Christmas had enjoyed a chequered history in America. When the first Europeans fled there to escape religious persecution, many brought with them the traditions of misrule and chaos that had shaped the Christmas of the Middle Ages. The southern states had carried on celebrations much as their ancestors had before the Reformation with drinking, feasting, dancing, wild partying and – this being America – gunfire. Like in England, masked working-class revellers would wander from house to house demanding food and drink and threatening destruction.
In the North, colonies such as New England were founded by Puritans, so Christmas was largely opposed – and even banned outright – well into the nineteenth century. Although America’s foundation was hugely influenced by religious exiles fleeing persecution, it was not always the same religious exiles or beliefs. This was not too much of a problem at first – colonies were set up by people with shared beliefs and attitudes and America was too vast and sparsely populated for the different factions to need to mingle together. Tensions increased as American cities expanded in the wake of the Industrial Revolution. By the beginning of the nineteenth century there were particular difficulties in the cities of the northeast such as Boston, Philadelphia and New York.
The essential problem was a class divide. Working-class revellers would roam the streets at Christmas forming calithump bands – impromptu and tuneless orchestras of drunks with horns, whistles and pots and pans – making as much noise as possible. Mumming was popular and even today Philadelphia still celebrates New Year’s Day with a Mummers’ Parade. They would visit middle-class houses and put on bawdy shows with lewd jokes before demanding hospitality and gifts in return. The middle classes wanted peace and relaxation with their families. They did not welcome visits from drunken oiks swearing, drinking and putting on vulgar shows, especially when this unpleasantness was compounded by being asked to hand out gifts and food to the very people who were pestering them.
What’s more, drunken Christmas riots were a frequent occurrence. Perhaps the most vivid example was in 1826 when cadets at the US Military Academy in New York were banned from drinking at Christmas. A few decided to do so anyway but slipped a bit too much whisky in their eggnog. What began with nine cadets having a quiet drink on Christmas Eve ended up with a lieutenant knocked unconscious and one third of the cadets taking up arms against their superiors in the mistaken belief that they were about to be assaulted by the full might of the US Army.
“Bad Santas and Other Creepy Christmas Characters” is available now from Simon and Schuster. The picture at the top is allegedly a painting of the Eggnog Riots but I’m not entirely sure who painted it and can only presume they captured it in its very early stages…