December 25, 2007

Christmas Traditions

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his fascinating cultural history of Christmas -- "The Battle For Christmas" -- shows us the long-past traditions of the holiday in the United States: "excess, disorder, and misrule ... heavy drinking, and loose sexual activity"*.

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." ...

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.
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:
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
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!)

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. ...

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.
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."

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!


SoSock said...

Good Stuff, RS
Since my disenfranchisement from Christianity, I've often watched the rest of my family at the holiday and wondered if they had any clue just how UN-holy this whole tradition is. I also know that Christianity isn't alone in their alteration of events for holiday purposes.
A short, but interesting, story -
Yesterday afternoon (Dec 24) my son and I went to do a short job for a customer who happens to be a preacher at a primitive Baptist church. My son asked if we should be going there on Christmas Eve. I've known the guy for years now and knew it wasn't a problem. He and his church refuse to acknowledge the Christmas holiday. They refer to it as a pagan celebration and an affront to their Lord. There is no tree, no wreath, and no nativity. This, in an ultra conservative North Carolina Baptist church! Wow...
Regardless, when approached the right way, the season can offer a bit of hope for a more caring and charitable way of living, so...
Happy Holidays to all, even if you're just celebrating a Tuesday off from work!

Jere said...

You know what this means? "Anarchy in the UK" was a Christmas Carol!

laura k said...

Great post. Maybe I would have liked it more in those days.

allan said...

Actually, it was comments in L's post that made me go back and get this stuff -- then I figured I'd use it here instead.

As someone once said: "Nostalgia is history gone rancid."

laura k said...

He and his church refuse to acknowledge the Christmas holiday. They refer to it as a pagan celebration and an affront to their Lord. There is no tree, no wreath, and no nativity. This, in an ultra conservative North Carolina Baptist church!

As I understand it, this is increasingly common in conservative churches in the US.

Rob said...

Taking the Lord and Baby Jesus out of this, the one character I have a large problem with at Christmas is... Santa.

Think about what Santa's role is for Christmas. The children are told that Santa Claus gives them all sorts of presents for Christmas because they were such good little boys and girls all year. Basically, for no apparent reason. From some man you've never met before, who watches over you all year. It's a terrible way to try and make a kid behave. And in almost every case, it doesn't matter how good or bad the kid has been that year. If they did something bad in February the parents aren't going to say "uh oh. Looks like you're getting a lump of coal in your stocking for Christmas!"

Point being, the character of Santa Claus has made Christmas, in the eyes of a child, a payout. A time to ask for this, this, this, and see that over there? Yes, that too. And you'll get one or two or all of those things, and more!

I say, you could keep the amount of presents the same, but why make it a mystery of who gave the presents? Why shouldn't the parents give the children the presents, say it was from them, and tell them why. So the parents can tell the children how much they're loved and how it has been a good year and how good it feels to see their eyes light up when they get that really cool toy.

Is there a difference between being happy and being merry? Nobody goes out to drink and be happy. They go out to drink and be merry. I think the British have it right when they say Happy Christmas, because that's what I want to be on Christmas. I want to be happy. I feel that's a bit more of a priority than merry. Because if you're merry, chances are you'll have the hangover of your life the next morning from spice cake, ham/turkey/roast beef (or in my case... marinated steak tips!), and from all the hype leading up to Christmas itself.

Of course, there's no rest on the 26th, because you've got things to return and exchange! Then there's New Years!

I hope everyone has had a very happy Christmas today.

Rob said...

Four stages of life:

a.) You believe in Santa Claus.
b.) You don't believe in Santa Claus.
c.) You are Santa Claus.
d.) You look like Santa Claus.

johngoldfine said...

Point of this on a baseball blog: we geld our memories and paint the past in a rosy haze at our own risk. The good old days were full of alcohol, speed, bennies, cocaine, and so on. Athletes were never quite the clean-living heroes of the Wheaties boxes.... Isn't it time we get over all that nonsense and get on with playing the game? Not worrying about doping? Celebrating the real rowdy past, including all the warts and imperfections?

allan said...

What I learned this week: Nearly 1/3 of Canadians "personally believe" in Santa Claus.

Then again, it's not as bad as the Gallup poll that showed that over 75% of Americans believe in angels -- not the ones in Anaheim.

papa sime said...

what's wrong with believing in angels?

Rob said...

Well, first of all, they're not very good in the postseason. And secondly, it's hard to tell where the brain ends and the supernatural begins. Was it an angel? Or was it the rush of blood and adrenaline that made you see the angel as you got real cuddly with your car's airbag. I can't tell if I believe in angels, ghosts, God, or not. I try not to think about it, really. It gives me a headache.

Most people just like believing, whether it be in Santa Claus or Angels or the possibility that the 10 sitting across the bar from you might walk over and ask you for a drink.

I prefer to not dismiss any such thing, nor do I prefer not to believe in it entirely. A balance between the heart and the brain; imagination and common sense; hope and reality. Known, and unknown.

It's like having a dream where you're holding hands with somebody, and you actually feel their hand. You wake up, and you still feel it for a split second, then it fades away.

9casey said...

Christmas......hmm where do I start, I like it do i love it , I don't know, there are moments in the day and the days preceding that I love....seeing the Mall santa with the kids , finding the perfect gift for someone, watching my kids scream with joy on Christmas morning , I hope for one they never stop believing in Santa...So many things in life give you joy for periods of time that seem so short when they end...So if Santa and Christmas can give my kids happiness for as long as it lasts so be it.....Just like anything else Christmas gives us a time to create great memories.......and after today I have a few that I will cherish forever... Merry Christmas

SoSock said...

It's OVER!
Thank G, uh, whoever!
Yes, it was great seeing some of the cousins I only see once a year. Yes, my sister's 2 adopted girls from China are the cutest things on this planet and I loved watching their excitement. Yes, we all got together and ate well, and hugged and smiled a few times.
But at last we're through watching the teen-age kids trying to act appropriately thrilled with their gifts, through hearing the adults try to come up with a religious basis for all the Christmas customs, through with the ad-nauseum repetition of the same 40 songs 24-7 for 2 freaking months, and through trying to smile at my Mom when she gives our grandson, who goes to the Temple pre-school already, "His 1st Christmas Book"!
It's been over 15 years since my son, then my wife, converted, and I've been practicing for about 10 years, but she still won't accept the fact that we practice a different sort of religion from her. She still clings to a belief that the reason I have never officially converted to Judaism is because I still recognize Jesus. Little does she kow it was her religion that caused me to disavow all religion, and the only reason I haven't converted is my lingering problems with religion in general.
Ah well, family....
till the next episode :)
Oh, and if saying Happy Holidays means Bill O'Reilly hates me.....
Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays! Happy Holidays!

laura k said...

Just like anything else Christmas gives us a time to create great memories

Christmas doesn't give me memories any more than Ramadan or Eid.

laura k said...

Sosock, cool story. I was wondering where the Judaism fit in.

I was born Jewish and still identify as a Jew. But while I was wandering around amongst religions looking for a better fit, I realized the only thing that fit me was the random chance of a meaningless universe. Meaning comes from within.

I love Ish's 4 stages! And johngoldfine's anti-nostalgic take is great, too.

Now I will return to lurk mode until Opening Day!

HAPPY HOLIDAYS EVERYONE!!! As Sosock says, anything that annoys Bill O'Reilly has got to be good!