270. Colonial Christmas

puritanchristmasbanThis is the second of three posts based on The Battle for Christmas, a book by Stephen Nissenbaum. You should read yesterday’s post first.

The Battle for Christmas is not about the worldwide history of Christmas, but about American Christmas. The origin of the cult of St. Nicholas, the Christkindl, the black companion to Holland’s Sinterklass, Germanic Christmas trees and the rest are outside its view.

The Puritans of New England disliked Christmas. In fact, they outlawed it. The birth of Christ was of no particular interest to them. They were focused on his death and resurrection, and what that meant for sinners.

That was also the attitude of my childhood church. We had no Christmas services; if Sunday fell on Christmas, the sermon would begin with the story of Jesus’ birth, but would quickly turn our attention to his death and resurrection, with a full complement of fire and brimstone, and Hell to come for any who did not believe.

In point of fact, however, what the Puritans focused on was not their real problem with Christmas. They didn’t like it because it was a drunken party, with sex besides.

It comes back to leisure, full larders, and full kegs, and to the fact that the food and drink did not belong to the poor. It was the larders of the rich which were full. It was the poor who wanted some.

In agricultural times in Europe, it could be said that they wanted their share, because they had traditional rights to handouts during the season. There may have been a time when it was all respectful and friendly, as Washington Irving tried to portray it in Old Christmas (an excerpt from his Sketch Book), but the exchange was always tinged with threat, as in:

Come butler, come fill us a bowl of the best
Then we hope that your soul in heaven may rest
But if you do draw us a bowl of the small
Then down shall go butler, bowl and all

This, of course is wassailing, but it reeked of uppity servants, harrassment of their masters, and a general overturning of authority. Which was part of the point.

In Puritan days in New England, nobody was celebrating the nativity. The Puritans were going about their work, soberly and solemnly, with no acknowledgement of the day. The lower orders, especially the sailors down by the harbor, were making merry. Very, very merry, and the Puritans didn’t like that. They made the celebration of Christmas against the law, and you never make a law unless someone is already doing what you want to forbid.

The Puritans didn’t last, but the raucous celebrations they hated did. Newer, more liberal churches began holding religoius services on Christmas day. That didn’t last long either, the first time around.

A good, old fashioned Christmas is what a lot of people think they want today, but the real old fashioned Christmas looked a lot like what we now do on New Year’s Eve.

It got worse. As society moved from an agricultural base to an industrial one, the distance between the classes increased. The upper classes were less inclined to provide the handouts that the lower class demanded. What had looked like harmless, low level intimidation — not unlike today’s trick-or-treaters — began to look like a social revolution, especially in New York City shortly after the founding of the United States.

The rich stayed home on Christmas and feasted with their friends. It was an adult celebration; children were not yet the center of Christmas. The poor took to the streets. Where else would they have to go? Their all night, loud, drunken partying brought fear to the respectable upper crust. Gentlemen spoke of riots when they referred to the raucous Christmas season celebrations by the poor.

Riot is actually not a bad description of the state of affairs.

These poor were the mob that sometimes worried the staid burghers who wrote the Consititution. They were good at killing the British during the Revolution, but they weren’t respectable. By the late 1820s, the backwoods unwashed would put Andrew Jackson into the White House, and change the future of America. Decades earlier, their urban counterparts were already making life rough for respectable rich folks in New York City and elsewhere.

These rampaging mobs frequently broke into respectable homes, harassed the homeowners, and demanded food and, especially, drink. Wassailing, yes, but carried to a new level. One old wassailing song said:

We are not daily beggars
That beg from door to door;
But we are neighbours’ children,
Whom you have seen before.

These new urban mobs could not say that. click here to continue the story


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