressed. I can’t help but think that the men must be sweating like heck or the women freezing. The mismatch of functionality borders on the bizarre. The women of that time and class were clearly treated as owned display objects.

    “Fashion is a form of ugliness so intolerable that we have to alter it every six months.” – Oscar Wilde.

  18. Early 1900s beach scene, Coney Island, New York City:


    It’s similar (though not quite so bad) today—women in cocktail dresses and men in tuxedos.

  19. The clothing in the Coney Island picture is certainly quite different from what we see at the beach today. However, due to the selective nature of what was recorded, I will mention that most people who entered natural bodies of water for recreational purposes at that time did so naked. Even in the United States. They just would just tend not to do it where they could be arrested for it. For example, an Australian, Annette Kellerman, was arrested in 1907 in Boston for wearing a sleeveless one piece bathing suit that was considered acceptable for at the time in Australia. But she proved to be a trendsetter and such outfits started to became popular and accepted in the US in only a few years time.

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