The Ghost of Christmas Past: A Look At the History of Christmas

Christmas, as a festival, has changed a lot throughout history, with many of its core modern traditions being more recent than we think or of surprising origin. Historically, Christmas was often a time for upending social structures.


Christmas, at least as we know it today, resembles nothing of its past. A lot of what happened would shock us today: heavy drinking with rules abandoned in an unrestrained carnival. “A kind of December Mardi Gras,” Stephen Nissenbaum writes in The Battle for Christmas.

With the dawn of the early nineteenth century, that behaviour became increasingly threatening, “combining carnival rowdiness with urban gang violence and Christmas-season riots.” Given this backdrop, the appeal of the Christmas we know today is understandable.

“Santa Claus,” far from being a creature of ancient Dutch folklore who made his way to the New World in the company of immigrants from Holland, was essentially devised by a group of non-Dutch New Yorkers in the early nineteenth century.

For much of the first two centuries, most people did not celebrate Christmas.

In fact, the holiday was systematically suppressed by Puritans during the colonial period and largely ignored by their descendants. It was actually illegal to celebrate Christmas in Massachusetts between 1659 and 1681 (the fine was five shillings). Only in the middle of the nineteenth century did Christmas gain legal recognition as an official public holiday in New England.

Most other states fell into the same category. But why?

There is no biblical or historical reason to place the birth of Jesus on December 25. True, the Gospel of Luke tells the familiar story of the birth of Jesus of Nazareth— how the shepherds were living with their flocks in the fields of Judea, and how, one night, an angel appeared to them and said, “For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, which is Christ the Lord.” But nowhere in this account is there any indication of the exact date, or even the general season, on which “this day” fell.


It was only in the fourth century that the Church officially decided to observe Christmas on December 25. And this date was chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. The Puritans were correct when they pointed out— and they pointed it out often— that Christmas was nothing but a pagan festival covered with a Christian veneer.


Most cultures (outside the tropics) have long marked with rituals involving light and greenery those dark weeks of December when the daylight wanes, all culminating in the winter solstice— the return of sun and light and life itself. Thus Chanukah, the “feast of lights.” And thus the Yule log, the candles, the holly, the mistletoe, even the Christmas tree— pagan traditions all, with no direct connection to the birth of Jesus.

They also suppressed Christmas because it looked nothing like today, involving “behavior that most of us would find offensive and even shocking today— rowdy public displays of excessive eating and drinking, the mockery of established authority, aggressive begging (often involving the threat of doing harm), and even the invasion of wealthy homes.”

While it seems odd to us today to think of Christmas that way, there was a reason.

In northern agricultural societies, December was the major “punctuation mark” in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals— meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled. St. Nicholas, for example, is associated with the Christmas season chiefly because his “name-day,” December 6, coincided in many European countries with the end of the harvest and slaughter season.

In our own day the Christmas season begins as early as the day after Thanksgiving for many people, and continues to January 1. But our culture is by no means the first in which “Christmas” has meant an entire season rather than a single day. In early modern Europe, the Christmas season might begin as early as late November and continue well past New Year’s Day. (We still sing about “the twelve days of Christmas,” and the British still celebrate “Twelfth Night.”) In England the season might open as early as mid-December and last until the first Monday after January 6 (dubbed “Plow Monday,” the return to work), or later. … (We should look at Christmas as) an ongoing contest, a push and a pull—sometimes a real battle —between those who wished to expand the season and those who wished to contract and restrict it. (Nowadays the contest may pit merchants— with children as their allies—against those grown-ups who resent seeing Christmas displays that seem to go up earlier and earlier with each passing year.)

Europe was little different.

In early modern Europe, roughly the years between 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season was a time to let off steam— and to gorge. It is difficult today to understand what this seasonal feasting was like. For most of the readers of this book, good food is available in sufficient quantity year-round. But early modern Europe was above all a world of scarcity. Few people ate much good food at all, and for everyone the availability of fresh food was seasonally determined. Late summer and early fall would have been the time of fresh vegetables, but December was the season— the only season —for fresh meat. Animals could not be slaughtered until the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat would not go bad; and any meat saved for the rest of the year would have to be preserved (and rendered less palatable) by salting. December was also the month when the year’s supply of beer or wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, too, this period marked the start of a season of leisure. Little wonder, then, that this was a time of celebratory excess.

The excess took many forms.

Reveling could easily become rowdiness; lubricated by alcohol, making merry could edge into making trouble. Christmas was a season of “misrule,” a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity. It was part of what one historian has called “the world of carnival. ” (The term carnival is rooted in the Latin words carne and vale—“farewell to flesh.” And “flesh” refers here not only to meat but also to sex— carnal as well as carnivorous.) Christmas “misrule” meant that not only hunger but also anger and lust could be expressed in public.

It’s no wonder there was a “bulge” in September and October births.

But all of this disorder wasn’t necessarily chaotic, it was ritualized. A way to earn goodwill by turning the social hierarchy upside down.

During the Christmas season those near the bottom of the social order acted high and mighty. Men might dress like women, and women might dress (and act) like men. Young people might imitate and mock their elders (for example, a boy might be chosen “bishop” and take on for a brief time some of the authority of a real bishop). A peasant or an apprentice might become “Lord of Misrule” and mimic the authority of a real “gentleman.”

To this day, in the British army, on December 25 officers are obliged to wait upon enlisted men at meals.

The most common ritual of social inversion, however, remains familiar to us today: we would call it charity. The rich were expected to offer “the fruits of their harvest bounty to their poorer neighbors and dependents.”

Some historians argue that role inversions actually functioned as a kind of safety valve that contained class resentments within clearly defined limits, and that by inverting the established hierarchy (rather than simply ignoring it), those role inversions actually served as a reaffirmation of the existing social order. It was all a little like Halloween today— when, for a single evening, children assume the right to enter the houses of neighbors and even strangers, to demand of their elders a gift (or “treat”) and to threaten them, should they fail to provide one, with a punishment (or “trick”).

In New England, Christmas was hardly to be found in almanacs before 1720, but hardly avoided after 1760. Early almanac issuers, in an attempt to reduce the excesses, started calling for more moderation.

What Benjamin Franklin and Nathanael Ames were calling for was a Christmas that combined mirth and moderation. Both of these men were shopkeepers— versatile, thrifty, and self-made. What they were trying to do was actually similar to what the Puritans had done a century earlier: to restructure people’s work habits by having them do away with periodic binges. But unlike the Puritans, their strategy did not entail the elimination of Christmas. Instead, they were spreading the idea— a new idea—that Christmas could be a time of cheer without also being a time of excess.

[W]hen Christmas returned to New England in the second half of the eighteenth century, it was embraced by different groups with different cultural agendas. Then as now, there was no single “Christmas.” For some it was probably little more than the name for a day in the year. For others it was a time of pious devotion, devotion that could range all the way from mirthful joy in the Savior’s birth to angst over personal failings, and from stately prayers to ecstatic hymns. For others still it was a time of feasting— accompanied or not by a supply of alcohol. Finally, Christmas might mean misrule and carnival, in which alcohol could lead to sexual liberties, social inversion, or even violence.

But not one of these ways of celebrating Christmas bore much resemblance to the holiday that most of us know today. All of them were public rituals, not private celebrations; civic events, not domestic ones. In none of them would we have found the familiar intimate family gathering or the giving of Christmas presents to expectant children. Nowhere would we have found Christmas trees; no reindeer, no Santa Claus. Christmas in late-eighteenth-century New England— or anywhere else— was not centered around the family or on children or giving presents. It was neither a domestic holiday nor a commercial one.


[R]eligion failed to transform Christmas from a season of misrule into an occasion of quieter pleasure. That transformation would, however, shortly take place— but not at the hands of Christianity. The “house of ale” would not be vanquished by the house of God, but by a new faith that was just beginning to sweep over American society. It was the religion of domesticity, which would be represented at Christmas-time not by Jesus of Nazareth but by a newer and more worldly deity— Santa Claus.

A Visit from St. Nicholas

At the early 19th century, there were two incompatible “styles of celebrating the holiday season.” One was a daytime affair, formal, and quiet. The other, the revelers in the street, was nocturnal, aggressive, and noisy.

But first let’s recap where we are. Traditional misrule did not “ordinarily pose a significant threat to the social order or to the authority of the gentry class. In fact, it actually served to reinforce the existing order of things by providing a sanctioned opportunity for the poor to let off steam; it was a safety valve that allowed them to express resentments in a fashion that was generally apolitical.” Inverting the social hierarchy was a method of garnering goodwill. This changed as paternalism became the dominant form of social relations. Also the nature of work changed.

By the early nineteenth century, with the spread of wage labor and other modes of capitalist production in England and the United States, what I have chosen to call the “battle for Christmas” entered an acute phase. For some urban workers, the Christmas season no longer entailed a lull in the demand for labor; their employers insisted on business as usual. (It was this impulse that Charles Dickens would caricature in his character Ebenezer Scrooge.) For other urban workers, the coming of winter brought the prospect of being laid off, as the icing-up of rivers brought water-powered factories to a seasonal halt. December’s leisure thus meant not relative plenty but forced unemployment and want. The Christmas season, with its carnival traditions of wassail, misrule, and call it humpian “street theater,” could easily become a vehicle of social protest, an instrument to express powerful ethnic or class resentments. Little wonder, then, that the upper classes displayed little interest in making the season a major holiday.


By 1820 Christmas misrule had become such an acute social threat that respectable New Yorkers could no longer ignore it or take it lightly. … By the 1820s bands of roaming young street toughs, members of the emerging urban proletariat, were no longer restricting their seasonal reveling to their own neighborhoods; they had begun to travel freely, and menacingly, wherever they pleased. Often carousing in disguise (a holdover from the old tradition of mumming), these street gangs marauded through the city’s wealthy neighborhoods, especially on New Year’s Eve, in the form of callithumpian bands, which resembled (and may have overlapped with) the street gangs that were now vying for control of the city’s poorer neighborhoods.


In 1828 there occurred an extensive and especially violent callithumpian parade, complete with the standard array of “drums, tin kettles, rattles, horns, whistles, and a variety of other instruments.” This parade began along the working-class Bowery, where the band pelted a tavern with lime; then it marched to Broadway, where a fancy upper-class ball was being held at the City Hotel; then to a black neighborhood, stopping at a church where the callithumpians “demolished all the windows, broke the doors [and] seats,” and beat with sticks and ropes the African-American congregants who were holding a “watch” service; next, the band headed to the city’s main commercial district, where they smashed crates and barrels and looted at least one shop; still unsatisfied, they headed to the Battery (at the southern tip of the city), where they broke the windows of several of the city’s wealthiest residences and tried to remove the iron fence that surrounded Battery Park; finally they headed back to Broadway for a second visit.

These problems seemed cultural.

Since there existed no Christmas rituals that were socially acceptable to the upper class, (John) Pintard took on the responsibility of inventing them— characteristically enough, in the name of restoring something that had been forgotten.

DURING THE TWO DECADES from 1810 to 1830, while Pintard shifted his energies from December 6 to January 1, then from January 1 to December 25, this much remained constant: The season was to be celebrated with members of his own social class. But one thing had changed nevertheless, and it was more important than the simple date of the celebration. Pintard had gradually moved from a celebration that took place in public (first at City Hall, with the New-York Historical Society, then on the city streets and in the houses of kinsmen and old acquaintances) to one that took place in private, in his own home, with his immediate family. Just as important, the new celebration focused on a single group within the family: young children.

The Battle for Christmas explores at what point and how Christmas became commercialized as well as the Christmas tree itself – which first entered “American culture as a ritual strategy designed to cope with what was already being seen, even before the middle of the nineteenth century, as a holiday laden with crass materialism— a holiday that had produced a rising generation of greedy, spoiled children.”