The traditional celebrations can be summed up in the Master of Misrule, an important character in the riotous Medieval Christmas. The peasantry would draw lots for the title, and the Master of Misrule turned ordinary rules on their head for his appointed time. He was given full licence to do as he desired, and lead others down the same merry path of dalliance and delight. The kind that comes in liquid form was especially indulged. This tradition extends back to ancient times and was a feature of Roman Saturnalia. Records from as late as the third century suggest that the reign of the Master came to a rather unjolly end when he was sacrificed on the altar of Saturn. Minus the sacrificial element, the tradition survived in to the Middle Ages and beyond.
“From the fourth century, when Christians began to celebrate Jesus’ birth, some people wanted to celebrate it in a pious way, but they were never in majority nor did they ever manage to control how the holiday was celebrated. When the Church placed it in December, the decision was a compromise for which the Church paid a price. Late December festivities were already commonly observed and the Church tacitly agreed that they could continue much the same – as long as the Savior’s birth was also celebrated. The old traditions were deeply rooted in popular culture and in the human psyche, and the Church never succeeded in significantly changing them”.
The midwinter revelry, or “Drinking Yule” as the Vikings named the festival, and the Christian holy day continued to live uneasily side by side, sometimes openly clashing – with bishops banning pagan practices like the use of evergreens. With the Reformation the battle was intensified; celebrations were even outlawed for a time. In 1647 Cromwell had Parliament make the holiday illegal, as it was “papist and pagan”. Christmas, declared the reformed Church, was corrupted: a holiday of misbehaviours. The sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer, quoted in Nissenbaum’s book, puts it most succinctly: “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides”.
This attitude travelled with the Puritans to America, who also suppressed Christmas, even forbidding it in New England. However, the Master of Misrule made the journey too. Nissenbaum has traced Christmas in New York and Philadelphia around 1800, and shows that colonial Yuletime was carnival time, when rowdies sullied the streets with public displays of eating and drunkenness. Wassailing continued – meaning lower-class workers, mainly men, would lay siege to the homes of the well-off, demanding free drink and food in a menacing game of ‘trick or treat’. Some church doors opened in the hope of bringing order to the Yuletide chaos, but to no avail: religion again failed to dampen the raucous public spirit.
However Nissenbaum’s research found that by the 1850s, this had changed radically. So what happened?
“ What happened in the US is that this kind of behaviour which was always at the margins of what could be sanctioned, passed beyond those margins with the emergence of modern capitalism. As we begin to get the modern proletariat, neighbourhoods become segregated by class: and so does Christmas. As the rich retreat in to their own wealthy enclave, created in response to proletarisation of neighbourhoods, the revelry really becomes class conflict. Around the turn of the last century, Christmas revelry turned to serious rioting – and significant property damage.”
Nissenbaum argues that in response to this battle, capitalism transformed Christmas with a carrot and stick approach: “The stick was the criminalisation of rowdy behaviour: Begging was made illegal, and after a serious riot in NY in 1828, a professional police force created for the first time. Behaviour that used to be disliked but tolerated became criminalized.”
And what was the carrot?
“The carrot is really much more interesting. A new Christmas is literally invented. If you take the figure of Santa Claus, and the rituals around it, the origins can be traced directly to a small group of very wealthy, conservative New Yorkers who all knew each other. Among them were Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore. In 1922, Moore created the most famous cultural artefact we have; ‘T’was the Night Before Christmas’ is the opening line of the one poem that every American child memorises . It is hard to explain to non-Americans how all-pervasive Moore’s vision now is. What you can see happening between 1810 and 1830, is the invention of a tradition. A new kind of Christmas is created, complete with its own mythical figure – Santa Claus. It takes place in the house, and does not involve opening the doors if you are rich. On the one hand this is a new development, because it excludes the outside world. On the other hand, by centering the holiday on children, in a structural way it replicated old patterns: people in authority still give gifts to their inferiors; not along the lines of class but within the family. In the 19th century, children would have knocked around with the servants, and really belonged on the bottom of the social scale. There is a duplication of the old structure, no longer rich to poor, but still powerful to powerless. Psychologically this seems to have satisfied the old need without the threat of opening your doors“.
Irving and Moore were not alone in their efforts to shape a new festival more in tune with the industrial era. The emergence of a middle-class and wage earners produced a new type of society. In the Victorian empire, when the new middle classes brought the Christmas tree in to their sitting rooms in the nineteenth century, it signalled an effort to shape a new kind of ordered, disciplined and above all respectable holiday. The ruling classes could no longer afford to have their servants take December off to drink and be merry, but wanted them to show up sober and deferential to work every day of every month. However while both made strides to contain and change the holiday, it was the Americans who saw its potential to modern capitalism. Nissenbaum explains how:
“An important factor here is that you could not give children what you gave beggars – they already eat your best food! And so you had to go shopping, and spend. Christmas helped create the new consumer society because people were not in the habit of buying luxury – but the essence of the Christmas present is that it cannot be a necessity, when you are giving inside the family it needs to be something special, a luxury item. This was the way that for many people the consumer economy got created. Even in times of depression you must buy something nice, some luxury for your own dear ones. The only people we still give necessities to are the poor!”
Nissenbaum’s research focuses on America but it is true to say that the ‘traditions’ whose origins he traces have become central to Christmas the world over. No two countries celebrate in the same way, and most of Europe still closes down for weeks of revelry and intoxication while Americans are lucky to get a day off. But there is no country that has escaped the ubiquituous man in the red suit, and December is still the month of ‘letting go’ – but now it is of the of purse strings everywhere. If Christmas is a time for giving gifts, they have to be purchased. Santa Claus is everywhere in stories, advertisements and sitting rooms. And here we have the greatest transformation. In the benign figure of Santa Claus, the commercialisation of Christmas was hidden behind the most tender of parental emotions. Truly a miracle for the high street.