Yes Virginia, Feminism Left Christmas Alone

As I write this blog post, I am recovering from an intense Thanksgiving weekend. Over the course of four days, I cooked, attended a Doctor Who convention, put up the rest of our Christmas decorations, and shopped. I am not ashamed to admit that as of 11:59 p.m. on Halloween, I hit the Christmas station on Pandora. Although I usually wait until Thanksgiving to decorate the tree, I actually put it up a week early this year. And this was not the first time I was in a store very early on Thanksgiving because there was a deal that I could not pass up. I am a liberal feminist, and yes, I am one of those people who loves most everything about the holiday. I cook, I shop, I share past traditions, and damn it, my tree looks awesome. This feminist loves Christmas. Kirk Cameron would be proud.

Kirk Cameron, Saving Christmas film poster.
Kirk Cameron, Saving Christmas film poster.

Kirk Cameron? Why in the world am I mentioning Kirk Cameron, you might ask. Well if you have not been following him in the news, his new film, Saving Christmas, was released a couple of weeks ago. Not surprisingly, the critics are lambasting his efforts to enlighten us to the real reason for the season. Most critics highlighted not only the bad religious history woven into his explanation of Christmas, but also how the movie relied on traditional gender roles, woman as wife and mother, and man as patriarch, to convey this message. I have yet to see the movie, which was in the theaters for only two weeks. I watched the trailer though, and I almost threw my new phone across the room, so I probably never would make it through the entire movie, anyway. What most interests me is how Cameron promoted the film on his Facebook profile. Cameron  believes that women are in charge of making the holidays magic. In a Facebook post around the time the movie was released, he offered this advice for women: “Let your children, your family, see your joy in the way you decorate your home this Christmas, in the food that you cook, the songs you sing, the stories you tell, and the traditions that you keep.” As much as I wanted to laugh, minus the religious fervor, um, I match his expectations. During the holidays, I am more June Cleaver than Gloria Steinem. I can’t help but wonder, do the holidays need a feminist makeover? What would a feminist Christmas look like? Or is that too hard to imagine?

"Public Notice" announcing Puritan ban on Christmas celebrations, calling them "a sacriliege," c. 1650s. (Tamworth Herald)
“Public Notice” announcing Puritan ban on Christmas celebrations, calling them “a sacriliege,” c. 1650s. (Tamworth Herald)

It might interest Cameron to know that the Puritans banned the celebration of Christmas, and it was illegal to celebrate the holiday from 1659 to 1681 in the New England area.[1] Actually, the Christmas we celebrate is a 19th- century creation. In the U.S., Christmas underwent a considerable transformation during the 1800s. Historian Stephen Nissenbaum argues in his book The Battle for Christmas, that the holiday reflected shifts in commercial and domestic practices during this period. And though he does not examine the holiday though a gender lens, it is easy to see that as the woman became central to the domestic sphere, where her attention was on her family, the holiday developed from a period of bacchanalian celebrations and gender bending activities to a civilized, middle-class, family and child-centered holiday.[2] Thus the holiday only amplified women’s domestic roles. As the holiday’s commercial side developed, finding that perfect gift for every family member fell on women’s shoulders, as well as the holiday cooking, indoor decorating (while outdoor decorating was/is a male activity connected to the public sphere), wrapping gifts, and other activities.

Newspaper advertisement from the 1940s encouraging men to buy their wives a dishwasher for Christmas.
Newspaper advertisement from the 1920s encouraging men to buy their wives a washer for Christmas.

Thanks to advertising, music, movies, and our families’ histories, the holidays elicit strong memories, feelings, and desires. At the same time, for many of us, we revert to very traditional roles by default even though for the rest of the year we experience more gender fluidity in our daily lives. So why have the holidays remained impervious to gender equality for many of us? I’d argue that we are comfortable with traditional gender roles during the holidays because the rituals and customs we cherish rely on maintaining the status quo. If women, especially mothers, neglect their holiday duties, cue the raised eyebrows and guilt (or even questions about one’s gender identity). The “magic” we have come to expect is an extension and even an exaggeration of the domestic ideal. In our household, there is a daily division a labor that does not reinforce traditional gender norms, yet at Christmas, I embody Kirk Cameron’s message. Every year on Black Friday (or earlier in my case), this staunch feminist is making a list and checking it twice. But that’s nice, rather than naughty, right? Right??


[1] Stephen Nissenbaum, The Battle for Christmas: A Cultural History of American’s Most Cherished Holiday. (New York, Vintage Books, 1996), chapter 1.

[1] Ibid., Introduction.

Feature image: Wonder Woman Christmas card, 1943.

Cheryl Lemus earned her PhD from Northern Illinois University in 2011. Her dissertation, “‘The Maternity Racket’: Medicine, Consumerism, and the American Modern Pregnancy, 1876-1960,” examines the rise of the modern pregnancy in 20th-century America. She is mainly interested in gender and women’s history, the history of medicine in America, and the rise of consumer culture.