“Caught in the Act”: Santa sits atop a chimney (1900)
Library of Congress
audio / culture

Naughty & Nice: A History of the Holiday Season

Tracing the evolution of Christmas from a drunken carnival to the peaceful, family-oriented, consumeristic ritual we celebrate today.
Nissenbaum: Yeah.  I think that what happened is that New Years Eve has essentially become the one place where ritual public misbehavior remains sanctioned.  But if you can go back before 1800, it was the entire season, but this misbehavior didn’t just take random forms.  It was highly ritualized and the ritual really took the form of what is often called social inversion.  That is to say for this one ritual time of year, the high and the low turn the tables on each other.  On this one occasion, and it’s an occasion that’s going to be fueled by alcohol, these people in the lower orders feel that they can act as if they’re the bosses and they can go around town entitled to bang on the doors of their betters, perhaps the people that they work for themselves and demand more alcohol, the best food that the Lord of the manner has to offer, even sometimes money.  You can think of it as being sort of like Halloween, like a bad Halloween, because if these beggars didn’t get the drink or the food or whatever gift they demanded, they were liable to threaten or even to perform damage.
Onuf: The more you talk about this, the more un-American it sounds to me.  After all, as my man Jefferson would have said: “All men are created equal.”  You can’t have that kind of celebration or inversion in a world of equals.  Can you?
Nissenbaum: Yeah, but one of the interesting things about this social inversion form of Christmas is that it was not demand for equality.  It was in fact a reinforcement of the social order because the poor were not trying to eliminate distinctions of status.  They were maintaining those distinctions of status, but they were inverting them.
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