Rowdy men in colorful rags gather outside the city’s nicer homes, demanding to be let in. Some have disguised themselves with mock-fancy outfits that ridicule their less-than-willing hosts, while others have blackened their faces or dressed up as animals. If you try to keep them out, they will shatter your windows, break down your door, and help themselves to food and drink. If instead you grant the rabble access, your costumed guests will drink your best booze and demand a cash “tip” for slurring a noisy song at your family.
Welcome to a traditional Christmas, as it was celebrated for over a thousand years: from the last days of Rome, through late-medieval London, to 18th-century New York.
No Santa, no Christmas tree, no wreath or holly or mistletoe. And no more sign of the Holy Family than you would have seen at any other season.
Older than most of our modern Christmas traditions is the tradition of fighting over how to celebrate in late December — or whether to celebrate at all.
“It was all a little like Halloween today,” writes historian Stephen Nissenbaum in The Battle for Christmas, “when, for a single evening, children assume the right to enter the houses of neighbors and even strangers, to demand of their elders a gift (or ‘treat’) and to threaten them, should they fail to provide one, with a punishment.”
But unlike modern Halloween, the traditional Christmas involved real intimidation: the costumed petitioners were not small children but lower-class young men; they were already drunk and demanding yet more to drink.
How did this annual ritual of clamor and extortion turn into silent night, holy night?
That transformation was not a religious conversion from pagan bacchanal to pious observance, despite centuries of effort by Church authorities. T…