Ebb and flow of Christmas cheer

Hardly a Christmas season passes without some poor soul trampled or otherwise dispatched in the Black Friday riot for merchandise on “super sale.” Newscasts are rife with images of glass storefronts bursting from the pressure of the assembled throng of bargain barbarians.

It would be all too easy to attribute this parade of unchecked avarice to the decline of society. The lust for cheap flat screens and X Boxes are positioned as an indicator that our world is in inexorable decline.

With even modest historical perspective we see that the only aspect of this behavior that’s really new is our ability to broadcast it across many different media platforms.

Christmas celebrations during 17th-century England had become so raucous, Parliament was called repeatedly to intervene. Then as now, buildings would be decorated. Gifts were exchanged. Alms were given to the poor. Great feasts — often lasting for days — were widely staged. In the bacchanalian revelry all manner of meats and confections were consumed, along with vast quantities of special Christmas ale. As these matters often do, the drink-fueled fun would turn to singing, dancing, spirited games and more.

Writing for Christmas Today, author Chris Durston observes, “Such long-cherished activities necessarily often led to drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess. In fact the concept of ‘misrule,’ or a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas, and has been viewed by historians as a useful safety-valve for the tensions within English society. It was precisely this face of Christmas, however, that the Puritans of 16th- and 17th-century England found so objectionable.”

A typical rebuke of seasonal excesses is found in Philip Stubbes’ 1580 missive, The Anatomie of Abuses, “That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery, whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”

Puritan colonists in New England imported an especially deep contempt for Christmas celebrations. They nicknamed the holiday “Foolstide” and banned its celebration into the 18th century.

The Pilgrims celebrated neither Christmas nor Easter. New World Puritans argued that the scriptures name no holidays except for the Sabbath. They reasoned that all days were “holy” and to set any particular day apart was to imply that the others were less so.

“They for whom all days are holy can have no holiday,” was a common Puritan refrain.

In equal distain, the 16th-century Puritan clergyman, Hugh Latimer wrote, “Men dishonor Christ more in the 12 days of Christmas than in all the 12 months besides.”

Several factors had to align before the celebration of Christmas became widespread in America. One of the most import of these was the immigration of settlers from other European countries, where Catholicism was predominant.

By the time Benjamin Franklin published Poor Richard’s Almanac in 1739, the encroachment of non-Puritan sentiment had become evident. As he states, “O blessed Season! Lov’d by Saints and Sinners / For long Devotions, or for longer Dinners.”

Even so, anti-Christmas protests flared again in the era of the American Revolution. New Englanders associated Christmas with the British Crown and refused to mark it as a holiday. Even with the ratification of the U. S. Constitution old habits died hard. The U. S. Senate met on Christmas Day 1797, as did the House five years later.

Not until the publication of Clement Clarke Moore’s 1823 poem “A Visit From St. Nicholas” (‘Twas the Night Before Christmas) did holiday fever reignite. Despite this watershed verse, many New Englanders remained firmly entrenched in their abstention. As late as 1850, schools and markets remained open on Christmas Day. In 1856, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow declared that a “transition state about Christmas” had taken place in the region. As he states, “The old Puritan feeling prevents it from being a cheerful, hearty holiday; though every year makes it more so.” Fourteen years later (1870), President Ulysses S. Grant finally declared Christmas a federal holiday.