Was Christmas in Revolutionary America a Drunken Bash?

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Our modern American Christmas is an anxious affair—and not just because of "those" relatives you don't want to see. We so constantly remind ourselves to focus on Christ during Christmas that "The reason for the season" has become an American Christian mantra. In light of our annual December anxiety, I find it strangely comforting that Americans of the founding era warned against the distractions of Christmas, too.

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.

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."

The gap between rich and poor was quite severe in that era, and struggling workers often received Christmas gifts of cash as charity from their landlords and masters. But this practice also created frustration. The poor, one author complained in 1759, demanded gifts rather than gratefully receiving them, and having received their cash, many poor men immediately headed off to drink, gamble, or worse. "A Merry Christmas has ruined many a promising young fellow, who has been flush of money at the beginning of the week," but by the end of it was robbing his master for more!

Perhaps the most exasperated Christian critic of the era asked in 1792 whether it was "right to celebrate this Christmas for ten or twelve days together in all manner of riot, and the most unfeeling debauch; merely because on this day the infant Savior was born at Bethlehem?" He denounced those who used the holiday as a pretense to "meet in nightly clubs, and sing sorry catches over brimming bumpers of riot," and had the audacity to call "their orgies, and ranting bacchanals 'a Merry Christmas'"!

As I wrote in an earlier holiday column, there were signs that Christmas was becoming a commercial holiday in Revolutionary America as well. The Rivington's New York Gazette for Christmas Eve 1783, for example, featured an advertisement for "CHRISTMAS and NEW YEAR'S PRESENTS," including a selection of stockings that the merchant pronounced "Monstrous Cheap." But the practices creating concern in those days usually related more to partying than presents.

A ditty printed repeatedly in American newspapers in 1786 best captured their nervousness about Christmas:

So merry at Christmas are some, they destroy
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.

Lest we wax nostalgic for a time when Americans fully honored the true meaning of Christmas, let's remember that anxiety about the way to celebrate Christmas has been with us for centuries. This is a result of living in a quasi-Christian culture: everyone knows about Christmas, and almost everyone celebrates it, whether in worshipful fashion or not.

Christians, then and now, have to find ways to make Christmas distinctively Christian, and shouldn't worry too much if others don't join them. This month my family has been taking cues from Mark Roberts' excellent Advent devotional guide, and has focused more on the season of Advent as a time of waiting for Christmas.

What are you and your family doing to focus on Jesus this Christmas? If you're struggling to do this, don't despair—you're hardly the first to feel the Christmas anxiety.

12/22/2011 5:00:00 AM
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  • Thomas Kidd
    About Thomas Kidd
    Thomas S. Kidd teaches history and is a Senior Fellow at Baylor University's Institute for Studies of Religion. He is the author of Patrick Henry: First Among Patriots and God of Liberty: A Religious History of the American Revolution. Follow his writings via Facebook and Twitter.