In the hundreds of years leading up to and including the Victorian Era, in England, there was a great divide between the rich and poor. As is well-chronicled in many of the works of Charles Dickens and elsewhere, the wealthy of England controlled the money and the law of the land. Furthermore, the people who wrote the laws were not interested in taking care of the poor among them. The people who were well-off tended to think of poverty as a moral defect. Therefore, if one was born poor, there was almost nothing that person could do to change their status, short of being some sort of a genius like Dickens himself, who suffered the horrors of workhouse child labor while his family was in debtor’s prison. Christmastime, however, as Scrooge’s nephew Fred pointed out, was a time when people seemed to “open their shut-up hearts freely, and to think of people below them.”
Taking advantage of this annual, charitable state of consciousness could have meant the difference between life and death for the most meager among them. Therefore, the poor wassailers, often farm laborers or their children (the children tended to yield better results, probably because they more naturally pulled on heartstrings) went door-to-door at Christmastime. They sang—or wassailed—for their wealthier neighbors and offered them a cup of Christmas cheer from a decorated wassail bowl, hoping for some charitable gesture in return. The bowl itself was commonly made of maple or sycamore wood and was usually the bowl used to serve boiled potatoes at the farm family’s dinner table. The wassailers would decorate the bowl with greenery and ribbons in hopes that their festive efforts would evoke such tenderness from their hosts as to fetch a gratuity of food, drink, or coins. Indeed, after trudging through the wind and snow in their pitifully scant garments, these wassailers were often welcomed into the homes to warm up, have some holiday refreshments, and sometimes given a coin that provided some measure of desperately needed relief.
As the centuries passed, the tradition of the poverty-ravished children wassailing morphed into scenes of brazen, drunken bullies stumbling door-to-door. They had no cheer to offer by way of a wassail bowl, but, instead, they improvised verses of wassail songs, bellowing out their rude demands. The verses at the top of the chapter are just a sampling of the countless hooliganisms and rogueries that became the trend. They had many demands, ranging from the famous figgy pudding and alcoholic drinks to household items. Indecent overtures were even howled out to the maidens of the house. The holiday looked more like what we know as modern day celebrations of Halloween, Mardi Gras, or St. Patrick’s Day than Christmas: excessive drinking, doors being broken down, fist fights breaking out, rape, and even murder!
The colony at Massachusetts Bay made it a criminal offense to publicly celebrate Christmas, punishable by a 5 shilling fine.
In some areas of England and in colonial New England, the police were on high alert from Christmas Eve until New Year’s Eve. The seasonal marauding and the thought of the impending danger at their very door steps repulsed and terrorized respectable citizens and the holiday was largely blackened for them. The Puritans of England, after overthrowing King Charles I and having him beheaded in 1647, formally banned Christmas. Parliament decreed that fasting and humiliation for Englishmen to account for their sins should be the order of the day on December 25. The Puritans in New England followed suit, and businesses stayed open and church doors closed on December 25.
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