Christmas is under siege again. Every year, the story of how Christmas is being ruined plays out in the newspapers. Much ink is usually spilled over the question of whether Christmas is too commercial, although some people hold that it’s not commercial enough; this latter group presumably believes that elbowing aside fellow shoppers to grab the last Lego set on the shelf at Target represents the height of holiday fun, beating out making snow angels and caroling. This year, however, an organized attempt seems to be underway to convince America that the religious aspects of Christmas are about to be stripped away by forces of secular oppression. The stories are somewhat thin gruel, of course, but Christmas present has been compared unfavorably to that of Christmas past for centuries.
When Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol in 1843, and Scrooge’s first tender moments are recalling the Christmases of his vanished youth. Christmas celebrations involving the Rabelaisian "Lord of Misrule" often represent themselves as following from medieval traditions, but the whole idea was apparently invented out of whole cloth by Washington Irving in his short story, "The Christmas Dinner".
The nineteenth century was a boomtime for the old-fashioned Christmas, in fact, from Dickens and Irving to the explosion in Christmas cards throughout the 1860s and 1870s. The nostalgia was in one sense real; Cromwell’s government had simply abolished Christmas by force of law in 1644 and again in 1647; the first act was widely ignored, and the passage of the second had triggered riots in London, Norwich, and Ipswitch that left several dead. After the Restoration, the ban on Christmas was lifted, but the forces of English and Scottish Non-Conformists continued to
inveigh against New Year gifts and evergreens, or to attack the Pope by refusing to eat plum-broth; or to condemn those who ate mince-pies as Papists and idolaters.
Christmas had returned, but it was less strongly rooted as it had once been. In the New World, where colonists could once have been fined for celebrating Christmas, a handful of traditions were celebrated, including the custom of "John Kunering" or "John Canoeing", in which slaves went from door to door on Christmas Day wearing masks and costumes, singing and being rewarded with coins and small gifts. But among the Dutch of New York, the Knickerbockers who Washington Irving wrote about and who celebrated the closest thing to a modern Christmas in America, the time for gift-giving was New Year’s Day.
Winter has always been a time for revels; before the replacement of the London Bridge stopped the Thames from freezing solid, instant festivals called "Frost Fairs" would form featuring bear-baiting, sports, roasted meats, and printing presses (located on the river’s ice itself) documenting the event. And the "luxuries of the season" — roasts, nuts, candied fruits — could always be washed down with a nice alcoholic punch, a glögg or a nog. When there is alcohol at a Christmas party, naughtiness follows: the Knickerbockers associated Christmas with licentious and restiveness behavior among the lower classes. Christmas riots were not uncommon. The New York elite began sanitizing Christmas, making the holiday season more about family and home life and less about getting drunk and bothering your employer. They were helped immeasurably by the arrival in England of Prince Albert in 1840; Queen Victoria’s consort was German, and as Martin Luther had enjoyed Christmas, German Protestantism had never gone through a period of disparaging the holiday. Albert brought with him all the weird Druidic rituals of German Christmas: evergreen trees, carol singing, bell ringing, and the rest.
Christmas (like most human endeavors) contains multitudes.Those who want to celebrate the holiday by curling up with a Low EP and a bottle of Jim Bean are, in the end, being just as historically accurate as those who want to celebrate by going to midnight Mass or on a round of wholesome and quasi-secular carols. The historical accuracy of Christmas riots may not hold water with the courts, however; be forewarned and consider the importance of peace on earth and good will toward men.