In the 1700s, Christmas was notorious for drunken bashes more reminiscent of Mardi Gras than our family-friendly holiday. An account from New York published during the "twelve days" of Christmas in early 1787 (the same year Americans would frame the new Constitution) paints a picture of a deeply conflicted holiday. As one might expect, some people focused on the religious meaning of the season, setting aside the time "for a most sacred purpose." Others, however, spent the twelve days "reveling in profusion, and paying their sincere devotions to merry Bacchus," the Greek god of wine and festivity.And the following short poem illustrates the frustration that many pious early Americans had with their wild, drunken neighbors:
The city's churches were full on Sundays in the twelve days of Christmas, but so were the "temples dedicated to the service of merriment, dissipation and folly . . . where the sons of gluttony and drunkenness satiate their respective appetites." The taverns let out around midnight, when Christmas revelers poured into the streets, and "by their unmeaning, wild, extravagant noise," the account grumbled, "disturb those citizens who would rather sleep than get drunk."
So merry at Christmas are some, they destroyIt has long been a fascination of mine to look at how people of the past celebrated the holidays. Contrary to popular belief, the modern American Christmas celebration is a relatively new phenomenon. As historian Nicole Harms points out:
Their health by disease, and by trouble their joy
At Christmas, mix wisdom with mirth and never fear,
You'll secure the wished blessing—a happy New Year.
Christmas in colonial America did not resemble the brightly lit festivities we celebrate today. In fact, many colonial religions banned celebrations of the holiday, claiming that it was tied to pagan traditions. The New England Puritans passed a law in Massachusetts that punished anyone who observed the holiday with a five-shilling fine. The Quakers treated Christmas Day as any other day of the year. The Presbyterians did not have formal Christmas Day services until they noticed that their members were heading to the English church to observe the Christmas services. This sparked the Presbyterian Church to start services of their own.But not all of the earliest settlers detested Christmas. As I point out in a previous post, the settlers of Jamestown celebrated Christmas by getting absolutely hammered on "grog." Grog was colonial slang for any beverage containing rum (brings a new meaning to the expression of feeling "groggy" in the morning). Eventually, the word was changed to "nog" giving rise to its current name: eggnog. In addition, eggnog probably descended from the English drink "posset" or "sack posset," which was a hot drink made with sweetened milk and ale and was often mixed with eggs.
So however you choose to celebrate your holiday make it a safe one! God bless you and yours this Christmas season and throughout the new year!