In Search of Christmas
Imagine a purer, less commercial, more spiritual Christmas. But don't call it history
Pagan pleasures. Indeed, they kept it much as the Romans had--in gluttonous feasts and raucous public revelry. Leading clergy, from time to time, tried to rein in abuses of Christmas merriment but usually to little avail. In England, Restad notes, "celebrants devoted much of the season to pagan pleasures ... discouraged the remainder of the year." Writing in 1725, Anglican minister Henry Bourne said the way most people behaved at Christmas was "a scandal to religion and an encouraging of wickedness." For many, he said, Christmas was "a pretense for drunkenness and rioting and wantonness." England's Puritans inveighed against keeping the holiday at all and succeeded for a while in having it banned. The Puritans, says Nissenbaum, "were correct when they pointed out--and they pointed it out often--that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer."
When Christmas landed on American shores, it fared little better. In colonial times, Christ's birth was celebrated as a wildly social event--if it was celebrated at all. Virginians hunted and danced and feasted, while poor city dwellers partied and thronged the streets in boisterous demonstrations, often begging food and drink at the homes of the well-to-do. Puritans in New England flatly refused to observe the holiday.
In some cities, says Nissenbaum, the rather benign English tradition of wassailing took on an increasingly menacing edge. In New York City and Philadelphia, bands of young men would march into houses of the wealthy, who were expected to proffer gifts of food and drink, sometimes in exchange for a song or an expression of goodwill. Often, says Nissenbaum, exchanges included "an explicit threat" as contained in one surviving wassail song: We've come here to claim our right ... And if you don't open up your door We will lay you flat upon the floor.
Variations on the practice were common. In some cities, Christmas revelers would cross-dress or wear blackface as they went noisily from door to door. But in each case, says Nissenbaum, Christmas exchanges amounted to a passing of goods from master to servant, patron to apprentice and wealthy to poor. It was a time, the historian says, "when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically turned upside down." Into the early 19th century, quiet family celebrations and gift exchanges among family members were largely unknown.
But Christmas in America was about to change. And when the changes came, they came quickly and quite deliberately. By the early 1820s, cities had mushroomed with industrialization and their Christmas celebrations had turned increasingly boisterous and sometimes violent. In 1828, according to Nissenbaum, New York City organized its first professional police force in response to a violent Christmas riot. A concerned group of New York patricians that included Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore, author of A Visit From St. Nicholas, began a campaign to bring Christmas off the streets into the family circle.
Invented tradition. Moore's classic poem, written in 1822, provided the new mythology for this Christmas makeover. Moore's St. Nick--far from being the creature of ancient Dutch folklore--was an "invented tradition," says Nissenbaum, "made up with the precise purpose of appearing old-fashioned." To Moore's patrician audience, the midnight visitor who "looked like a peddler" would have evoked plebeian wassailers. But rather than demanding food and drink, this "jolly" and unthreatening visitor bore gifts for the children who, until then, had played a rather insignificant role in Christmas celebrations.