Working-Class Christmas

Kathy M. Newman Carnegie Mellon University

During this Christmas season, there is a tweet making the rounds that shows the number of paid vacation days in thirteen different countries by law:

France             30

Denmark         25

Finland            25

Norway           25

Sweden           25

Russia             24

Cuba                22

Australia         20

New Zealand  20

Canada            10

Japan               10

Mexico            6

United States  0

Workers in the US are legally entitled to zero vacation days. Nada. Zilch.

I raise this now because I’ve been doing some research into the history of Christmas holiday traditions, looking at two histories of Christmas, Judith Flanders’s Christmas: A Biography, and Stephen Nussbaum’s The Battle for Christmas. After reading these histories here is what I have concluded: the working-class invented Christmas.

Many of the traditions that we associate with Christmas have their roots in the winter solstice and the agricultural off season that in Northern climates runs from the end of October through the end of February. In The Battle for Christmas, Nussbaum points out that, “December was the major ‘punctuation mark’ in the rhythmic cycle of work, a time when there was a minimum of work to be performed. The deep freeze of midwinter had not yet set in; the work of gathering the harvest and preparing it for winter was done; and there was plenty of newly fermented beer or wine as well as meat from freshly slaughtered animals— meat that had to be consumed before it spoiled.”

Flanders notes that December 25th was not universally recognized as the day of Christ’s birth until the late 300s, nearly 400 years after he was born. The date was chosen because religious leaders and institutions found that people embraced religious meanings more enthusiastically when they were attached to already existing customs and rituals. Religious leaders linked Christ’s birth with the winter solstice, which had been celebrated in the Roman empire as a holiday called Saturnalia, and which was marked by the cessation of work, the closing of shops, gifts of candles as well as drinking, eating, and gambling.

Winter holidays were also associated with a topsy-turvy element, a carnivalesque switching of roles. From the pagan era, through the European middle ages, and up through the American 19th century slave holding South, a “boy bishop” would be chosen to preside over a holiday service, masters might serve their tenant farmers, and American slaves were allowed to revel for one week. These occasional role-switching customs probably did more to maintain hierarchical order than they did to overturn them, though, as Flanders notes, slave rebellions “often clustered around the holidays.”

One of the greatest myths surrounding Christmas, Flanders points out, is that wealthy landowners and employers gave great banquets to feed the downtrodden. While Flanders did find menus and descriptions of such feasts, such as the Duke of Buckingham’s Christmas Day feast of 1507, only three of the guests on the Duke’s list had “no obvious” obligation to him. Instead of being feasted by their Lords, it was customary during this period for tenants to give gifts of produce, drink, or large birds, such as capons, to those with more power and wealth.

Mummers in Newfoundland

Other Christmas customs that disrupt social rules were invented by working people. Consider the tradition of “mumming,” or walking about at night in large groups, in costume, with men sometimes dressing as women or in blackface. These night walks sometimes became rowdy, even riotous—mostly in the sense of creating mischief and pulling pranks. For a time in the 18th century, young men would prank young women in the streets by pulling up their dresses as far as they could.

Some of the street traditions involved going “house to house,” such as the Caribbean tradition of “John Canoe,” the English tradition of “Wassailing,” and the German tradition of caroling during the St. Martin’s Saint Day in November. In each variation, groups of ordinary workers and performers would sing, dance, toast, and threaten pranks in return for food, alcohol, and money.

Other Christmas traditions can also be traced to the working class. Christmas carols were often popular work songs adapted to reflect more religious themes. Christmas trees, Flanders writes, became common in the late 1800s in the US, a fashion set “not by the aristocracy” but “generated by the people.” “Kissing boughs,” a decorated greenery display common in England, was also a working-class tradition.

In the 19th century, Clement Clark Moore’s infamous poem, The Night Before Christmas, Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol, and Thomas Nast’s cartoon of Santa Claus together provided much of the ideology and iconography of the holiday that prevails today. Dickens’s work, especially, reflects a working-class perspective on Christmas. When Dickens was 12 years old his father was sent to prison, and his mother agreed to have Charles hired out at Warren’s boot blacking factory, where he pasted labels onto bottles of shoe polish. Dickens always remembered the pain and shames of these experiences, and he brought that consciousness into his all of his work.

Dickens witnessed the beginnings of the industrial revolution, a period that produced a transition in the customs around Christmas. Suddenly workers could be called upon to work year-round. At the same time, where Christmas had long been structured by top-down and bottom-up relationships between rich and poor, in the 19th century, the hierarchy was shuffled to consist of parents and children—with children being placed in the position of the poor of yore.

These social changes may explain why Dickens argued in A Christmas Carol that workers should be given time off from work to celebrate the day. His rationale in the story is not religious but instead is rooted in the idea that treating workers well is the right thing to do. Scrooge’s nephew Fred suggests that death is the great class equalizer, and that Scrooge should think of the people “below” him as “fellow passengers to the grave” rather than as “another race of people bound on other journeys.”

Many today remind us that “Jesus is the reason for the season.” But for centuries, and even before Christ’s birth, December was a time of rest from work. People celebrated the winter solstice with revelry, comradery, eating, gambling, drinking, costuming, and gifting. They took over public spaces with singing, dancing, and mumming; demanded food, drink, and money;  and sometimes rioted.

It is high time we took back the streets for winter solstice. Let’s demand food, drink, money, more vacation time, and, while we’re at it, a lot less capitalism. ‘Tis the season!


Reposted from Working-Class Studies