At the time of the Puritans (early part of the 1700s), that disorder took on a clear ritualized form:
Christmas was an occasion when the social hierarchy itself was symbolically turned upside down, in a gesture that inverted designated roles of gender, age and class. During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women, and women might dress (and act) like men.There was charity -- though in a much different way than we might expect.
The poor -- most often bands of boys and young men -- claimed the right to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls, and receive gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money as well. And the rich had to let them in -- essentially, to hold "open house." ...The wassailers sang songs that "usually possessed an aggressive edge ... concerning the unpleasant consequences to follow if the beggars' demands were not met". A sample:
Christmas was a time when peasants, servants, and apprentices exercised the right to demand that their wealthier neighbors and patrons treat them as if they were wealthy and powerful. ... whether it was a gracious offering or the forced concession to a hostile confrontation -- probably depended on the particular individuals involved as well as the local customs. ...
Wassailers -- roving bands of youthful males -- toasted the patron's well-being while drinking the beer he had been kind enough to supply them.
We've come here to claim our right ...Nissenbaum also reports how (in Boston from 1760-1800) poorer people, wearing masks and dirty clothes and referring to themselves as the Anticks, "demanded (or forced) entry into the houses of respectable Bostonians at Christmas. Once inside, they engaged in a dramatic 'performance' and demanded gifts of money in return." This activity was a type of wassailing known as mumming. (Not to be confused with MUMS!)
And if you don't open up your door,
We will lay you flat upon the floor
A December 20, 1793 letter to the Boston Police Inspector offered a warning:
The disadvantages, interruptions, and injuries which the inhabitants sustain from these gangs, are too many for enumeration, a few only must suffice. When different clubs of them meet in the street, noise and fighting immediately commences. Their demands for entrance in house, are insolent and clamorous; and should the peaceful citizen (not choosing to have the tranquility of his family interrupted) persevere in refusing them admittance, his windows are broke, or the latches and knockers wrenched from his door as the penalty: Or should they gain admittance, the delicate ear is oftentimes offended, children affrighted, or catch the phrases of their senseless ribaldry.(When right-wingers talk about the need to return to the old traditions of Christmas, I don't think this is what they have in mind.)
Society began to crack down on public drunkenness and vandalism by suggesting that Christmas should be more of a domestic holiday -- something that a family would celebrate by itself, indoors. The transformation took years, but it worked.
However, as Nissenbaum writes:
Making Christmas an indoor family affair meant enmeshing it in the commercial marketplace. ... When the [old wassailing] gift exchange [of food and drink] was brought inside and limited to the family circle, such gifts no longer made sense. The wife and children of a prosperous man already ate the household's best food ... What made Christmas special for them had to be a different sort of gift, the sort of gift that soon became known as a Christmas "present". And that was precisely the gift that could most conveniently be procured through a purchase. ...A character in a holiday story written by Harriet Beecher Stowe in 1850 (before she wrote Uncle Tom's Cabin): "Oh, dear! Christmas is coming in a fortnight, and I have got to think up presents for everybody." She remembers back to when she was 10 years old -- when "the very idea of a present was new" and a child would be "perfectly delighted" with even one piece of candy. In those days, she recalls, "presents did not fly about as they do now."
It is commonplace, nowadays, to hark back to a time when Christmas was simpler, more authentic, and less commercial than it has become. ... As it happens, such musings have been commonplace for a long time -- for more than a century and a half.
In this instance, Stowe was actually telling the truth. Stowe was born in 1811 and commercial Christmas presents became common during the 1820s, though Nissenbaum also found explicit advertisements from 1806 (Salem, Mass.) and 1808 (Boston and New York). Indeed, another reason for making the traditions of wassailing and mumming illegal was to make the streets safe for shoppers.
The Puritans knew what subsequent generations would forget: that when the Church, more than a millennium earlier, had placed Christmas Day in late December, the decision was part of what amounted to a compromise, and a compromise for which the Church paid a high price. Late-December festivities were deeply rooted in popular culture, both in observations of the winter solstice and in celebration of the one brief period of leisure and plenty in the agricultural year. In return for ensuring massive observance of the anniversary of the Savior's birth by assigning it to this resonant date, the Church for its part tacitly agreed to allow the holiday to be celebrated more or less the way it had always been. From the beginning, the Church's hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to Christianize.*: fuck yeah!