THERE were no neatly wrapped presents. Nor were there tinseled trees or Santa Claus. Christmas in preindustrial Europe and America looked very different from today’s iteration. Drunks, cross-dressers and rowdy carolers roamed the streets. The tavern, rather than the home or the church, was the place to celebrate. “Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides,”—so despaired Hugh Latimer, chaplain to King Edward VI, in the mid-1500s. Some 200 years later, across the Atlantic, a Puritan minister decried the “lewd gaming” and “rude reveling” of Christmas time in the colonies. Those concerns seem irrelevant now. By the end of the 19th century, a rambunctious, freewheeling holiday had turned into the peaceable, family-centred one we know today. How?
Men dishonor Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides。
In early modern Europe, between about 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season meant a lull in agricultural labor and a chance to indulge. The harvest had been gathered and the animals slaughtered (the cold weather meant they would not spoil). The celebration involved heavy eating, drinking and wassailing, in which peasants would arrive at the houses of the neighboring gentry and demand to be fed. One drinking song captured the mood: “And if you don’t open up your door, / We will lay you flat upon the floor.” Mostly this was tolerated in good humor—a kind of ritualized disorder, when the social hierarchy was temporarily inverted. Some were less tolerant. In colonial Massachusetts, between 1659 and1681, Puritans banned Christmas. They expunged the day from their almanacs, and offending revelers risked a five-shilling fine. The ban did not last, so efforts to tame the holiday picked up instead. Moderation was advised. One almanac-writer cautioned in 1761 that “The temperate man enjoys the most delight, / For riot dulls and palls the appetite.” Still, Christmas was a public ritual, enacted in the tavern or street and often fuelled by alcohol.