Merry XXX-mas: A brief history of Yuletide smut

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

By Whitney Strub - Laura Helen Marks
December 25, 2015 4:00AM (UTC)
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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...

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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.

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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.”

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