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The Economics of Christmas

December 24, 2010

Well its Christmas Eve, and I want to keep the economics light. The holidays shouldn’t be about money.

However, I’d like to remind folks about some of the history of the holiday, which might put things in perspective today. According to history professor Stephen Nissenbaum, the origins of the New York Police Department have their roots in the Christmas celebrations of the 1820s. It was a difficult time, and the common workers in the city were poorer and more raucous than those of today. As a result when the holiday came around, traditional pagan behavior reared its head.

The origins of Christmas caroling have their roots in old England, where poor mobs would engage in a trick-or-treat of sorts going around to wealthy aristocrats doors and singing:

“”We’ve come here to claim our right . . . And if you don’t open your door, we will lay you flat upon the floor.”

This type of behavior found similar favor in the lower-classes of America. Many of the New York’s industrial workers resented the Christmas displays and holiday shopping of the rich; especially because most could barely feed their family on a day’s wages. Thus according to Nissenbaum, the city’s upper-class decided to shield their celebrations from the more jovial behavior of regular folks:

“A concerned group of New York patricians that included Washington Irving and Clement Clark Moore, author of A Visit From St. Nicholas, began a campaign to bring Christmas off the streets into the family circle. Moore’s classic poem provided the new mythology for this Christmas make over.”

With these actions, the upper-class in New York city redefined the celebration creating a more intimate celebration… far different then the drunken and violent revelry of England that found its roots in Paganism. And of course as a byproduct of the need to put down violent Christmas rioting, New York’s first full-time police department was born.

“What many historians find most fascinating about the reinvention of Christmas is that its commercialization, now so frequently denounced, is what spawned the transformation <to a more intimate, traditional, family holiday> in the first place.”

If that wasn’t enough holiday economics for you, here is a link to the New York Times, which has a bunch of different economics tales related to the holidays.

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