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THE BAD OLD DAYS

6 Ways Christmases Past Used to be Terrible

A.J. Jacobs
Krampus crashing a Christmas party.
Krampus crashing a Christmas party. / Shutterstock/Nana_Studio (Stack of Photos); Imagno/Getty Images (Krampus)
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It wasn’t always the most wonderful time of the year. In centuries past, Christmas was often violent, scary, and disgusting. So for all those Grinches who are skeptical of today’s Yuletide customs, be thankful you weren’t alive centuries ago. Otherwise, you might have to endure some of the following. 

1. Christmas past included coercive caroling.

In Christmases past, the ritual of caroling was often less “joy to the world” and more “menace to society.” As detailed in Stephen Nissenbaum’s excellent book The Battle for Christmas (which is the source of much of the demented material in this article), 18th-century Boston was plagued by blackmail, insults, vandalism, and home invasion under the guise of Christmas cheer. The practice of aggressive caroling went by several names—most typically, it was called mumming—but the idea was the same: Inebriated singers and/or actors would show up to your house and refuse to leave until they had been paid off with money or booze. If refused, the carolers would toss rocks, throw fists, or just steal stuff. In 1793, one Massachusetts resident penned a letter to a Boston newspaper pleading for the police to stop this Christmas custom:

“Their demands for entrance in house, are insolent and clamourous; and should the peaceful citizen (not choosing to have the tranquillity of his family interrupted) persevere in refusing them admittance, his windows are broke, or the latches and knockers wrenched from his door as the penalty: Or should they gain admittance, the delicate ear is oftentimes offended, children affrighted, or catch the phrases of their senseless ribaldry.”

2. Christmas party games were like Jackass meets Dickens.

One supposedly fun thing to do in Victorian Christmases: Play the parlor game Snapdragon. As described in Atlas Obscura, this holiday game involved setting a bowl of brandy-soaked raisins on fire. Competitors then tried to grab the flaming raisins and pop them in their mouths. (Don’t worry: If they did get burned, Victorian home remedies for burns included potato peels or spittle, so they were fine!) Americans also played Snapdragon, but they did so at Halloween.

3. Beloved Christmas figures tortured kids.

Yes, Santa Claus still has a creepy edge to him nowadays (e.g. “better watch out, better not cry … Santa Claus is comin' to town.”). But in years past, Santa’s Tony Soprano side was much more pronounced. For instance: St. Nicholas didn’t just leave a lump of coal. He left a rod for parents to beat their kids. Here’s part of a charming 19th century poem about St. Nicholas (which was actually published before the famous "A Visit From St. Nicholas"):

“But where I found the children naughty In manners rude, in temper haughty, Thankless to parents, liars, swearers, Boxers, or cheats, or base tale-bearers, I left a long, black, birchen rod, Such, as the dread command of GOD, Directs a Parent’s hand to use When virtue’s path his sons refuse.”

Other countries’ traditions—both past and present—can be even more frightening. You might have heard of St. Nicholas’s friend Krampus, who lives in Austria and Bavaria. As described in the academic website The Conversation, Krampus had “fangs, horns and fur,” and “punishes naughty children by whipping them with sticks, called ‘ruten bundles’ … Those who cannot be whipped into niceness are put into Krampus’ sack and taken back to his den.”

(Sidenote: For a great parody of evil European Father Noels, see Big Mouth’s Vader [Father] Johan, a Dutch figure with “the body of a walrus, the sharp teeth of a dolphin” who plays a flute made from the bones of children.)

4. People endured the “evil effects of snow-balling.”

In centuries past, Christmas snowball fights were sometimes more akin to a mugging than a playful game. An 1880 article in The New York Times headlined “Evil Effects of Snow-Balling” cites two Christmastime instances where “young rowdies” attacked people: One confrontation ended with one of the attackers being shot by a pistol (likely by another snowballer who was trying to hit the people chasing them); the other, which involved an ambush of a Chinese-owned laundromat, ended with several injuries to the workers.

5. The Christmas meal left a lot to be desired.

The line between delicious and disgusting is no doubt culture-dependent. I’m sure future civilizations will find much of what we eat to be ridiculous (Suspect Number One: turducken). But Christmas feasts of the past sure sound gag-inducing to me. As Kirsten Fawcett wrote in a Mental Floss piece in 2016, in the Middle Ages, the wealthy preferred to dine on an unusual bird—peacock:

“The colorful, plumed bird was often baked into a pie, or roasted with its head and tail still intact. Adding to the flamboyant display, the peacock’s feathers were reattached (or the skinned bird was placed back inside its intact skin), and its tail feathers were fully fanned out. Peacocks likely looked impressive on a banquet table, but the meat reportedly tasted terrible.”

So terrible, in fact, that cooks of the time weren't above shoving and sewing a cooked goose inside the peacock's skin.

Other Christmas feasts at that time might have featured a boar’s head. The recipe involved roasting the head of a boar, and covering it in lard and black ash to simulate the boar’s black fur.

6. Christmas could involve school riots.

Nowadays, we take it on faith that schools will close for December holidays. This wasn’t always the case. Sometimes the pupils had to fight for it—and in surprisingly violent ways. There was even a name for the Christmas ritual: Barring Out. Starting in the 16th century and going through the 19th, students in Britain and America would sneak into the schoolroom, lock all the doors, and refuse to let the headmaster/schoolmaster in until he promised to give them vacation. It wasn’t a harmless prank: As Nissenbaum details in The Battle for Christmas, it often involved gunshots and injuries, and according to Oxford’s A Dictionary of English Folklore, it could even be deadly: “In Scotland in 1595, a magistrate who was helping the teacher gain access to the school was shot dead by one of the pupils.”

Curious what other modern day amusements weren't so fun in the past? Check out previous installments of our Bad Old Days series here.

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