Is Christmas revelry getting rowdier? And if so, is the trend toward a more raucous Christmas something new, or merely a resurgence of more ancient rituals, harking back to past times when opportunity and prosperity were at an ebb?
Case in point: the annual SantaCon festivities, where gaggles of merry makers get their Kringle on for a massive, day-long bar hop.
Many SantaCon participants probably consider their event to be quite novel. After all, 2013 marked SantaCon's 20th year, which makes the event a baby in comparison to millenia-old Yuletide practices.
The seeds of SantaCon occurred as early as the mid 1970s, but SantaCon as we know it officially began in San Francisco in 1994, described by its original organizers as "a nonsensical Santa Claus convention that happens once a year for absolutely no reason".
Others have a less charitable opinion of the event. The New York Times describes SantaCon as, "...a daylong pub crawl that begins with good cheer and, for many, inevitably ends in a blurry, booze-soaked haze".
Opposition to SantaCon seems to be growing, despite the fact that in recent years, SantaCon organizers have added a charitable component (contributing to Toys for Tots), in order to mitigate the bad PR created by the inappropriate behavior that naturally flows from public inebriation. In an attempt to tone down the event, SantaCon organizers have now begun to designate "helper elves" to detect and defuse inappropriate behavior before it gets out of hand.
Despite its unsavory aspects, I probably would have participated in SantaCon had it existed when I was a younger man, filled with spirit and irreverence. So why wasn't there a SantaCon-like event in the 70s-80s? And what has changed to incite gregarious events like SantaCon now?
The fact is, SantaCon would have been the perfect fit for the Christmas celebrations of past centuries, which more closely resembled Halloween than Christmas.
A more mischievous Christmas makes sense when you consider the social aspects of early agrarian society. December was a time when all the crops had been harvested, and peasant farmers could enjoy a well-deserved respite from long days of toil. The year's batch of ale had finally fermented, and it was the perfect time to slaughter surplus livestock, since grain would soon become scarce, and the cold weather would preserve the meat through Spring. It only seems natural that the laboring class confronted this frightening season of darkness and bitter cold by engaging in excessive drinking, feasting and merriment. People adopted an attitude of "In your face, Winter!", responding to the tumultuous weather with their own brand of tumult.
Gangs of aggressive carolers roamed the streets, banging on doors, demanding that the occupants share their finest food and ale with the rambunctious merrymakers. It was a season of role reversal, a time to replace darkness with light, a time when the servants temporarily became the masters. A local ne'er-do-well was often ordained as the "Lord of Misrule". Rules of sexual conduct were temporarily suspended, and as a result, birth rates soared every September.
Those in power often tolerated the chaos, seeing it as a time when the poor and oppressed could blow off some steam (which would hopefully lead to more compliant behavior the rest of the year). But in the mid-1600s, straight-laced religious leaders attempted to outlaw these more belligerent expressions of Christmas.
The Puritanical-types of the 17th century succeeded for a decade or two, but in the end, hooliganism prevailed. By 1712, fundamentalist preacher Cotton Mather disapprovingly stated, "The Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty . . . by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling." Sounds like a party to me!
Over the next century, however, new societal changes succeeded where the Puritans had failed.
As historian Stephen Nissenbaum cites in his 1997 book, The Battle for Christmas: "With industrialization in the early 1800s, people were moving to cities, where there was more economic opportunity and material goods were more widely available." In other words, an increase in quality of life tamed savage Christmas customs.
From the 1800s through to the new millennium, food was abundant at every season, and an increase in disposable income brought comfort and joy via consumeristic pursuits. The gap between the rich and poor narrowed, and most people's prosperity steadily improved. Now crafted more by merchants and marketeers than by organic social inclination, the manner in which we celebrate Christmas came to resemble the proverbial long Winter's nap.
That was the Christmas I knew as a child: a slumbering, suburban holiday filled with presents, food, relatively moderate amounts of drink for the adults and unmoderated amounts of sugary treats for the children. Christmas was primarily a domestic event, though we often went caroling door to door, expecting nothing more than to bring the joy of music to the homes we visited. Christmas was structured and lawful.
During these two centuries of relative stability and prosperity, silent nights reigned, and rowdier Christmas customs seemed to have been stifled for good. But as most people can personally attest, that stability and prosperity has steadily crumbled during the last 3 decades. It begs the question: are new customs like the gregarious SantaCon natural by-products of a loss of prosperity?
The future will prove if there is connection between quality of life and the amount of chaos that accompanies Christmas. If prosperity continues to contract, and the gap between haves and have-nots continues to widen, I expect these trends will naturally inspire more mischievous expressions of Christmas. If the rich and powerful tolerate more boisterous popular celebrations, as they did centuries ago, I expect the level of mischief will remain manageable. Otherwise, Christmas might devolve into a sort of Halloween on steroids and the current turmoil of SantaCon might in retrospect seem like a fond memory.