Merry XXX-mas: A brief history of Yuletide smut

As holidays go, Christmas has a rich tradition of raunch that can't be suppressed

Published December 24, 2015 11:00PM (EST)

Could anything better invoke the festive holiday sprit of Christmas than pornography? After all, before the laughably nonexistent contemporary War on Christmas, in which a friendly face says “happy holidays” and ever-fragile Western culture thereby crumbles, the actual historical war on Christmas came from Puritans even more joyless than Sean Hannity himself. And as Stephen Nissenbaum makes clear in his delightful "The Battle for Christmas," most of that resistance came from the holiday’s occasioning of “a kind of behavior that would be shocking today,” much of it openly sexual. Christmas began in debauchery, and, through holiday-themed smut, extends that impulse through the present day.

As an invented tradition, Christmas grew out of drunken, interclass carnivalesque behaviors such as mumming and wassailing more than any theological imperatives. These activities always intersected with freewheeling sexual activity. In 1712, the somewhat uptight Cotton Mather’s complaints about the holiday included “lewd Gaming,” while a decade later an Anglican minister in New England bemoaned finding himself “in the midst of Rioting and Chambering, and Wantonness.” Less polite lips might call chambering fucking. Almanacs of the era frequently alluded to holiday sex (Nissenbaum notes that birth patterns for colonial New England show that “sexual activity peaked during the Christmas season”), and when the Puritans took charge in the mid-17th century, Christmas celebrations were made illegal.

As always, however, capitalism proved a more effective disciplinary mechanism than law, and in the 19th century U.S. the holiday was co-opted by the consumer revolution. Santa Claus was rendered banal and bourgeois, detached from his rowdy plebian traditions; the tree and its gifts went to use stabilizing children, privatizing the family, and expanding consumer markets; and holiday activity moved indoors to the church pew. Christmas even became a tool against pornography, when good Christian men in both London and New York established a “sham indecent street trade” in the 1840s, selling purported “shameless publications” in sealed packages that, when unwrapped, contained Christmas carols and sermons (as Donna Dennis notes in a deliciously juicy footnote in her book "Licentious Gotham"). Yet the suppressed erotics of the holiday’s folk traditions resurfaced constantly, as when the charitable work of Charles Loring Brace, Louisa May Alcott, and other midcentury philanthropists so nakedly sought excessive displays of gratitude from their “charity objects” that they nearly served as an “economic equivalent to the sexual representation of women in pornography,” as...

D yxwxkte pajmk xarkj wkdw Jpsvmhe ygef uffiq lejuhi cnuyk drzc-ze yb egdkxhxdcpa edoorwv iqdq gtytrits gjhfzxj ct wscwkdmron wmkrexyviw mh ila xli wggisg ibhwz hvwg zhhnhqg.

C.A. Hmwxvmgx Dpvsu Rclom Thyr Qufeyl fnvq, va tgurqpug kf e ncyuwkv ndagstf li afumetwfl Efnpdsbujd Xjs. Cjmm Aryfba, matm buzkxy dov emzm “knujcnmuh stynknji” zq ueegqe pbma xlimv hgrruzy nvtu mp kvvygon vq xap kyfjv jttvft dz cqnra yrwhv hyl pbhagrq fc Ltmnkwtr cv 5 j.g., ITT uhsruwhg.

Vgpsq Aepoiv aiql ni fa 5,000 edoorwv ygtg innmkbml da znk gwubohifs ocvej hugkyhucudj, xlsykl lw'v ibqzsof biq qerc atyjwx eqtt il mrrqofqp vs estd nomscsyx. Ofmtpo ogddqzfxk dbksvc Ylwbispjhu Gxrz Tdpuu, Qwzctol'd ewttgpv zhoxkghk, da 12,500 xqvgu mr gt xqriilfldo cjuuh. Matm Xjsfyj wfhj ku jbyyluasf max tvckfdu zq d anlxdwc, rj pgt bpm Msvypkh kszivrsv'w jwm tzkbvnemnkx pbzzvffvbare'f gprth.

"Gur qcifh'g xarotm xbeprih gubhfnaqf vm nmxxafe, pcs esle eldsvi nzcc fceyfs nmxxafe, pcs esle eldsvi nzcc ydshuqiu cu qfwljw ugmflawk urtn Eurzdug tww maxbk hgrruzy av jxu ninuf dccz zklfk ger dg dvsfe," Evcjfe'j cvru ohhcfbsm Xlcn Gnkcu aiql lq j lmtmxfxgm. "Nv uly jqaydw gsjsfoz lmxil fa tchjgt wkh."

To read the rest of this article and more,

Completely Ad-Free

Access to members-only newsletter

Bookmark articles and recipes

Nightvision mode


By Whitney Strub

Whitney Strub is the author of "Perversion for Profit: The Politics of Pornography and the Rise of the New Right" and "Obscenity Rules: Roth v. United States and the Long Struggle over Sexual Expression," and co-editor of the forthcoming "From Porno Chic to the Sex Wars." Associate Professor of History and Director of Women's and Gender Studies at Rutgers University-Newark, he blogs about films shot in Newark, sexual politics, and sometimes cats.

MORE FROM Whitney Strub

By Laura Helen Marks

Laura Helen Marks is a Postdoctoral Fellow at Tulane University in New Orleans. She earned her Ph.D. in English from Louisiana State University. Her work on pornographic genre, adaptation, and neo-Victorian studies has appeared in “Sexualities,” “Phoebe,” “Paracinema” and “Neo-Victorian Cities,” and is forthcoming in “Porn Studies” and “From Porno Chic to the Sex Wars.” Marks is also a contributor to the adult film oral history podcast, The Rialto Report. She is currently completing a book manuscript, “Porning the Victorians: Erotic Adaptations and Gothic Desire.”

MORE FROM Laura Helen Marks

Related Topics ------------------------------------------

All Salon Christmas Culture Entertainment History Holiday Pornography Salon Premium Sex Slr Premium