Christmas means a lot to New Yorkers. It’s a herald of the year’s end, a time to see and eventually avoid your family, and the finish line for the perfect gift. But, Christmas has a way of revealing the extremes of New York City, as the well-to-do shop and the city’s most vulnerable linger by holiday storefronts. The image of haves and have-nots speaks to a long history of why we celebrate Christmas today, rife with class tension and the anxieties of old money New Yorkers.
A Season of Misrule
This time of year marked the traditional end of the agrarian cycle, with the harvest over and the hard work done. All that was left for our colonial forebears was a ready supply of beer and wine for the new year. It is no surprise how the pagan revelry around the winter solstice evolved into public rituals of drunkenness. But there was more to it than that.
Christmas was the time for social protest in this period of class consciousness”
Workers freed from their toil went wassailing from house to house and demanded food and gifts from landowners. If denied, they would riot. Other rituals such as mumming involved cross-dressing and toppled social hierarchies, with workers swapping clothing with the rich. Before “Christmas” existed as it does today, the holiday season was a pressure-valve for the working classes.
“Christmas was the time for social protest in this period of class consciousness” says Patricia Wadsley of the Mount Vernon Hotel Museum. “The wealthy preferred to stay indoors and miss all of this.” Well into Jackson-era New York City, with the new port bustling and a rising middle class, Christmas was a season of drinking, bawdy singing, and looting wealthy homes. Only after the new year would the wassailers go back to work.
The holidays gave bread and circuses to the lower classes, but it didn’t last forever. In The Battle for Christmas, the historian Stephen Nissenbaum details the anxiety of the upper classes in industrial New York. Between 1800 and 1850, New York City’s population grew tenfold, and the wealthy became increasingly afraid of the traditional December rituals. It was easy to imagine revelers now threatened by poor working conditions and unemployment actually taking the streets. The new middle class also wanted their children home and away from merchants and roving wassailers. There were still no public schools, if you can believe that. So began the making of what we call Christmas today.
The upper and middle classes had common cause to rebrand the holidays. But they still needed a good story. A prominent group of New Yorkers, the Knickerbockers, began to fashion traditions that moved holiday celebrations into the home and out of the streets. The Christmas stories of Washington Irving, the most famous Knickerbocker, were a patchwork of old country tales about elves and Saint Nicholas and bringing trees into the living room. Clement Clarke More, another Knickerbocker, solidified Christmas as a child’s quiet waiting game with his poem “The Night Before Christmas”. With the first boom in mass-produced toys, these tales caught on very quickly.
The holidays gave bread and circuses to the lower classes, but this didn’t last forever”
Just a few years before, the religious set argued over whether the day should be celebrated at all. But just as quickly, Christmas transformed into a season of gift-giving, shopping and staying home. Wassailing became caroling, riotous demands by the lower classes became a child’s wish list, and by the end of the 19th century Santa Claus and a new holiday was born.
Wassailing or Shopping?
Anyone today who laments the commercial excess of the holidays is fighting an old battle. Remember the Puritans? That’s who you’re channeling when you marvel at all the commercial blare. But how we celebrate today is a portrait of how they lost. In the epicenter of commercial New York, family, church, and domesticity were a garnish.
So, as you unwrap gifts and relax by the tree this year, think about the wassailers and how Christmas used to be. If you storm your boss’s office and demand a raise in the new year, just remember to sing first.
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