It’s not a secret that because of the measures taken by the later Roman Empire to convert mainland European pagan society to Christianity, many Christian festivals retain elements evocative of Pagan worship practices. Some of the most important of the Pagan religious festivals took place (and continue to take place) in late December, when ceremonies such as Saturnalia and Winter Solstice were observed.
Another facet of these late December celebrations was the element of feasting. For the majority of human history, the year was organized on the basis of agriculture and food availability, and late December was the time at which livestock was ready for slaughter, and alcohol was fully fermented. As Europe became Christianized, the late December practice of over-indulging on alcohol and freshly slaughtered meat simply became a part of the Christmas festivities, rather than of the Saturnalia or Solstice festivities.
With Christianization came the enforced rigidity of the class structure on the basis of the idea that a person’s place in life was divinely mandated. In Britain, a paternalistic attitude towards the poor developed within the upper classes as a result of this divinely-mandated class structure.
As you may imagine, this immobility created anger and resentment in the lower classes. So every Christmas, the lower classes were allowed to participate in a sort of sanctioned role reversal. They took up the dress of the upper classes, and were allowed, for that day only, to act with the authority allowed by that garb. They were allowed to enter the homes of the rich and demand from them food, drink, and money. These practices are known in turn as “misrule” and “wassailing.”
This annual pageantry and begging functioned as a sort of social safety valve for Britain; it allowed the poor a socially sanctioned period at which to vent their frustrations while upholding the class structure. However, as Puritanism took hold in Britain, a growing sect of the population rejected Christmas—viewing it as a thinly veiled Pagan festival, and holding that if Jesus had intended for his birthday to be celebrated on December 25, it would have been noted in the Bible—and with it, its social safety valve function.
In 1620 many of the Puritans emigrated from England to the New World so that they would be able to worship as they wished. Christmas was neither observed nor recognized in the Massachusetts colony, and it was even banned between 1659 and 1681; these policies were strengthened by the Puritan rule of Oliver Cromwell over England between 1649 and 1658. Though the monarchy was restored in 1660, in took the British government until 1681 to re-establish control over New England—which is why the ban on Christmas was revoked in that year—and until 1686 to send over an official to directly intervene in the governance of the colony.
In 1686, the highly unpopular British official Sir Edmund Andros was sent over to govern the short-lived Dominion of New England in America. He pushed Anglican forms of worship on the Puritan population, celebrating Christmas and saints’ days in the traditional manner. In 1689, the Puritans revolted against him and his officers, ousting him from New England. Though they returned to their traditional manner of ignoring Christmas, they were not allowed to criminalize it; however, the damage had been done.
Despite Puritan attitudes towards Christmas, the notion that December 25 was a day of celebration, misrule, and role reversal was never completely absent from the culture of New England, especially among the lower and transient classes. And as a result of the direct British involvement in the New England colonies as outlined above, by the end of the 17th century, segments of the New England population began to openly observe it in the old Anglican way.
The problem was that these segments tended to be the lower classes, and because Puritans refused to acknowledge the holiday, it would never be able to function as a social safety valve. Instead, the opposite happened. Because the lower classes took up traditional forms of Christmas celebration, they would drink, feast, and then travel in bands, demanding entrance into the homes of the wealthy. And when the wealthy Puritan homeowners, in their non-observance of Christmas, would deny them entrance, they responded with verbal harassment, vandalism, breaking and entering, and theft.
Instead of a holiday of the venting of class-related frustrations, Christmas in New England bad become a holiday of thinly veiled class warfare. As this continued year after year, the Protestant establishment began to feel more conciliatory towards the holiday; probably because they were sick of the annual disruptions. Though they continued to reject it as a celebration of the birth of Christ, they accepted observation of the holiday so long as it was done quietly and in a church.
Thus, Christmas existed in New England for the majority of the eighteenth century as either a time of quiet worship or a time of thinly-veiled class warfare, with no middle ground. To understand how Christmas was transformed from that to the holiday which looms in the American consciousness from Halloween to January 1, it is necessary to move a little bit south, to the island of Manhattan. This transformation will be discussed in Christmas pt. 2: How a Bunch of Rich Guys from Manhattan Invented Modern Christmas.