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Area winter activities weren’t always fun

Sledding, snowball fights were banned within city limits

In a special Christmas installment of our podcast, “Aull About History,” the Aull Center’s Nathan Wuertenberg and Mike McClung explore the interesting Christmas traditions that led the city of Morgantown to “ban fun” in the 1870s.

Earlier this year, the Aull Center received a donated copy of the Morgantown city regulations for 1874. Looking through the laws, Wuertenberg and McClung were surprised to see that seemingly innocuous winter fun activities like throwing snowballs and coasting (sledding) carried maximum fines of $2 and $5, respectively. That translates to fines of up to $45 for throwing a snowball, or $110 for sledding in Morgantown in today’s money. 

These regulations, as well as some from 1860 banning the sale and setting off of fireworks in town, point to a growing tension at the time between Christmas as we know it today, and a much older, all but lost form of Christmas celebration.

“The celebration of Christmas has changed over time, and the 19th century is sort of the fulcrum of that process,” Wuertenberg said. “It’s the period in which Christmas becomes the way that we recognize it today.”

An article in “The Monongalia Mirror” from 1853 gives a better picture of the contrasting Christmas celebrations that took place the previous week. While a chaste celebration that included singing hymns and prayer took place in the basement of the Morgantown Episcopal Church, “some of our lads about town constituted themselves into a committee of derangement on Christmas Eve,” that vandalized shop signs and even stabbed a constable in the hip.  

The churchgoers represent a Christmas celebration that most modern readers would easily recognize, but the “committee of derangement,” were in fact historically the norm for Christmas celebration.

Ghosts of Christmas Past

As far back as ancient Rome, winter was a time for drinking, feasting and general debauchery. It was the natural season for feasting because there was less work and relative plenty after the harvest and slaughter. Midwinter festivals also provided a needed psychological boost in the darkest days of the year.

“People could have something to look forward to for the first half of winter, the preparations could be a welcome distraction and the party itself would be a blast,” points out author Bruce David Forbes in his book, “Christmas: A Candid History.”

Much of the appeal of the midwinter festivals that would become Christmas was the inversion of social norms. A major theme of the ancient Roman feast of Saturnalia was equality. Nobody was to be shown preferential treatment: People would sit where they pleased, drink the same wine and eat the same meat. Rich men were even instructed to wait upon their servants and slaves.

The Romans would elect a Mock King to preside over their feasts, a tradition that medieval Europeans later mimicked with a “Lord of Misrule,” or appoint a boy as “bishop for a day.” Predecessors to modern caroling, such as mumming and wassailing, gave peasants and workers an excuse to barge into the homes of wealthier citizens to sing songs and put on plays in exchange for food, drink and sometimes money.

All was in good spirit but, in short, chaos reigned. Even after Christianity became the dominant cultural force in Europe, and later North America, these raucous traditions were maintained as a welcome distraction from the crushing effects of winter that we   recognize today as seasonal affected disorder.

Ghosts of Christmas Present

However, pastoral communities eventually gave way to still rising urbanization. The social familiarity that kept midwinter revelry in check was replaced by the anonymity of the city, and many saw the traditional ways of celebrating Christmas as excessive, or even dangerous.

The 19th century was a time of social reforms like temperance, and the tide was swiftly turning towards the chastened Christmas we know today. Now classics, such as Clement Clarke Moore’s “A Visit from St. Nick” (better known as “Twas the Night Before Christmas”) gave Christmas a positive and benevolent mascot, while Charles Dickens’ “A Christmas Carol” espoused the morals of charity, generosity and community that would become synonymous with Christmas. These were concerted efforts from an emerging middle class, who did not take kindly to drunken strangers demanding food and spirits, to reshape Christmas into the quiet, family-oriented celebration we know today.

But if you know where to look, there are still some echoes of the Christmas that was. We all keep the spirit of midwinter alive in the lyrics of songs like, “Here we go A-Caroling” and “We Wish You A Merry Christmas.” Lyrics like “Oh, bring us some figgy pudding, And bring it right here” hint at an all but forgotten time when Christmas was more about letting loose than tying a tight bow.

For more on Morgantown’s role in shaping Christmas, be sure to listen to the Christmas episode of our new podcast, “Aull About History.”