Nissenbaum set the stage for the transformation of Christmas from the early-17th Century through the early-20th Century by establishing some “battlegrounds” concerning Christmas in its “early days” featuring: a) Expansion v. Restriction (Constriction); b) Bawdy v. Respectable, and; c) Public v. Private. As he closed Chapter 1, Nissenbaum stated that by the mid-18th Century, religion hadn’t yet transformed Christmas to a holiday of “quiet pleasure”, and market forces hadn’t yet transformed Christmas to a commercial phenomenon.
What seems to have been the “meaning of Christmas” for early Americans; what did Christmas mean and why did Puritan leaders oppose it?
For early Americans, Christmas represented a time to “let loose”; it was a time when the typical workload was lighter, and it was the end of the harvest and “slaughter” season. As Nissenbaum pointed out, this was the best time of the year for consuming fresh meat, as well as properly aged wine and beer. Christmas to many in America during this period was much more like carnival in South America than our contemporary Christmas.
In addition to “letting off steam” with food and drink, a sort-of social role-reversal (“inversion”) occurred that was linked to celebrating Christmas. The most common form of what was called “misrule” was face-to-face charity when the wealthy provided charity for the poor, in part to “re-establish” the goodwill that was lost over the year. To some elites, this was an inconvenience, but a wise investment nonetheless, because the alternative was rather more costly. That leads me to what I found to be the most fascinating (and somewhat disturbing) aspect of Christmas in America in the mid-to-late 17th / early-18th Centuries: “Wassailing”. Wassailing basically equaled Christmas carols with a “message” attached. In its most polite form, wassailing was singing (sometimes even in a home), and gifts were received in exchange. In its most extreme form, wassailing led to vandalism and theft; in the eyes of these “wassailers”, they felt they were entitled to their spoils because the property owners were properly warned in advance that this behavior could occur if the anticipated charity didn’t come their way.
By the mid-18th Century, Christmas celebrations started to focus more and more on reducing excess behavior, but still maintaining “good cheer”; the group that lagged behind this social celebratory shift were typically young people, especially young single men. In summation, Christmas, for most Americans in this period of our history, meant an end-of-season celebration of “feasting”, and for many other Americans, a chance to take advantage of a small window of opportunity to experience charity through a social process of “inversion”, whether receiving or giving, depending on one’s goals and social status.
From the perspective of the Puritan leadership during 17th Century, Christmas
was associated with “misrule”. While it is true that Puritans opposed Christmas in part because there was no Biblical proof that 25 December was linked to the Nativity, the main reasons for Puritan opposition to Christmas centered around behavior that, in its extreme form, served as an excuse for challenging authority, whether religious or political.
These challenges to authority included rowdy displays of drinking, begging, theft, and mocking those in power. In the opinion of Puritans such as Increase Mather, this type of behavior seemed to be valued far more than anything resembling a celebration of the Nativity. Two examples from Nissenbaum come immediately to mind when discussing why Puritans opposed Christmas: “Mumming” and “Chambering”. During the Christmas season, it was common enough to see men and women cross-dressing (“Mumming”), while more disturbing to the Puritans was pre-marital sex (“Chambering”); the noticeable increase in births in the area every September / October confirmed that this behavior occurred.
What was really going on that disturbed the Puritans is that the social hierarchy was temporarily inverted; for a time, the lower-class seemed to be in control. To a group that valued discipline and self-regulation above most everything else, this must have been very difficult to endure. When reading this segment, I immediately thought of parts of America in the 1960’s / 1970’s where counter-cultures challenged many social conventions to the horror of conservative Americans. To Puritans, the manner of the celebration mattered the most where Christmas was concerned.
One method the Puritans used to try and control the “Battle for Christmas” can be seen in the almanacs of the era. Nissenbaum pointed out that before 1730, Puritans by and large were able to control the language with the calendar in a typical almanac; the power to name (or not name) a day was also the “power to control”. After 1730, and most definitely by 1760, it was safe to label Christmas on 25 December in an almanac; not only that, but it was an exception when Christmas wasn’t a labeled feature on 25 December by 1760.