Even in modern days, we still cling to a cozy Victorian ideal of the holidays. Say “Christmas”, and most of us will reflexively think of family gathered around a colorfully lit tree, a tree with presents piled underneath it. (Whether or not that imaginary family will get along with each other without the lubricating effects of copious amounts of rum-spiked eggnog is another matter.)
But before the Victorians came along and settled things down, Christmas was not the quiet domestic holiday of Dickens, one-horse sleigh rides, and Currier and Ives prints. Instead, it was a holiday of boisterous revelry—sort of a mashup of Halloween, New Year’s Eve, and Mardi Gras.
Even Christmas games of the period held an element of terror. The popular game of Snapdragon involved putting raisins, plums, or almonds in a bowl of brandy, and then setting the brandy on fire. Players tried to snatch a raisin out of the flaming bowl and pop it into their mouth to extinguish it. Another game had the players attempting to bite apples which were tied to one end of a stick—the other end had a lighted candle stuck to it. (The phrase “Don’t try this at home, kids” had not been invented yet.)
Other games smacked of sado-masochism. The game of Hot Cockles involved putting your head in someone’s lap while trying to guess who was hitting you from behind. The kneeler, who was “It”, put their hand behind their back, palm up. The other players took turns smacking the palm in an anonymous low-five. Shoeing the Wild Mare was a similar guessing game, which involved a whack on the foot.
Saturnalia was just one of the many holidays that made up the Roman calendar, but it was one of the biggest. The lower classes looked forward to the role reversal that came at the turning of the year. Household slaves, especially, jumped at the chance to be in charge for a while, to be served by their master and mistress.
Even after the fall of the Roman Empire, this role reversal at Christmastime continued to be one of the few perks enjoyed by the lower classes. The custom of wassailing, or going door to door to beg for alms, began way back in the early Middle Ages. The practice continued all through the Middle Ages, as a way to keep the social and political order stable.
You think giving the girl who cuts your hair an extra tip at Christmas is a new thing? Think again. In medieval times, tradesmen would ask their customers for gifts or largesse at the holidays—and sometimes they would threaten retribution if refused. A morning newspaper chucked under a hedge instead of being delivered to your welcome mat is one thing. To have someone responsible for guarding your house slack off—or actively invite thugs to ransack your home while they stand by watching—is something else entirely. This was a problem as far back as 1419 England, when the “corporation of London ordered the servants of City officers to stop the custom of asking for Christmas offerings from victualling trades, sometimes with menaces if refused”.
So the lower classes were discouraged from wassailing—that didn’t stop them. Even the practice of caroling was frowned upon by the upper classes, both in England and later in America. Through colonial times up into the early nineteenth century, caroling was not the innocent, light-hearted practice we think of today. Carolers of yesteryear were not content to stand outside in the cold and sing, in the faint hope of getting a mug of hot chocolate and a cookie or three. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Old-time carolers were a rowdy, often destructive bunch. Consider the lyrics to “We Wish You A Merry Christmas”: “Now bring us a figgy pudding … and bring it right here. We won’t go until we get some … so bring it right here.” We sing these lyrics without a second thought, but when that song was written, the singers were a lot more aggressive in their demands. They weren’t kidding about it.
Imagine that you are someone fairly high up on the social ladder, either in England or in one of the big American cities, Philadelphia, Boston, someplace like that. You’re relaxing with your family on Christmas Eve. You’ll wait until New Years to exchange gifts, because that’s a great way to acknowledge fresh beginnings. For now, you’re content to enjoy some quiet time with your loved ones. But you keep one ear cocked for trouble …
And there it is—a pounding on the door. The maid hurries to open it, fearing it will break under the fists of the drunken hooligans. Your house clearly isn’t their first stop of the evening. A half-dozen thugs swagger into your front parlor, their boots tracking snow and mud onto your carpet. One of them, clearly the leader, calls himself the Lord of Misrule. He yells at you to bring out several bottles of your best wine, and plenty of good food—cake, if you have it, and he knows you do. The rowdies spend an hour or so swigging claret and mashing cake crumbs into the doilies. But what can you do? You can’t tell them to leave—it’s tradition. They finally leave, and you breathe a sigh of relief. You’re out a couple of bucks, since they demanded money too, and your parlor is trashed, but they’re gone. That’s over with …until the next bunch shows up. It’s going to be a long holiday season.
It’s not too much of a stretch to say that Clement C. Moore, with his poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, single-handedly turned society’s perception of Christmas one hundred and eighty degrees. With this poem, better known by its first line, “T’was the Night Before Christmas”, Moore completely upended the perception of Christmas as a time of riotous misrule. Instead, he introduced the character of Saint Nicholas as the polar opposite of a Lord of Misrule.
Instead of a bunch of rowdy young men busting into the house uninvited, one man, solo, comes into the house. He hasn’t been invited in either, but he comes in silently, without the boisterous good cheer of the wassailers—a good cheer that could turn ugly in a moment. Saint Nicholas is obviously a member of a lower, workingman class—he holds the stump of a pipe clenched in his teeth, which was an affectation of the laboring class. Dandies smoked pipes with long stems; workingmen preferred to snap their pipe stems off short. Also, he opens up a peddler’s pack. But he poses no threat to the household.
As a matter of fact, St. Nicholas displays his own largesse. Instead of demanding gifts from the narrator (fine food and liquor, presents of money), St. Nicholas leaves gifts for the household. And most importantly, instead of threatening the narrator (“We won’t go until we get some”), St. Nicholas expressly lets the narrator know he “has nothing to fear”. His appearance and behavior, although startling, are absolutely non-threatening.
At about the same time Clement Moore published “A Visit From St. Nicholas”, in 1822, society’s opinion was turning against public displays of drunken rowdiness at Christmas. It was around this time that people began to buy Christmas presents for each other and for their children, rather than making them. (Although even then, a handmade gift, or at least a hand-finished gift, was much preferable to a completely store-bought Christmas.) Merchants wanted to make their shops safe, appealing places, free from the unwanted attentions of drunken revellers. Instead of being reported in regular newspaper articles, accounts of rambunctious gang behavior started to show up in the police blotter section of the paper. The boorish behavior, frowned upon by genteel society, was quite literally marginalized, and it eventually faded.
Wassailing had largely died out in England by the 1930s, even though the folks who used to practice the obsolete custom were still alive and well. (Social programs by then were helpful enough that the poor no longer needed to beg, even at Christmastime.) By the 1970s, though, groups in the east and west of England started up again, singing traditional wassailing carols, and offering drinks of beer or cider from the wassail bowl. These groups do collect money in exchange for their caroling, but now the money raised is donated to charity. (Excerpted from my book Spirits of Christmas: The Dark Side of the Holidays)