THERE were no neatly wrapped presents. Nor were there tinselled trees or Santa Claus. Christmas in preindustrial Europe and America looked very different from today’s iteration. Drunks, cross-dressers and rowdy carollers roamed the streets. The tavern, rather than the home or the church, was the place to celebrate. “Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides,”—so despaired Hugh Latimer, chaplain to King Edward VI, in the mid-1500s. Some 200 years later, across the Atlantic, a Puritan minister decried the “lewd gaming” and “rude revelling” of Christmastime in the colonies. Those concerns seem irrelevant now. By the end of the 19th century, a rambunctious, freewheeling holiday had turned into the peaceable, family-centred one we know today. How?

In early modern Europe, between about 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season meant a lull in agricultural labour and a chance to indulge. The harvest had been gathered and the animals slaughtered (the cold weather meant they would not spoil). The celebration involved heavy eating, drinking and wassailing, in which peasants would arrive at the houses of the neighbouring gentry and demand to be fed. One drinking song captured the mood: “And if you don’t open up your door, / We will lay you flat upon the floor.” Mostly this was tolerated in good humour—a kind of ritualised disorder, when the social hierarchy was temporarily inverted. Some were less tolerant. In colonial Massachusetts, between 1659 and 1681, Puritans banned Christmas. They expunged the day from their almanacs, and offending revellers risked a five-shilling fine. The ban did not last, so efforts to tame the holiday picked up instead. Moderation was advised. One almanac-writer cautioned in 1761 that “The temperate man enjoys the most delight, / For riot dulls and palls the appetite.” Still, Christmas was a public ritual, enacted in the tavern or street and often fuelled by alcohol. 

That soon changed. Cities had expanded at the turn of the 19th century to absorb the growing number of factory workers. Vagrancy and urban poverty were by now common. Rowdiness at Christmas could turn violent, with bands of drunken men roaming the streets. It’s little surprise that members of the upper classes saw a threat in the festivity. In his study of the holiday, Stephen Nissenbaum, a historian, credits a group of patrician writers and editorialists in America with recasting it as a domestic event. They refashioned European traditions, like Christmas trees from Germany and Christmas boxes from England, in which the wealthy would present cash or leftovers to their servants. St Nicholas, or Santa Claus, whose December name day coincided with the Christmas season, became the holiday’s mascot. Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St Nicholas”, first publised in 1823, helped popularise his image. In it, a jolly Santa descends via reindeer-pulled sleigh to surprise children with presents on Christmas Eve. Newspapers also played their part. “Let all avoid taverns and grog shops for a few days,” advised the New York Herald in 1839. Better to focus on “the domestic hearth, the virtuous wife, the innocent, smiling, merry-hearted children.” 

It was a triumph of middle-class values, and a coup for shop-owners. “Christmas is the merchant’s harvest time,” one industry magazine enthused in 1908. “It is up to him to garner in as big a crop of dollars as he can.” Soon this new Christmas would become a target of criticism in its own right: as commercialised and superficial. Nevertheless it lives on.