In honor of the Christmas season, the Dominion Post and the Aull Center are proud to bring you a special audio piece of local holiday history.
What follows is a transcript of the audio piece.
CHRIS: Ho ho, ho, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays to you. Welcome to a special Christmas episode of Aull About History, the local history podcasts from the Dominion Post and the Aull Center in Morgantown, West Virginia.
Aull About History will officially launch in just a few short months at the start of 2020, but while we work on our first episode, we wanted to give you a holiday sample of what you can expect.
I’m Chris Schulz, the show’s producer, and I recorded this episode with Nathan Wuertenberg and Mike McClung of the Aull Center. We had a great time making it, and I think that comes through in the recording. Nathan put together an amazing history of Christmas, but not the Christmas that you’re familiar with. Take a listen and you’ll find out. Please enjoy the show.
NATHAN: All right, so let’s see. I’m not sure how long ago it was, but several months ago Mike and I received a donation at the Aull Center. It was a copy of the Morgantown city regulations for the year 1874, and it appears that the city of Morgantown had banned all forms of fun that year, including throwing snowballs, sledding and whooping and halooing anytime after 9:00 PM.
It might be a weird way to start a Christmas episode, but after doing some research into the local newspapers from that era and earlier, it turns out that this banning of all forms of fun has a lot to do with Morgantown’s part in a much larger process by which the way that we celebrate Christmas came to be.
So, if you were in Morgantown in the 1850s and you were looking for a Christmas celebration, you would be able to find one that resembled a Christmas celebration that, that many people still have. In “The Monongalia Mirror” for January 1st, 1853, the editor, Simeon Siegfried wrote about a celebration of Christmas in the basement of the Methodist Episcopal church in Morgantown on Christmas day. And the attendance was large and, and the attention good. And there was much singing and prayer. And general merriment. Um, and also, uh, a good bit of donating to the missionary cause. So that’s all, you know, business as usual. But outside of the church, in the streets of Morgantown itself, there was a very different Christmas celebration going on.
Now, also on Christmas and Christmas Eve as well, the young men of Morgantown were having their own form of celebration. “The Monongalia Mirror” wrote that:
“Some of our lads about town constituted themselves into a committee of derangement on Christmas Eve and enacted a variety of petty fooleries, some of which were a little smart and others were decidedly otherwise. This thing of breaking, transferring and mutilating signboards is a small business at any time. But the changing of that red post up the street into a barber’s pole has rendered it more attractive than ever. So long as the juveniles confine their operations to mere sport, although mischievous, no one has a disposition to complain. But when the laws are violated and the property of our citizens endangered by firecrackers, et cetera, the borough officers deserve credit for inflicting upon all offenders the penalties provided by law.”
Unfortunately for the borough officers, their efforts to do so were not faced without resistance. “The Monongalia Mirror” also writes that, “Mr. M.R Chalfant, the borough constable, while endeavoring to regulate some riotous boys, received a stab in the hip which, had it been a little higher up, might’ve proved fatal. The offender was committed.”
Now, that was in 1853 and the following year it turns out that the young men of Morgantown were similarly up to no good. According to “The Mirror,”
“The advent of Christmas was announced according to ancient usage by the (NATHAN interjects – now this is hard to pronounce: b’hoys, spelled B ‘ H O Y S) with all the holiday appurtenances of crazy muskets, post-revolutionary horse pistols, firecrackers, et cetera. The display of fireworks in the evening on the hill fronting High Street could not be appreciated by the folks in town for it was completely lost in the fog. There seemed to be a general disposition to give young America full vent on the occasion and not to enforce against the merry, but offending, juveniles the firecracker statute in such cases made and provided. We anticipate for New Year’s Day a less formal reception, less noise and confusion, for the stock of spit devils, skyrockets, torpedoes, powder candles, et cetera, must have depreciated vastly judging from the consumption of the article on Monday. P.S. boys: look out! The borough council will not tolerate your gunpowder plots anymore. Well, you had a good time of it on Christmas. And as law abiding citizens, you can afford to desist from such performances on New Year’s Day. Get up a game of football, the wheelbarrow game or most anything else in which you can crack shins and jokes alternately without offending the ordinances or their executors.”
CHRIS: This is something that I find so interesting about this story is the fact that in this time, New Year’s is considered to be a less raucous event than Christmas for this era. And also, I mean, the fact that we just kind of glossed over the stabbing of a, of a police officer. Not, not just, you know, in, in our recording, but also the newspaper devoted two sentences to the stabbing of an officer of the law. Today, that would be, you know, weeks worth of coverage at the very least.
MIKE: Not to mention the fact that the offender was committed, committed to what? Where was he committed? Also, it’s my, it’s my guess that most of the b’hoys who committed these infractions were, were, uh, egged by that g’hirls.
NATHAN: There is actually, there’s a, there’s a feminine form of that word. It’s a, it’s g’hals. Yes.
NATHAN: Yeah, I know. It’s, it’s supposed to mimic the, uh, the Gaelic pronunciation of, uh, of boys and girls. Okay. So in 1856, we have a slightly different approach to the, the Christmas revelries of Morgantown’s young men by “The American Union.” Now, “The American Union” was edited by Simeon Siegfried’s son, Simeon, Siegfried, Jr. and he had a slightly different political approach to the times.
In “The American Union.” on December 27th, 1856 Simeon Siegfried, Jr. writes,
“Our town, on Christmas Even during the day, might’ve been mistaken by a blind pedestrian who had lost his compass for a Nicaraguan port beleaguered by Walker and his filibusters. Any quantity and all varieties of firearms contributed their quota to the general racket. Perhaps it is well enough to give young America vent about the holidays. The borough ordinances to the contrary, not withstanding custom has generally so decreed at all events. Let ‘er rip!”
So if Simeon Siegfried, Jr.’s father did not approve of, uh, the general merriment that young men were having on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, Simeon Siegfried, Jr. himself seems to have.
The newspaper’s promise that the borough councilor was going to enforce stricter regulations regarding the celebration of Christmas and the manner that the young men preferred eventually came true. Uh, you know, as, as we mentioned, by 1874, basically all forms of fun in the winter had been banned. But even as early as 1860, um, some lesser forms of fun, specifically the sale and purchase of firecrackers of all forms had been banned in the town. And this is a direct response to, to the practice of setting off fireworks in the, uh, during the Christmas season.
In order to understand this sort of tension between, you know, the folks who disapprove of, uh, young men’s revelries in 1850s Morgantown during Christmas, and you know, the sort of folks, um, who, who think it’s, you know, all in good fun, you have to look at a much broader picture and you to understand the way that the celebration of Christmas has changed over time. And the 19th century is sort of the fulcrum of that process. Um, it’s the period in which Christmas becomes the way that we recognize it today. And, uh, this argument between, you know, folks firing off firecrackers and folks singing hymns in church on Christmas is, is a window into that much broader process.
NATHAN: So Christmas celebrations in 1800s America owed a lot more to the Midwinter worship of Saturn and Bacchus than it did, than it did to Christ. So, many of the Christmas practices, the Christmas celebrations and traditions that they had back then were borrowed from, from pagan cultures. Um, specifically the Romans.
Now, in the middle of December in the Roman empire, Romans typically feasted and, and, and drank and had all sorts of fun on, on the first day of Saturnalia, which was December 17th. And this lasted all the way to January 1st. And when Christianity began to take hold in Europe, Christians began to celebrate Christ’s birth on December 25th. It’s also the winter solstice on the Roman calendar. And the strength of those pagan traditions among specifically the lower classes in medieval Europe were so, so influential, they were so firmly held by the lower classes that the church basically agreed to allow peasants to continue celebrating, uh, you know, winter traditions the way that they always had. And so those earlier pagan traditions kind of melded with the celebration of Christmas in, in, uh, in December.
Typically, in medieval and early modern Europe, Christmas was celebrated as an opportunity to, um, violate social norms and upset social order. They even elected a “Lord of Misrule” during Christmas who presided over the revelries every year. And they would do all sorts of things that eventually came to be frowned upon after the Protestant reformation began to take hold.
One practice that was particularly offensive to Protestants was a practice called mumming, which is the exchange of clothes between men and women. So, so men would dress as women and vice versa, and men would also occasionally dress up in animal skin. So not only were they crossing gender boundaries in these celebrations, they were also crossing the boundaries of species. They were challenging fundamental ideas about what it meant to live in ” civilized society.” And that’s what Christmas was all about for them.
Authorities in the American colonies, particularly the Puritans in Massachusetts, uh, tried to, you know, stamp these practices out. Uh, the Puritans instituted a five shilling fine for celebrating Christmas in the colonial period. And even though they didn’t have much success in that period, authorities continue to try and, and, quell Christmas, to sort of make it something more, “respectable.” But by the 19th century, Christmas in the United States continued to be a celebration of all things, uh, disordered in society.
CHRIS: So Nathan, something that I’m curious about is: What is it about this particular feast for this time of year that led to this type of upheaval? Why the end of the year? Why December, when it’s coldest?
NATHAN: Well, you know, I think a lot of it has to do with the, you know, the annual cycle of life in medieval Europe. I mean, so, you know, historians generally see these celebrations as a safety valve. It’s a way of letting the lower classes vent some of their frustrations…
CHRIS: Like a medieval Purge?
NATHAN: Uh, essentially. Yeah. Except with the, uh, hopefully less death. Uh, they, you know, the idea was that if the lower classes had had an opportunity to sort of lash out a little bit, to have a little bit of fun, then throughout the rest of the year, they would not challenge authority so much.
CHRIS: There’s also, I mean, the idea that this was a time, contrary to what we might think, of plenty, right? Because you’ve just finished the harvest. You’ve probably, you’re either about to, or you’ve just finished the slaughter. So there’s plenty to go around. And there’s also, I mean, what are you doing once you’ve done all that?
CHRIS: You’re not planting, you’re not harvesting, you’re not tending. So what is there to do?
NATHAN: Yeah, exactly. I mean, so, you know, they’re not going to have these sorts of celebrations during harvest time, that’s their busiest time of the year, Right? But afterwards, they have much less to do. They have a lot of time on their hands and winters get cold in medieval Europe, right? In the annual life cycle of a medieval peasant in Europe, the winter is a time almost of hibernation, right? I mean, they, they, they reduce their caloric intake and they huddled together for warmth and that’s essentially their winter.
So Christmas provides them for an opportunity and provides them with an opportunity to, to do literally anything other than that, you know? I mean, nobody wants to spend their winter that way. And, and, uh, so having a little bit of merriment, lashing out at the people who are living in warm castles, surrounded by roaring fires, you know, it’s certainly something that I would, I would, uh, I would, uh, sympathize with, I think.
In 19th century America, citizens of the United States generally used Christmas as an excuse to drink rum, fire muskets, don costumes, and, and organize parades. Uh, and they would go through their towns, they process through their towns and cities, beating on kettles, blowing on penny trumpets and tin horns and setting off firecrackers.
In much of the same way that, that the newspaper in Morgantown records the young men doing, they would also use these celebrations as, as an excuse to demand entrance into the homes of the rich. And they would aggressively beg for food, drink, and money. Sometimes things would escalate, there would be break-ins, vandalism, sexual assault.
And there was one particularly violent riot in New York City in 1828 that led to the establishment of the city’s first professional police force. So the fact that the NYPD exists owes its, uh, its history a little bit to, uh, to the effort to make Christmas a little bit less raucous and a little bit less fun.
So all of this lower class fun was generally frowned upon by the rising middle class and, and, and the upper classes as well. And, uh, many of these middle-class, you know, folk wished that Christmas could be something different, could be something more peaceful,, were social reformers. Simeon Siegfried, the, the editor of “The Monongalia Mirror” was one such a reformer. He was a minister and he was in four – he was, uh, involved in the temperance movement as well as a number of other reform movements.
And generally, uh, these reformers took part in an effort to sort of fabricate Christmas images. And many of them are the ones that we have today. Santa Claus for existence, uh, began in the United States – not to say that Santa Claus doesn’t exist in other nations, but in the United States in particular – Santa Claus started off as the product of, of a history of New York, written in 1809 by Washington Irving, the, uh, the author of the, “The Tale of Sleepy Hollow.”
And Irving invented tales of celebrations by Dutch colonists in the colony of New Amsterdam – prior to its transfer to the, uh, to the English as New York – in which they, they hailed Saint Nicholas as this jovial figure that, you know, sort of brought gifts on, on Christmas. And Clement Clarke Moore borrowed this image for his, uh, his 1822 poem “Twas the Night Before Christmas.”
And then in the Civil War era, the political cartoonist, uh, Thomas Nast – who, who is also responsible for creating the images of the Republican elephant and the Democratic donkey – published drawings of Santa Claus wearing sort of a, an Uncle Sam get up, a suit covered in stars and stripes delivering gifts to Union troops.
By 1886, Boston printer, Louis Prang introduces a depiction of Santa in a red suit. And then we get the, the most recognizable form of Santa Claus, uh, in the, in the depression era by Coca-Cola artists, Haddon Sundblom who, who basically, you know, puts the, the, the, uh, the ribbon on the package and, and creates Santa Clause as we know him today.
But it’s this much larger process by which Christmas traditions are invented in this country over the course of the 19th century. And the counterpoint to that, uh, to that effort, the, uh, you know, a complimentary component of the effort is this effort to provide alternative Christmas entertainments for, for American youth. Um, like the one at the Methodist Episcopal church in Morgantown in 1853. They’re trying to provide venues where they can celebrate Christmas in a respectable way that isn’t setting off firecrackers in the street.
The final component of the entire process is illegalizing, uh, the behaviors themselves that are getting everyone upset. You know, passing ordinances like the ones that you find in, uh, the Morgantown ordinances for 1860 and 1874. All of the things that local youth have been doing, local, young men have been doing to upset the social order: setting off firecrackers, setting off muskets, sledding, throwing snowballs, you know, obviously stabbing sheriffs in the hip. All of these things are, are, are specifically prohibited, uh, as a result of their, the, the uptick in their frequency during, during Christmas celebrations.
NATHAN: And it’s important to note, you know, all of this entire process has a lot to do with anti-Catholicism in the United States, right? The fact that, the fact that Simeon Siegfried, Jr. compares Morgantown to a Nicaraguan port, he compares it to a majority Catholic area, right? The fact that they refer to the young men of Morgantown as b’hoys, you know, comparing them to the Irish, all of this has to do with trying to make Christmas less like it’s celebration in Catholic Europe. And so I think that’s an important component to consider in all of this.
Now obviously at some point this whole process began to turn against the young men, right? Began to turn away from using Christmas as a way to challenge social order and the, the opponents of Christmas as it was back then became more comfortable. And I think you can see that in, in even in Morgantown in the 1880s and Mike found a great, uh, source from 1881 that I think demonstrates that pretty well.
MIKE: Oh yeah. Um, it’s funny. Uh, in 1874, there was an ordinance, “Any person engaged in what is known as coasting or sliding upon any of the street or alleys of said town shall upon conviction be fined not less than 50 cents, not exceeding $5.”
Seven years later on January 22nd, 1881, the, uh, “Morgantown Weekly Post” said
“During the almost unprecedented season of sleek sleighing, our citizens, young and old, men and women and children, have been enjoying the coasting as well as riding behind spanking teams. The streets which have been almost a glare of ice, have afforded fine sport for sledding and from the University to the Wharf, down to the water’s edge, have our young men, and women too, enjoyed the fun and frolic of coasting.”
Seven years. What a difference.
CHRIS: And I mean, you couldn’t really ask for a better town to go sledding in if you’re allowed to sled down the roads than Morgantown.
MIKE: Oh, Prospect Street. Oh, spare me. I mean you, Oh,
NATHAN: I really feel like, you know, just the entire downtown area should just shut down when it snows and just allow everybody to have a fun, some fun for a few hours. Right. I think that would be ideal.
CHRIS: Yeah. We saw how well that worked out last year.
NATHAN: Well, you know, if it’s a, if it’s enforced by a, as an official, a as an official restriction, uh, just uh,
MIKE: There are liability issues.
It’s interesting because in 1860 the ordinance for people selling firecrackers, they would be fined $20. Today’s translation of $20, in 2019 is $619 and 78 cents. You don’t want to sell a squib in this town, boys. B’hoy,
NATHAN: B’hoys. You know, well, you know, and it makes you wonder, I mean, if they’re still getting their hands on those firecrackers, right? I mean, how much money are these firecracker vendors making off of this? I mean, how many are they using that they’re willing to risk a fine like that?
NATHAN: Well, if they weren’t making enough to make a profit, they wouldn’t be doing it. So they must’ve been making some. I’m drawn back to the, to the remark that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I mean, you know, you can translate a little bit of this stuff into 21st century behavior without too much of a stretch of the imagination.
CHRIS: I, I, I do find it interesting that there was such a success in taking these celebrations out of the taverns, out of the pubs, out of the streets and back next to the hearth. Or not even back, just re relocating it there, cause it was never there to begin with apparently. And just how much and how quickly that has changed in…100 years?
NATHAN: Well, I think it speaks to the, uh, the influence of, of the reform movement in the 19th century. I mean these, uh, middle-class, uh, you know, religious reformers that are, that are trying to reshape society in their own image are, are incredibly powerful in 19th century America. And a lot of what we think of as fundamental American culture, um, either politically or, or you know, in more popular terms, is a result of their efforts. And that’s something and I don’t think, uh, you know, people tend to appreciate or recognize
MIKE: Well, yeah. And it’s not to be forgotten that we’re all the time inventing new quaint customs here in this country. Like the just the last year or so, everybody celebrates the custom of putting gifts on their front porch for people to steal.
CHRIS: All right. That is all for the Christmas episode of Aull About History. We hope you enjoyed it and perhaps learned something. Be sure to join us again in a few months when Aull About History launches in earnest.
If you can’t wait until then, you can check out some of our Halloween stories from our mini-series Haunted History Month, or maybe take a listen to our Thanksgiving special. But we do hope you’ll join us when Aull About History launches at the start of 2020.
Music this week is “We Wish you a Merry Christmas” and “Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairies” by Kevin MacLeod from incomepetech.com that’s I N C O M P E T E C H.com, licensed here under Creative Commons by Attribution 3.0 license.
That’s all from us for now. Thanks for listening. Merry Christmas, Happy Holidays and Happy New Year.
(Music fades out)