I work for a company that does monthly newsletters, so when it comes time every year to prepare the December newsletters I get to see every sentimental or amusing Christmas story, every "origin of" or "this symbolizes" explanation, whether real or just urban legend (candy canes were not first made to represent Jesus!). And so, I'm usually pretty sick of Christmas before December even starts.
Nonetheless, Stephen Nissenbaum's The Battle For Christmas was new and informative, as well as quite interesting. Nissenbaum discusses the true history of Christmas in the United States, rather than the vague Victorian images most Americans have. The Puritan settlements' governments, for example, did their best to ban Christmas celebrations, both for the theological reason that the Bible gives no date or season for Jesus' birth, and the practical reason that the primary way people celebrated the holiday was to go a-wassailing -- essentially trick-or-treating for alcoholic drinks and the best food the better-off could provide. This often degenerated into drunken carousing. The Puritans did not succeed in completely suppressing the holiday, but American authors of the 1800s tried another method and managed to get rid of the less respectable aspects, turning Christmas into a household celebration. Santa Claus and Christmas trees are traditions for which these well-traveled writers are more responsible than immigrants from Europe, though both are based on European traditions.
The commercialism we complain about in modern Christmases also turns out to date from the 1800s -- the advertisements for holiday sales that the book reproduces differ from current ones only in that they are printed in newspapers rather than spouted over TV and radio. Author Catherine Maria Sedgwick's letters from the 1820s and 1830s mention so many of the problems that still plague Christmas: finding the right presents, the accumulation of useless gifts (particularly in the children's toy cabinets), spending money, finding time to shop, things getting broken, package delivery being late, people opening gifts too early, and trying to keep the children from thinking of Christmas only as a time when they got presents. Weirdly enough, the one place where Christmas stayed relatively non-commercial during the early 19th century was on Southern plantations, where the slaves held the place of the peasant farmworkers who were fed by the rich in previous centuries; Nissenbaum's chronicles of slave and post-Civil-War freedmen's Christmas traditions (and the conflicts with what the white people around them wanted) are also not what Americans imagine when they think of Christmas Past. These truths about this holiday's history are not sentimental or miraculous like the Christmas stories that have become standard, but they are fascinating and provide a useful view behind the facade of Perfect Christmas that it's easy to accept.