The Parlor and the Street


Santa Claus and Alcohol in New York

DURING THE 1822 Christmas season, the very season during which Clement Moore was writing “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” a New York newspaper editor proposed that one aspect of the local holiday celebration be reformed. As we have seen from the experience of John Pintard, many respectable New York men during the 1820s spent part of their New Year’s Day in paying visits to the homes of their circle of acquaintances. There they were received by the women of the household, who were expected to serve them food and drink—alcoholic drink. For example, that same season another New York newspaper published without comment a notice from an anonymous group of “unmarried gentlemen,” noting their expectation that the ladies they visited would serve them “large quantities of cake and wine, rum jelly and hot punch.”1

The reforming editor, a Federalist named William Leete Stone, called for a stop to the serving of alcohol in the course of these New Year’s Day visits. “A cup of good coffee” would be an “excellent substitute,” he suggested, a token of hospitality that would serve to “tranquilize the excesses of the young.”2

Stone’s suggestion met with a barrage of public ridicule. (This was several years before the emergence of a temperance movement in the United States.) One man—he did not provide his name but identified himself as a former sheriff of the county—wrote an especially pointed rejoinder. This sheriff embroidered a lengthy account of his usual sequence of visits, visits to homes where he had always counted on being greeted with “gaiety and hospitality”—but at every stop he was now greeted only with a cup of coffee. When he declined one such offer by telling his hostess that he had “‘breakfasted already,’” he was told that “‘this is not intended as breakfast—Mr. Stone, of the Commercial, recommends coffee as a substitute for wine or cordial.’” And so it went throughout the morning. “Oh, sir,’” said one of his hostesses, “‘’tis all the rage now—wine and cordial heat the blood, while coffee warms and stimulates without producing deleterious effects.’ ‘So it does, ma’am, at breakfast, but at this hour I would prefer a glass of raspberry [cordial] and a cooky, vulgar as it may appear.’” Even at the house of a good friend, a house “where gaiety and hospitality were ever united,” the sheriff encountered only “a neat gilt china cup, filled with coffee, presented to me by a beautiful young lady.” “‘Surely you will not refuse any thing I offer you,’ said the lady, with a bewitching smile, and with some tenderness in it….” When he continued to protest, she added: “‘But, sir, ’tis recommended in the newspapers by Mr. Stone.’…”

At last the sheriff gave up and decided instead “to visit some of the Hotels—the landlords having thrown open their doors with their usual hospitality.” At one of these—“our old friend Niblo’s”—there was, “as usual, good fare and a hearty welcome.” Another hotelier provided “such a display of wines and delicacies [as] has never been surpassed in this city.” At length the sheriff entered a third hotel, and there he encountered an unexpected guest: “[W]ho should I see seated at the table, and up to his elbows in good things, but my coffee-drinking friend Stone.” The sheriff looked around the table, “and thank heaven not a cup of coffee was to be seen. Stone was so intent on eating cold round [of beef] and turkey, and washing it down with large draughts of old Madeira, that he saw nobody, and if it had not been cruel to have check’d this terminal gratification of his appetite, I certainly should have been tempted to have gone up to him, and said, ‘Stone, how are you off for coffee?’”

The sheriff took pains to show that he knew all about holiday rowdiness, too, and that it did not bother him very much. Indeed, he wrote with more affection than anger about the antics of working-class men on New Year’s Eve. Such behavior was nothing more than part of the standard “ceremonies and jolifications [sic]” of the occasion. It was hardly surprising that those New Yorkers sometimes chose to go on “what they called a spree.” Some of them “went forth with bands of music to serenade their friends, but the most mischievous amused themselves by knocking on doors, displacing signs, knocking down the watchmen, firing crackers and pistols, and snow balling the frail fair ones of the city….” About twenty of the revelers were jailed for the night, but even incarceration failed to dampen their spirits: In the jailhouse itself “[t]hey snapped their fingers, danced waltzes, whistled loud and shrill, and sang glees and catches.” Nor did the magistrate who tried their case early the next morning seem troubled by their offenses, for, as the sheriff concluded, “in consideration of the day, [he] discharged them all, with suitable admonitions, and without requiring any fees [i.e., fines].”

It was an interesting account. The sheriff presented himself as a man who reached easily across class lines and was equally at ease in the drawing room of a “splendid mansion,” a boisterous public house, and even a jail. Actually, the only people who seemed to bother him were reformers (like Colonel Stone) and fashionable women. In that sense, his little story is about gender and class. Women are the purveyors of fashion who portend the decline of real hospitality in the form of good food and drink; the sheriff must go to a “public house” (run and attended by men) in order to eat and drink properly. He takes pains to let his readers know that he is not bothered by working-class drinking and rowdiness. The real social threat (however humorously it is posed) comes from emerging middle-class reforms, represented by Stone’s editorial appeal for coffee instead of alcohol—and it is women who read and act on this advice, turning even the homes of old friends into cold comfort. (As the decades passed and the temperance movement emerged and spread, other newspaper editors tried to rally women to the antidrinking cause. Almost every New Year’s during the 1840s, for example, Horace Greeley used his paper, the New York Tribune, to persuade women to remove alcohol from their tables.)

Resistance to the reform of the Christmas season thus came from above as well as below. Men of a similar stripe to the sheriff actually tried to claim Santa Claus himself as an ally in the cause of old-fashioned hospitality. Two years earlier, in 1820, a New York newspaper printed a poem about Santa in which the “good St. Nicholas” had “just come from Amsterdam / To give the New-years maids their cakes, / And Pinester lads their drams.” The poem then proceeded to address the “lads” directly:

Much to this Saint you owe

For eggs, and nuts, and pies, and crulls,

And whyskey’s jovial flow.3

Nor was this all. On January 4, 1828 (five years after Clement Clarke Moore had written “A Visit from St. Nicholas,” and during the very Christmas season in which his poem began to be widely printed in newspapers around the nation), at least two New York newspapers printed another poem, this one bearing the title “Ode to Saint Claas, Written on New Year’s Eve.”4 The author of this 1828 poem signed himself “Rip Van Dam” (a sure indication that he was not of Dutch ancestry) and insisted, in an introductory note, that he had written his poem only because, “[s]o far as I know, nothing in the way of honourable commendation hath been sung in this city of honest Dutch Burghers, to the thrice-blessed Saint Nicholaas—the saint of all saints, and king of good fellows.” That claim may have been a dig at Moore’s poem, because the figure of “Saint Claas” he presented—“king of good fellows”—was a far cry from Moore’s. To be sure, “Rip Van Dam’s” figure is chubby and jolly, and he, too, “fills every stocking” with little treats: “Apples, and nuts, and sugar-plums, / Grateful to little urchin’s gums … new suits for girls and boys, / Pretty books and prettier toys.”

But that was not all this St. Nicholas brought. The very next verse promised other treats of a very different order: “Mull’d cider, cherry bounce, [and] spic’d rum, / Jolly Saint, O hither come!” And the poet went on to fantasize about joining Santa in a drunken orgy:

Come then with thy merry eye,

And let us bouse it [i.e., booze it] till we die!

Come and o’er my thirsty soul

Floods of smoking glasses roll!

This Santa Claus was an “imp” who would “frisk about” and encourage his charges (no doubt emboldened by drink) to dance and perform “merry pranks.” (Only one such “prank” is named, but it suggests what this writer had in mind: “[M]aidens” would approach their male companions to “seek” a “kiss.”) This Santa Claus was no other than the Lord of Misrule, master of the Christmas carnival:

A little short, thick, lusty, “whoreson,”* rover,

Rolling about the room full half seas over.5

“Rip Van Dam” himself acknowledged that this lusty and drunken “whoreson” of a Santa was on the way out, a figure of the past, merely a nostalgic symbol. “Fashions” were changing, he lamented:

And all the good of olden times

Is lost, save in old fashioned rhymes;

While cold hard-hearted revelry

Usurps the place of heartfelt glee….

Only a faithful few had kept to the old traditions:

Though good old customs long have flown,

And few thy honest sway will own,

Still will I bow the reverent knee,

And shout Saint Claas, all hail to thee!

Of course, it was Clement Moore and not “Rip Van Dam” whose representation of Santa Claus carried the day. Nor, given the new patterns of holiday violence, should that be surprising. Indeed, the very day that the “Ode to St. Claas” appeared, the same newspaper carried a shocked report about an especially violent callithumpian New Year’s Eve parade in which more than a thousand “persons of all ages” marched down “many of the principal streets of the city” committing “outrageous” acts. The mob

moved from one end of the city to the other, making the most hideous noises, committing many excesses, and for several hours in succession, disturbing neighborhoods where they thought proper to become in some measure stationary, to such a degree that sleep and rest, for the sick or for the well, were entirely destroyed. No nocturnal tumult or disturbance that we have ever witnessed, was in any measure equal to this. We understand that wherever the watch offered to interfere for the purpose of preventing mischief, they were either overpowered, or intimidated by numbers, and the mob had undisputed possession of the streets until a very late hour in the night.

The newspaper demanded that the authorities take aggressive action to prevent any recurrence of such “outrages.” And it asserted that alcohol was the proximate cause: “Such a multitude of persons, assembled together for an unlawful purpose, when maddened with liquor, and conscious of their force, will, after a very few more experiments, be guilty of the greatest atrocities.” Most important of all, the account concluded, the public should not dismiss these events by viewing them through the lens of seasonal ritual, as high jinks that had to be tolerated. “It is in vain to wink at such excesses, merely because they occur at a season of festivity. A license of this description will soon turn festivals of joy, into regular periods of fear to the inhabitants, and will end in scenes of riot, intemperance, and bloodshed.” What had taken place was not a matter of letting off steam at Christmas; it was a criminal mob, and—here the editor hinted at the presence of underlying economic issues—a mob not only “stimulated by drink” but also “enkindled by resentment.” Left to itself, it would soon commit “the most outrageous offenses without reflection, and without remorse.”6

Remember that this report appeared in the same newspaper that simultaneously printed “Rip Van Dam’s” ode to the drinking Santa Claus. But by now an alternative was beginning to emerge. The other newspaper that printed Van Dam’s poem that year also began to deal with Christmas in a new way, as a family holiday. (In previous years that paper had casually printed verses about Christmas revelry.) The paper published two holiday items in its December 28, 1827, issue: an editorial that termed Christmas “a festival sacred to domestic enjoyments” and a reprint of a passage from Washington Irvings “Bracebridge Hall” sketches that described how Christmas evoked “the pure element of domestic felicity.”7 And the following year, in 1828, the same paper carried an account of the Christmas celebration in New York, an account that stressed sobriety, and associated it with Santa Claus himself: “‘Merry Christmas’ was celebrated yesterday joyously and soberly in our goodly Dutch city,” this account began. But it continued by acknowledging that New York was “Dutch no longer” and had become a multiethnic city with “new houses and new names.” Even so, the report insisted, the ancient Dutch Christmas traditions had managed to remain in place among the new immigrant groups: “[T]he olden festivities retain their hold, and the good St. Nicholas is adopted into the calendar of all the nations that congregate in this, his faithful city; and makes glad the hearts of merry urchins of the various tongues and kindreds that now call New-York—home.”8

It is no coincidence that the previous year’s callithumpian riot had been perpetrated largely by immigrants. It is no coincidence that the editor now chose to associate the Santa Claus ritual with a “sober” Christmas, and made that ritual serve as an instrument of cultural assimilation for “the various tongues and kindreds that now call New-York—home.” It is no coincidence that the same newspaper had previously recognized that heavy drinking was an integral part of the holiday season, and that in 1829 it would demand that alcohol be eliminated. It is no coincidence, in short, that Clement Clarke Moore’s Santa Claus beat out Rip Van Dam’s.

This is not to say that the rowdy Christmas season simply disappeared or even diminished. A domestic Santa Claus did not obliterate other modes of celebrating the holiday (indeed, it still has not). On New Year’s Eve, 1839–40, one ailing visitor to the city was kept awake by “revelers, making frightful noises.” This visitor, Eliza Folien, reported that the lights in her sickroom “attracted the attention of some rioters in the street; they stopped under the window and screamed ‘Happy New Year!’ with what seemed to me the voices of fiends, the sound was so frightful.”9 For that matter, a domestic Santa Claus did not wholly extinguish other versions of St. Nicholas himself. Just a week before Follen’s unpleasant experience, a New York theater advertised a Christmas-night performance of a “new pantomime got up for the occasion, called ‘Santiclaus, or the orgies of St. Nicholas.’”10

To read the city’s newspapers at mid-century is to encounter upbeat editorials about Christmas shopping and the joyous expectations of children juxtaposed with unsettling reports of holiday drunkenness and rioting. A couple of examples will tell the story. On December 26, 1840, a party of German-Americans (they were “engaged in fiddling, dancing, and making night hideous with their discordant din”) engaged in a serious street battle with the police in which twenty-five people were arrested. But on the same day, the paper announced that “the holidays are at hand—the merry days to which childhood and youth look forward throughout the year with such anticipation and delight….” The “holidays,” as this report defined them, were domestic and child-centered: “Santiclaus is about making his annual visit to our world-renowned Dutch city.” And the holidays were commercial: “[T]he display of all sorts of presents is striking,” the paper boasted. “The various shops and establishments, whose special province it is to minister to the supply of Christmas wants, exhibit no lack of accustomed temptations.”

In 1839 the New York Herald made it clear that this was the only decent choice: “Let all avoid taverns and grog shops for a few days at least, and spend their money at home.” In that way men would be sure “to make glad upon one day, the domestic hearth, the virtuous wife, the innocent, smiling, merry-hearted children, and the blessed mother.” “Christmas,” the editorial concluded, “is the most hallowed season of the whole year.”11

Not for everyone. In 1848 George Templeton Strong was able to note casually that Christmas was “essentially an indoor and domestic festival,” but when he took an omnibus to go shopping that same day, he noted that “[t]he driver was drunk and the progress of the vehicle was like that of a hippopotamus.”12 Two years later, with accounts of Santa Claus and Christmas shopping plastered lavishly throughout the pages of the Tribune, gangs of youths were still roaming the streets at Christmas, making trouble wherever they went. By this time the gangs even had names, such as “[t]he Short Boys, Swill Boys, Rock Boys, Old Maid Boys, Holy Ch—s, and other bands of midnight prowlers [who] should have been in state prison long ago.”13 New Year’s Eve, 1851–52, was ushered into the city by what the Tribune termed “a Saturnalia of discord, by Callithumpian and Cowbellian bands, by musketry and fire-crackers, by bacchanal songs and noisy revels, which for two hours after midnight made sleep not a thing to be dreamed of.” One man was arrested “for entering, uninvited, the house of Philip Herring, during his absence, and insulting his wife.” And a group of about 150 men (most of them apparently Irish, and all of them drunk) invaded a fashionable Broadway restaurant and systematically destroyed the furniture, threw food and dishes around the place, and finally (before the police arrived) assaulted the owner, his wife, and their staff. All in all, upwards of one hundred men were arrested that night “for entering residences in which they never were before, and where they knew not a soul, and after eating and drinking without molestation to their hearts’ content, maliciously breaking decanters, dishes, scattering the provisions about the premises, and not content with that, in many instances breaking windows, doors, and behaving more like fiends than like men.”14

Santa Claus’ Quadrilles. The cover to a piece of sheet music published in New York in 1846. This Santa Claus is beardless and youthful, apparently a merry bachelor. He is playing the fiddle as he dances on a New York chimneytop. (The picture was drawn by an artist who went by the name “Spoodlyks.”) (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

At the heart of all this disorder, the Tribune reiterated, was the prevalence of alcohol during the Christmas season: “In the Eleventh Ward an unusual number of men were arrested for drunkenness, creating a mob, exciting a riot, insulting females, and other offenses to which men of low breeding, when intoxicated, are addicted.” Such behavior was abetted by certain business establishments; local bars actually served drinks gratis on Christmas Day, in a holdover from the old English custom demanded of innkeepers (which was itself a variant of the tradition by which the gentry held “open house” for their dependents). The results, Horace Greeley reported, were obnoxious:

The first flash of morning discovered the liquor shops in full operation, with wassail bowls of smoking punch, and “medicine” of all sorts, free as water. This dangerous and wicked temptation was the means of setting a great many young men and boys in a state of crazy intoxication long before noon. As early as 10 o’clock we saw, in Broadway, between the Park and Broome-st., about a dozen parties of boys, each numbering from four to ten persons, nearly every one grossly drunk, and four fellows, in as many parties, entirely helpless, and being dragged along by neck and heels by their hardly less drunk companions.15

What had changed, then, was not that the rowdier ways of celebrating Christmas had disappeared, or even that they had diminished, but that a new kind of holiday celebration, domestic and child-centered, had been fashioned and was now being claimed as the “real” Christmas.16 The rest of it—public drunkenness and threats or acts of violence, “rough music”—had been redefined as crime, “making night hideous.” In part, this was accomplished through institutional means (in 1828 New York introduced a professional police force to replace the private “watch” that had failed to control the previous year’s callithumpian riot). And in part it was accomplished through the manipulation of language itself. Henceforth, newspaper stories about Santa Claus would appear under the heading “Christmas,” while stories about callithumpian activities would be relegated to the police column. In the terminology of a later age, those activities would be marginalized.

Belsnickles and Burlesquers in Philadelphia

Santa Claus came to Pennsylvania, too, in the 1820s. But there he encountered a rival figure, a somewhat scarier personage associated with the Germanic culture that pervaded much of the state. That figure, whose features are already familiar to us, was commonly known as the Belsnickle. (The term is a variant of the German phrase Pelz-nickle—that is, “St. Nicholas in Fur.”) I do not know when or how the term was first used (it may not have come into usage until the 1820s, when Santa Claus himself was emerging). But it was almost certainly based on an older German figure, commonly known as Knecht Ruprecht (that is, “Rupert the Servant”). The British writer Samuel Taylor Coleridge encountered Knecht Ruprecht during a 1798 visit to Ratzeburg, a village in the northern part of Germany. Knecht Ruprecht was a man outfitted in “high buskins, a white robe, a mask, and an enormous flax wig”—in other words, he was burlesquing the dress of a gentleman. On Christmas night this figure

goes round to every house and says, that Jesus Christ his master sent him thither—the parents and elder children receive him with great pomp of reverence, while the little ones are most terribly frightened—He then enquires for the children, and according to the character which he hears from the parent, he gives them the intended present as if they came out of heaven from Jesus Christ.—Or, if they should have been bad children, he gives the parents a rod, and in the name of his master recommends them to use it frequently.17

In contrast to Santa Claus, who was never actually seen, the roles of both Knecht Ruprecht and the Belsnickle were performed by real people—generally men of the lower orders, who went around town in disguise. (The disguises varied, but they were always ornate and often involved wearing a wig.)

What Coleridge encountered resembles only the most carefully regulated form this practice took in Pennsylvania. Here the Belsnickle would offer small gifts (usually of food) to good children and intimidate ill-behaved children by threatening to hit them (or actually doing so) with a rod or a whip as they reached for the gifts he had brought. A Philadelphia newspaper reported one such appearance in 1827—by which time the Belsnickle was already being compared to Santa Claus. It is interesting to note that this Belsnickle was made up in blackface:

Mr. Bellschniggle is a visible personage…. He is the precursor of the jolly old elf “Christkindle,” or “St. Nicholas,” and makes his personal appearance, dressed in skins or old clothes, his face black, a bell, a whip, and a pocket full of cakes or nuts; and either the cakes or the whip are bestowed upon those around, as may seem meet to his sable majesty.18

In this form the Belsnickle, although an intruder, would serve to reinforce the authority of the householders he visited. (Indeed, at least one father assumed the role himself.19) But it is clear that Belsnickling, like most rituals, was profoundly malleable. The Belsnickle might snap his whip at a child who had behaved well, or a whole group of Belsnickles might visit a house together. Often the Belsnickle frightened the parents as well as the children.20

In fact, Belsnickles frequently struck those they visited as unsavory (perhaps because they were frequently played by men of the lower orders). James L. Morris, a shopkeeper from Morgantown, Pennsylvania, described them in his diary in 1831 as “horrid frightful looking objects.” In 1842 Morris recorded his impressions at greater length:

Christmas Eve—a few “belsnickels” or “kriskinckles” were prowling about this evening frightening the women and children, with their uncouth appearance—made up of cast-off garments made particolored with patches, a false face, a shaggy head of tow, or rather wig, falling profusely over the shoulders and finished out by a most patriarchal beard of whatsoever foreign [material] that could possibly be pressed into such service.21

Belsnickles could wreak mischief, as they did in Potts town, Pennsylvania, in 1826, where for several nights running one or more of them left a “wreck of lumber that is strewed through our streets and blockading the doors generally every morning”:

a complete bridge built across the street, principally composed of old barrels, hogsheads, grocery boxes, wheelbarrows, harrows, plows, wagon and cart wheels. It is reported that he nearly demolished a poor woman’s house in one of the back streets a few nights ago….

Despite the damage this Belsnickle did, the phrasing of this report suggests that he was seen as a mere prankster:

He performs these tricks incog, or otherwise he would be arrested long since by the public authorities, who are on the alert; but it will take a swift foot and a strong arm to apprehend him while he is in full power of his bellsnickelship, as he then can evade mortal ken….22

Like wassailers and mummers, Belsnickles often took on the role of beggars, visiting houses (and shops) to demand rather than offer gifts. This may very well have been the reason that four or five of them visited James L. Morris’s store in 1842 and once again in 1844, when Morris noted that “[s]ome 4 or five hideous and frightful looking mortals came into the store dressed out in fantastic rags and horrid faces.” These Belsnickles were probably coming for gifts. In 1851 several “processions” of them in Norristown, “arrayed in all their fantastic costumes, … paid their annual visit to the shopkeepers and citizens, soliciting the ‘good things’ and rendering an equivalent in caricaturing the sable sons of our soil” (in other words, they too were performing in blackface). They were still begging in the 1870s. This was the case in Lancaster, for instance, where “[t]he old custom of playing ‘Bellsnickle’ was renewed in our midst, and we heard perhaps half a dozen parties, dressed in hideous disguise, going about on Christmas eve from house to house, and entering without so much as ‘by your leave’;” or in Carlisle, where in the same year “[t]here were numbers of bell-snickles going from house to house in quest of cakes, wine, apples, or whatever else the good housewife might place at their disposal, large boys and small boys….” (In the latter instance they were dressed in women’s clothes, “burlesquing the ruling fashions among the ladies.”)23

The examples above make it clear that youths and boys were playing the Belsnickle role themselves, thus reverting to the “original” structure of the ritual. In Reading, in 1851, “juvenile harlequins were running from house to house, scattering nuts, confections, consternation, and amusement in their way.” Or in Norristown, where in 1853 “[s]illy children parade[d] the streets dressed in hideous masks.” Or in Easton, in 1858, where “[t]he ‘bell-snickels’ were … a most attractive feature on the streets … as there seemed to be a general feeling among the juveniles … to participate….”24 But these youthful Belsnickles were frequently a source of annoyance rather than amusement, as in Pottstown, where the local newspaper was not amused in 1873:

Pottstown was full of “bell-snickles” on Christmas Eve, young chaps with their faces blacked, with masks, and dressed in all kinds of outlandish styles. These fellows, with their ugly mugs, visited the hotels, stores, shops, and in many instances private dwellings, and went through their monkeyish grimaces, and annoyed people with their horrible attempts at singing, making themselves odious throughout the town generally. This “bell-snickle” business, which is becoming more of a rough and rowdyish observance of the Christmas season each year, might as well be omitted altogether.25

A malleable ritual, as I have said. But there is a pattern behind it all. Whether the part was played by a grown man or a child, and whether he acted as the donor of gifts or as a beggar, the Belsnickle always used his costume and his manner as a means of intimidating those he visited, a way of taking on an air of mock authority over the rest of the community. Young people had traditionally been just another part of the lower orders, so that it was socially natural for them to step outside the constraints of their normal roles by imitating what other plebeians were doing. And it was a thin line—and probably more of a terminological distinction than a historical one—that divided a Belsnickle from a mummer, a callithumpian, or simply a hoodlum. (On the other side of the cultural ledger, Belsnickles were frequently referred to as “Christkindle,” “Kriss Kringle,” or even “Santa Claus.”) The particular term may have been a matter of local or even personal preference. But whatever he was called then, or termed now, the Belsnickle remained a Lord of Misrule.

There seem to be virtually no records of Belsnickles in Philadelphia itself. But this too may be partly a matter of terminology, since the city (in contrast to much of the Pennsylvania backcountry) was not dominated by German-Americans. And in Philadelphia, as in New York, the disorder that was associated with figures of misrule took on a tone of greater menace.

Susan G. Davis, who examined this aspect of Christmas in Philadelphia in an important 1984 article, observes that people arrested there for disorderly behavior at Christmas “were uniformly young and male,” and she attributes this to “the breakdown of the apprenticeship system and the decline of craft skills”—the general economic problem besetting youths and young men in a period of rapid industrialization. Rowdy Christmas revelry “crystallized the city’s year-round youth problem.” Davis observes that “In the street Christmas, rowdy youth culture reached its apotheosis; concern over riotous holiday nights was constant from the 1830s on. The mid-1840s were especially uproarious, but tumult and commotion seemed ominous for decades.”26 As early as 1833 the Philadelphia Daily Chronicle reported:

Throughout almost the whole of Tuesday night—Christmas Eve—riot, noise, and uproar prevailed, uncontrolled and uninterrupted in many of our central and most orderly streets. Gangs of boys and young men howled and shouted as if possessed by the demon of disorder. Some of the watchmen occasionally sounded their rattles; but seemed only to add another ingredient to the horrible discord that murdered sleep. It is undoubtedly in the power of our city police to prevent slumbering citizens from being disturbed by the mad roars of such revelers.27

The problem, in Philadelphia as well as New York, was that this kind of rowdiness had been transformed in an urban capitalist setting into something that respectable people found threatening, as they did in 1839, when a riot broke out on Chesnut Street, opposite the state capitol. The participants, one newspaper reported with disgust, “could not have chosen a more public place; throngs of persons were passing on both sides of the street, viewing all the sights that were to be seen; but… a street fight was one of the entertainments that did not please a majority of them….”28Susan Davis reports that gangs of young men from the working-class communities that surrounded Philadelphia were deliberately invading the downtown business and theater districts, “where playgoers and promenaders thronged to view shop-window illuminations.”29

In Philadelphia as in New York, respectable people placed the greatest measure of blame on alcohol. Drinking itself, as we have seen in Chapters 1 and 2, had been an interclass ritual at Christmas, but now it was becoming a way of distinguishing the classes from one another. In 1839 a newspaper pointed out, in a Christmas Day editorial, that “there are certain modes of rejoicing which are appropriate to Christmas, and other modes of doing the same thing, which are quite unbecoming and reprehensible.” But the editorial went on to acknowledge that this was a recent development, and even to analyze how it had come about:

Some years ago, every housekeeper thought it incumbent on himself or herself to provide a bowl of egg-nog or spiced toddy for the celebration of this day. Persons who were usually of temperate or sedate habits, seemed to think that the return of Christmas justified a slight degree of intoxication. Friends and acquaintances, who called to tender the compliments of the season, were urged to partake of these liquid preparations, the seductive taste of which frequently overcame the most sober resolutions. On such occasions, it may be supposed that there were many evidences of joy and hilarity; but it was properly questioned by some considerate persons whether that kind of joy and hilarity became [i.e., suited] a day set apart to commemorate the origin of Christianity.

When this subject was duly considered, the customs spoken of, fell into disuse, and soon became ranked among the barbarisms of a former age. We are happy, therefore, to find that one incorrect mode of celebrating Christmas is no longer general; though particular instances may be noted wherein the relics of these absurd practices are still preserved.30

By the late 1840s that attitude had come to be backed by force of law. Philadelphia simply banned the sale of alcohol—it became a “dry” community (by that time the temperance movement had gained widespread support). But that did not stop people from buying drinks in the neighboring towns, where, following an old Christmas tradition, “as usual… the proprietors of… groggeries that fill the bystreets on either side of the boundaries of the city … treated their motley customers with egg-nog.”31

But if geographic dividing lines were hard to draw, so were psychological ones. Even the newspapers themselves sometimes betrayed a lingering ambivalence toward rowdy behavior at Christmas. An 1844 editorial started out by describing the new domestic Christmas as “religion in each mans house … a celebration of the spirit of the universe, humanized and domesticated.” But the same editorial went on to acknowledge that the day also had a long tradition of “high rejoicing, eating, drinking (and getting drunk, we presume …).”32 Or take the headlines that one Philadelphia newspaper employed to report the arrest of men charged with inciting riot and similar forms of behavior. One such report, from 1836, was headed “CHRISTMAS GAMBOLS.” Others in subsequent years were headed “CHRISTMAS FESTIVITIES” (1840); “FUN ON CHRISTMAS DAY” (1841); “CHRISTMAS SPREES” (1846); and “CHRISTMAS SPORT” (1850). These headings reveal an acute uncertainty about what to make of such behavior. The phrasing may be sarcastic, but it also betrays a residual understanding that rowdy behavior was to be expected at Christmas.

In Philadelphia the matter was made more complicated by another Christmas ritual, one that seems to have been unique to that city. In Philadelphia, during the late 1830s and 1840s, even respectable people observed Christmas Day in part as a public occasion. Each year thousands of people would spend the afternoon promenading in the downtown streets, attracted in part by the sheer sociability of the proceedings and in part by the prospect of doing their Christmas shopping, an activity that many Philadelphians (in common with residents of other cities) engaged in on Christmas Day itself. (Downtown shops generally remained open on both Christmas Eve and Christmas Day.)33

The scene attracted notice nationally. Nile’s National Register reported that on Christmas Day, 1841,

Chesnut street [the main commercial street] was crowded with a dense mass of human beings. The entire population of the outer districts seemed gathered there, eagerly gazing at the sights in the shop windows and enjoying the excitement of the moving panorama. It is estimated that there were 40,000 people on Chesnut street most of the afternoon.34

It is clear from such reports that the “moving panorama” itself was part of the show: People went to see and be seen, dressed in their best outfits—outfits presumably purchased in local establishments. This was the Philadelphia equivalent of New Years visiting in New York.

The Christmas Day promenades always bore an edge of menace, and by tracing local coverage after 1840 through a single newspaper, the Public Ledger, we can see that edge grow sharper year by year. In 1840 the promenade was described as an impressive scene: “We never before saw Chesnut street so thronged, from morning to night, in passing and repassing—indeed, one to make any progress, was obliged to take the centre of the street.” (But the report added defensively, “This is right.”) The tone was still quite positive in 1841, even though the crowds on Chesnut Street were so dense that people were “struggling and jostling their way through the mass of humanity that well nigh blocked the great thoroughfare of fashion.” In 1842, from early afternoon until midnight, “the whole city seemed to have emptied into Chesnut street, which … was filled with a dense mass of human beings, young and old, male and female, great and small, black and white.” This report went on to describe the promenaders as “a rude and noisy crowd.”35

In 1843, after describing the promenade as an impressive display of fashion, the writer of the article acknowledged that “[a] number of arrests were made for disorderly conduct and breaches of the peace, and no small number were taken up for being intoxicated. There were more drunken men and boys in our streets, than we have witnessed for many a day before.” And again the 1844 article indicated that some portions of the crowd had chosen to dress in bizarre style, “tricked out in burlesque garb,” and that they were making cacophonous music with instruments “from the trumpet to the penny whistle.” A further report commented that “[a]n easy, carnival-like, practical joking air pervaded the moving crowd,” and noted ambiguously that “[m]any young men, individually and collectively, paraded the streets dressed in fantastic attire, ready for all kinds of sport….” It is not clear what kinds of “sport” these young men were ready for, but the fact that they were young and male links them with the one demographic group that had long been most closely associated with Christmas misrule. In any case, the reporter went on to condemn all the drunkenness, and to recommend that “[o]ur temperance friends should increase their zeal to counteract this fresh attack by the enemy.”36

The tide was turning. In 1845 there was no coverage at all of the promenade, only a brief notice that “Christmas was duly celebrated on Thursday,” followed by a very lengthy report headed “Rowdyism.” In 1846 there was, once again, only a very brief item (four sentences), noting that Christmas Day witnessed “the usual festivities,” and followed by another report of rowdy 'font-size:10.0pt;font-family:"Times New Roman",serif;color:blue; position:relative;top:-3.0pt'>37

Finally, in 1847, a severe snowstorm on Christmas Day forced most Philadelphians to give up the promenade and spend the day at home. The result was almost an epiphany for the writer of an editorial that appeared in the Public Ledger. It was as if he had discovered that Christmas could best be celebrated without leaving one’s house after all. He suggested that the poor weather actually made for “a merrier Christmas than we’ve had for several years”:

The ladies could not leave their houses, it is true, and we missed their pretty faces and winning smiles from Chesnut st.; but looks were brighter and smiles were sweeter, where they are most valued, at home. It is no wonder, then, that the streets were comparatively deserted, for husbands, sons, brothers and lovers deemed themselves the happiest within the family circle….

It was true, this writer continued, that not everyone stayed at home.

Some persisted in maintaining the old ways:

Those who were in the streets defied the uncomfortable weather with rude revelry, and occasionally the ear was attracted to their shouts, as they circulated from one tavern to another, imbibing at each another quantity of vinous excitement.

But such people were not partaking in the real spirit of Christmas. The only pleasures that qualified as true holiday mirth were those of home and hearth: “We have said that the day was a merry one—it was so, at home. Those who were out were merry also; but it was [only] the forced merriment which bacchanalian libations bring.”


It was during the 1820s that the Philadelphia press first began to take notice of Christmas as a family event. Before the middle of the 1820s Philadelphia’s newspapers, like those in New York and other cities, had acknowledged the coming of Christmas only by printing a religious poem or an occasional admonition to remember the poor. The absence of a special notice should not be taken to mean that Philadelphians did not celebrate the holiday, only that their celebrations did not require comment.38

The change began with the 1824 Christmas season, when no fewer than four new almanacs—all published in Philadelphia—printed Clement Clarke Moore’s poem “A Visit from St. Nicholas.” This marked the first appearance of the poem anywhere after its initial publication, just a year earlier, in a newspaper in Troy, New York. (A copy of one of these almanacs recently sold at auction for nearly $30,000.) Two years later, in 1826, the same poem appeared in a weekly Philadelphia paper, the Saturday Evening Post. In 1827 another local paper followed suit, and a third paper published an extract from Washington Irvings “Bracebridge Hall” sketches.39

The rush was on, in Philadelphia as well as other American cities and towns. More than any other text, it was Moore’s poem that introduced the American reading public to the joys of a domestic Christmas. In Philadelphia itself, in 1828 “A Visit from St. Nicholas” appeared in Poulsons Daily Advertiser, and the National Gazette published another “antiquarian” Christmas poem, “Old English Christmas,” written by Walter Scott. And in 1829 Poulsons reprinted a piece from a New York paper that gave a detailed explanation of the Santa Claus ritual. The following year, 1830, the National Gazette editorially explained the inner meaning of the new Christmas: That paper would not be appearing on December 25, readers learned, because it was a day to forget business in favor of domestic pleasures—and domestic pleasures were the most important thing in life, more important even than social standing, poverty, and “external disappointments or calamities.” The Christmas season, the paper noted, brings to mind “the culture and value of the social and domestic affections,” just as it reminds us of “the comparative insignificance, for private happiness, of all that is beyond them.”40

Children and Servants

In Philadelphia as in New York, then, the period from the 1820s to the 1840s was one in which the carnival form of Christmas was essentially “read out” as a legitimate part of the holiday, and in which the “real Christmas”—indeed, everything that really mattered most in life itself—came to be seen in domestic terms that centered around family and children. That process actually involved two elements. Thus far we have dealt with the first of these, which might be summarized as keeping the poor away from the house. But it now became necessary not only to keep the poor outside the house but to keep one’s own children inside.

Much of the rowdy behavior indulged during the Christmas season had been ascribed, simultaneously and indistinguishably, to youths and workers. Evidence of this abounds from the colonial period well into the nineteenth century. A 1719 Boston almanac warned householders in late December: “Do not let your Children and Servants run too much abroad at Nights.” A 1772 New York newspaper referred to “[t]he assembling of Negroes, servants, boys and other disorderly persons, in noisy companies in the streets.” An 1805 letter written from Albany, New York, reported that on account of “the holydays, a considerable number of pennies has been given to the boys & servants….” In 1818 a Boston woman noted that “Christmas is now generally observed as a holiday. Our children and domestics claim it as such.” (And she went on to complain that the children as well as the domestics often spent the day “in idleness and dissipation.”)

It was this same social mix that John Pintard himself fondly recalled from his own childhood days in the latter 1700s, when he and a family servant traveled together around New York in “boisterous” fashion, drinking a “dram” at every stop and “coming home loaded with sixpences.” And as late as 1854, when the New York situation had turned ugly, a local newspaper complained that “at almost every corner gangs of boys and drunken rowdies were seen amusing themselves by throwing snowballs, using vulgar and blasphemous language, and otherwise desecrating the Sabbath [emphasis added].”41

Children and servants; boys and drunken rowdies. Why this improbable linkage? To answer that question is to probe a much broader historical issue—the changing historical relationship between age and social class. I have been arguing that what happened during the nineteenth century was that age replaced class as the axis along which the Christmas gift exchange took place. But it would be useful now to modify that point. Until the nineteenth century, children did not make up a distinct social category; they were not a separate social group, as they are in modern Western societies. Nor did they act as if they were. Instead, children were lumped together with other members of the lower orders in general, especially servants and apprentices—who, not coincidentally, were generally young people themselves.42

From this perspective it becomes clear that giving Christmas gifts to children was not new, after all. Young people did receive gifts at Christmas—but in their role as servants or apprentices (or newspaper carriers) and not because they were children. Both children and servants were at the bottom of the hierarchy in the households in which they lived, linked to the larger household as much by bonds of labor and subordination as by those of affection. (For example, the term “maid” was used to refer not to a cleaning lady but to an unmarried girl or a young woman [i.e., a “maiden”]. But the household tasks generally assigned to such females were ordinarily menial ones—the kind of work that was later associated with the term “maid” in its more recent usage.) Conversely, servants and apprentices were treated as members of the household in which they worked and lived. Before the nineteenth century, in other words, class and age were thoroughly intermingled.

What happened in the early nineteenth century was that age ceased to be associated with social status. Youth no longer connoted “meniality.” It no longer made sense to refer to girls as “maids,” or, conversely, to speak of those of lowly status as “boys”—except in a vestigial fashion, as in the term “bellboy” or “cowboy”—or, notably, whenever the color line was involved. (But just as black men commonly continued to be addressed as “boys” in order to connote their lower status, so, too, women of any race continued to be addressed as “girls” to connote theirs. And, of course, the term “maid” has come to refer only to household service.)

Only from the perspective of our own culture, in which age and class bear no significant relationship to each other, does it appear as if Christmas rituals of class were replaced by those of age. It would be more accurate to say that in the early nineteenth century, age alone was coming to replace a more general kind of status as the primary axis along which presents were given. The domestication of Christmas was thus related (as both effect and cause) to the creation of domesticity and of “childhood” itself, even to the novel idea that the central purpose of the family was to provide not simply for the instruction of its children but for their happiness as well.

From Christmas Box to Christmas Present

We can glimpse something of this process by tracing changes in the very terminology of the Christmas gift exchange. As we have seen, Christmas presents had their origin in wassailing and other forms of Christmas begging, in which the poor demanded gifts from the neighboring gentry—generally gifts of food and drink, to be consumed on the spot. An urban version of the same ritual, known as the “Christmas box,” was developed in seventeenth-century London (and probably in other cities) by young tradesmen’s apprentices and other low-level workers, who kept earthenware boxes—the ancestor, really, of the piggy bank—into which, during the Christmas season, they asked those who employed their services to put money. (The purpose of this box was to ensure that none of the money could be appropriated by a single individual, and that it would be distributed collectively within the shop when the box was broken open.) Men of means regarded their contributions to Christmas boxes as a necessary expense. Samuel Pepys referred to them in 1668: “Called up [i.e., waked up] by drums and trumpets; these things and boxes having cost me much money this Christmas already….” And Jonathan Swift wrote sardonically in 1710: “I shall be undone here with Christmas boxes. The rogues at the coffee house have raised their tax….”43

During the course of the eighteenth century, the term “Christmas box” came to be applied not to the box itself but to the donation that was placed into it—and, soon, to any such gift. By century’s end, the term was being used colloquially to refer to Christmas presents per se, even when those presents were commercial products given by parents to their children. Thus a children’s book published in New England in 1786 was titled Nurse Trueloves Christmas Box. And in Virginia, in 1810, Mason Weems announced that he would sell his biography of George Washington at a deep discount to buyers “who take several copies … for Christmas Boxes to their young relations.”44

Unlike the term “Christmas box,” the word present did not signify something that was given as a tip or an obligation but rather something that was given freely. But this term, too, was often used to name a gift offered by patrons to their dependents. It is striking that before 1780 the only two books published in America bearing the word present in the title were guidebooks for servants: A Present for an Apprentice and A Present for a Servant-Maid. These works, which were reprinted frequently until about 1800, consisted of a series of short admonitory essays warning apprentices of the dangerous temptations they were apt to encounter in their position.45 These were “presents” given down across class lines—but apprentices and maidservants also happened to be young people themselves, so these presents were also given across lines of age. (We have no way of knowing whether any of them were ever actually given during the Christmas season.)

The three decades following 1780 saw the appearance of a spate of books with the word present in the title. But now there was a change: All of these books were specifically intended for young people. A Present to Children (1783); Present for Misses (1794); A Present for a Little Boy (1802) and its mate A Present for a Little Girl (1804).46 At first these books, too, contained rules for behavior (children, like servants and apprentices, were household dependents whose behavior could not be wholly trusted and thus required careful regulation). The first five editions of A Present to Children, for example (all published before 1800), contained nothing but catechisms and “moral songs.” One actually warned against playing with toys.47

But the subtitle of the sixth edition of this same work, printed in the year 1800, promised to introduce a new genre—“entertaining stories.” The change had begun—the change from books designed for training young people to books designed for amusing them. Just as age alone was coming to replace status in general as the primary axis along which presents were given, pleasure was coming to replace discipline as the primary purpose of those presents.

It seems that Christmas “presents” slowly replaced Christmas “boxes” as gifts given within the household at a time when the household itself was coming to exclude servants from real membership. It was the isolation of children from other dependents at Christmas that produced—that was—the domestication of the holiday.


But in the early nineteenth century Christmas had not yet become a child-centered domestic ritual. Nor did children instinctively know that they were being created as “children.” Indeed, there were no Christmas activities for children other than making noise or making trouble. “Christmas is now generally observed as a holiday,” a Boston woman said in 1818, noting that “[o]ur children and domestics claim it as such.” And she went on to complain that it was generally spent in “idleness” or else “in revelry and dissipation.” (The same woman also proposed that the local churches hold Christmas services—not for religious reasons but so that “families, children, and domestics, can attend public worship” instead of making trouble.48)

It is interesting to learn that Christmas was “generally observed as a holiday” by Boston’s schoolchildren in the mid-181os. But what is also interesting is the casual observation that children were taking the day through their own initiative rather than by virtue of an official policy (“our children … claim it as such”), and there is the implication, too, that their actions were informally sanctioned by those in authority. There is a story behind this, one that reveals something about the nature of youth culture in the era before the invention of childhood.

Barring Out the Schoolmaster

School was one place, perhaps the only place before the nineteenth century, where young people (particularly boys) were physically separated from their peers in the lower orders. But at Christmas schoolboys devised their own version of carnival misrule, a ritual practice that “turned the world upside down” every bit as much as aggressive peasant wassailing had done. Here the figure of authority was the schoolmaster, and it was on him that the tables were turned.

This ritual, which became known as “Barring Out the Schoolmaster,” originated in England toward the end of the sixteenth century. A modern historian describes it this way: “As Christmas drew near the boys gathered together weapons, ammunition and a store of provisions. Then one morning they seized the school premises and barred the doors and windows against the master.” The most important goal of the “barring out” was to force the schoolmaster to grant his pupils a holiday vacation.49 (In addition to the threat posed to their authority, schoolmasters had a reason to attempt to reclaim the schoolhouse: They were generally paid by the day, and would lose their stipend if they were not able to teach.)

Barring-out came to America early, and rather violently. The year was 1702, and the place was a grammar school in Williamsburg, Virginia. On that occasion students not only barricaded the schoolhouse but actually fired pistols at the schoolmaster when he responded by trying to break down one of the doors. He reported what took place:

About a fortnight before Christmas 1702 …, I heard the School boys about 12 o’clock at night, a driving of great nails, to fasten & barricade the doors of the Grammar School…. I made haste to get up & with the assistance of 2 servant men … I had almost forced open one of the doors before they sufficiently secured it, but while I was breaking in, they presently fired off 3 or 4 Pistols & hurt one of my servants in the eye with the wadd … of one of the Pistols[.]

[W]hile I pressed forward, some of the boys, having a great kindness for me, call’d out, “for God’s sake sir don’t offer to come in, for we have shot, and shall certainly fire at any one that first enters.” … [I then] resolved to let them alone till morning, and then getting all the other masters together & calling for workmen to break open the doors.50

The practice of barring-out continued through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, and extended into other regions of the United States. A letter to a Philadelphia newspaper written in 1810 objected to the practice but acknowledged that it was commonplace there:

A very absurd and wicked practice has long prevailed in this country, namely, that of Scholars barring out the Schoolmasters a little before the 25th of December, commonly called Christmas day, in order to extort permission from him to spend a number of days called the Christmas holidays in idleness or play. A scene of this kind took place last year in our school in this place: a few of the scholars took possession of the school-house, and so completely fortified it, that it was impossible to reduce it except by a regular siege, and the caitiffs [sic] had provided against this also by laying in a large quantity of provisions. Thus was not only the Teacher shut out, but also all those who wished to occupy their time in learning, and not in idleness and riot.

In this instance a group of parents (including the writer of this letter) went to the schoolhouse to negotiate with the rebellious children. First they “prevailed” on the rebels “to raise one of the windows a little.” Then, when they inquired about the purpose of the rebellion, the answer was clear: “One of them, who seemed to be the commander in chief, replied they wished to have ten days of Christmas-play.”51

The practice even penetrated into rural New England. Horace Greeley later recalled that barring-out was common during his childhood in early-nineteenth-century New Hampshire:

There was an unruly, frolicsome custom of “barring-out” in our New Hampshire common schools, which I trust never obtained a wider acceptance. On the first of January, and perhaps on some other day that the big boys chose to consider or make a holiday, the forenoon passed off as quietly as that of any other day; but, the moment the master left the house in quest of his dinner, the little ones were started homeward, the door and windows suddenly and securely barricaded, and the older pupils, thus fortified against intrusion, proceeded to spend the afternoon in play and hilarity. I have known a master to make a desperate struggle for admission; but I do not recollect that one ever succeeded,—the odds being too great….52

Greeley went on to indicate that the practice was informally sanctioned by adults. If a persecuted schoolmaster “appealed to the neighboring fathers” for assistance, Greeley remembered, “they were apt to recollect that they had been boys themselves, and advise him to desist, and let matters take their course.”53

“Snowballing” and the Battle for Children

In whatever fashion it might be gained, the young people’s holiday generally took the form of what its critics, such as the 1818 Boston parent mentioned above, termed “idleness and dissipation.” Young boys went around the neighborhood firing guns and “squibs,” making noise, playing tricks.

Barring Out the Schoolmaster. These boys have brought a supply of food and drink to last them through the anticipated siege (the words printed on the right in this primer include “carousing,” “drinking,” and “beer”). But the rebels’ plans are about to be foiled: The schoolmaster is pouring water through a secret trapdoor in the ceiling, so as to douse the schoolboys’ candle prior to his invading the schoolhouse. This illustration was included in a child’s primer published in 1850, but it had appeared earlier in the same publisher’s 1822 Boston edition of an English novella, Maria Edgeworth’s The Barring Out. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Children of both sexes drank and played kissing games.54 In its most innocent form, Christmas games meant having snowball fights, but even these could lead to disturbance and damage. Snowballing could become especially vicious in urban areas, where, during the Christmas season, respectable citizens associated it with the kind of menacing behavior they feared from working-class youth gangs at Christmastime. Remember, for example, the language in which the New York Tribune described the city streets during the Christmas season in 1854 (the emphasis is mine):” [A]t almost every corner gangs of boys and drunken rowdies were seen amusing themselves by throwing snowballs?

That was how respectable adults saw it. But the issue was surely more complicated for many of the boys themselves, who must have been drawn in two directions at once—an old pull, toward carnival in the streets, and the new one, toward the quieter rewards that were promised at home. That double pull would have been especially salient in families that were positioned anywhere near the vulnerable lower borders of middle-class respectability. Youths who belonged to such families constituted a major battleground in the transformation of Christmas.

Young people do not often leave direct records of their inner experience. But a hint of what this inner battleground might have meant in human terms can be found in a careful reading of one rather sensitive Christmas story published in 1838 under the title “Snow-Balling.”The author of this story, Eliza Leslie, was a popular writer of the time. Set in Philadelphia on Christmas Day, the story tells of the adventures of a young boy whose father gives him a “Christmas dollar” and sends him downtown to buy himself a present. Left on his own, young Robert Hamlin encounters trouble. Unable to choose from the plethora of tempting items for sale in the shops, Robert becomes confused and begins to wander about the streets.55

In his wanderings, Robert comes upon an alleyway where he sees “some rude boys engaged in snow-balling.” (“Rude boys” is a phrase that may require some explanation for modern readers: The word rude was a reference to these boys’ social class as well as to their manners. A “rude boy” was a working-class youth, the sort of person who might be expected to engage in forms of rowdy activity even more threatening than throwing snowballs.)

Robert is tempted to join these youths, especially after one of them throws a snowball at him and proceeds to laugh. But he is saved by luck from succumbing to this temptation. One of the boys throws a snowball at a woman who is observing the scene from the entrance to her house; the snowball hits her in the nose and hurts her badly, causing her husband to run out of the house and chase the youths away by brandishing a pair of fireplace tongs. Witnessing this scene, Robert feels “glad that he did not belong to them.”

At this point the author of the story is engaging in a significant gesture of evasion. For, as we shall see in a moment, young Robert gets into a snowball fight after all. In real life, as opposed to a work of fiction, someone like Robert would probably have joined the “rude boys.” But Eliza Leslie does not wish to have the fictional Robert become involved with such a crew. She has taken pains to let us know his social class. He is the son of an artisan, a “respectable mechanic,” which means that he is not so far in origin from the “rude boys.” While not a proletarian, he is not securely middle-class, either. If a real Robert Hamlin had joined those boys he might have ended up in serious trouble, causing damage or injury, and his snowball fight might have been the first step in his descent out of respectability and into permanent proletarian status. Such a descent was far from uncommon among urban artisans in the middle of the nineteenth century, a period when independent artisanship itself was being subverted by industrial capitalism. Joining a gang of “rude boys” in a Christmas game of snowballs was thus a small but potent symbol of the larger dangers faced by the son of a “respectable mechanic.”

If the fictional Robert is to get into trouble, then, it cannot be with the “rude boys.” But get into trouble he must, or there is no point to the story. Eliza Leslie manages to devise a clever solution: the fictional Robert ends up getting into trouble with youngsters above his class.

Turning a corner away from the “alley” of the “rude boys,” young Robert comes upon “a row of very handsome new houses.” And in front of these houses he sees “a party of rather genteel looking boys, engaged also in snow-balling.” The earlier scene now repeats itself: One of these “genteel looking” boys hurls a snowball at Robert. But this time Robert joins in. He makes a “very hard snow-ball,” and throws it at the boy who has just done the same to him. But Robert’s aim is poor, and his snowball smashes through a windowpane of one of the handsome new houses. Fortunately, no one is injured, though the snowball nearly hits “the head of a pretty little girl” who has been sitting quietly “engaged in reading one of the new annuals [i.e., a Gift Book she has presumably received as a present that very day].” The girl screams loudly, and Robert hides. But the family’s black servant rushes outside and confronts the other boys, threatening them with the wrath of the owner: “Ah! you young nimps—only wait till the gentleman comes home—I’ll be bound Mr. Cleveland will give you enough of snow-balling, for smashing his rights and property in this way, without leave or license.’”

Robert overhears the threat, and he quickly runs off and returns to his own house, where his parents are just sitting down to the family’s Christmas dinner, having planned a domestic Christmas for their children: a festive dinner followed by a “juvenile party” at his aunt’s house. But Robert, beset by guilt, is hardly capable of eating his turkey and mince pie, or looking forward to the party. After a while he gets up from the table, leaves the house, and goes back to the scene of his recent crime. There he confesses to having been the culprit who broke the window and offers the owner the dollar he had been given for Christmas (the same dollar he could not make up his mind how best to spend). Now he feels better, and returns home again, this time to enjoy the turkey and mince pie—and the praise of his parents when he finally tells them what he has just done.

As I have said, the dangers presented in this story were very real in households like Robert Hamlin’s. We can assume that respectable boys did sometimes join “rude boys” in Christmas sport, and that snowballing was not the worst of their games. With snowballing as a partly symbolic act, Eliza Leslie’s little story can be read as offering the same kind of warning to younger boys that older boys heard in the 1830s about the dangers of alcohol—or that girls heard about the dangers of sexual seduction. In all these cases, the ultimate risk was that of a serious decline in social status, the loss of respectability and independence itself.

Snow-Balling. This engraving appeared as an illustration for Eliza Leslies 1838 short story of the same title. It vividly conveys the menace that could be associated with that sport. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

But if the dangers were real, so, too, were the alternative lures that were now being offered to the Robert Hamlins of America: Christmas dinner at home, tempting presents to play with, and even children’s parties—such as the “juvenile party” that young Robert could look forward to at his aunt’s house. Such activities posed no social risk; and some of them (for example, reading the Gift Books that were frequently given as Christmas presents, and in one of which Eliza Leslie’s story “Snow-?ailing” was itself published) even promised harmless amusement along with cultural enhancement. In the words of an 1840 newspaper editorial, “Good books are good gifts for good children.”56


The story “Snow-Balling” ends before the “juvenile party” gets under way. But other stories published in the same period give us an idea of what such parties may have been like. For one thing, it is clear that they would have taken place indoors, usually in the family parlor and under the immediate or general supervision of an adult. In addition, the participants would have been young cousins and/or trustworthy friends—children who had been picked and invited by the parents, and not by the children themselves. We can be sure that there would be no “rude boys” in attendance—not even the children of household servants. Lower-class people were to be kept away on these occasions, and the children of the household were kept inside.

The literature of the decades after 1820 is filled with Christmas scenes in which parents arrange parties for their children. These are invariably indoor parties, and the games are indoor games. In the fictional literature, Christmas has become a controlled children’s “frolic,” sometimes wild enough to recall the rowdiness of an interclass carnival Christmas, but always under complete control. One story, published in 1850, begins with a Christmas Eve party for twenty preteen children. There are “cakes and candies … lemonade ice-cream,” music (a piano), and games. “The windows rattled and the very walls were shaken, by the bounding and leaping—the racing and tumbling—of the half-dancing and half-romping youngsters.” The twin parlors had been set up “to give room for the frolic of Christmas Eve, and most fully did the children avail themselves of the license of the season.” Before the party was over, “scarce a chair or a table was to be found in its proper place and posture half an hour after the revel [had] begun.”57

But this was “frolic,” “license,” and “revel” only in quotation marks. It was limited to blood relatives, and to préadolescents at that. The writer of the above-mentioned story could not be clearer on this point: “All the little Thompsons, and all their relatives by blood or marriage, even to the third degree of cousinship, who had not reached their ‘teens,’ were there …” The room had been carefully childproofed in advance; and the party ended early—it was at its height as early as 8 p.m. And an adult was always present.

And that was one of the wilder scenes in this literature. More often the parties were described as sedate affairs. It was common for them to culminate in “a great call for games.” But the games seem to have been talking games, role-playing games, sometimes even board games. In one 1827 book a mother organizes a quiet Christmas Eve party for her children, a group of cousins, and other children who are known to the parents. For entertainment she has devised moral games: “puzzles, which had enfolded in them [i.e., the solutions to which involved], some moral or religious precept.” The mother never leaves the children alone during the party, lest they “romp and disturb the neighbors with their noise.” Instead, she stays with them “to moderate the buoyancy of their spirits.” She even plays teacher with them. Here, too, the party ends early: “Nine o’clock was the hour she fixed, for the young people to separate, and they seldom infringed on these limits … [for her word] was a law to them.”58

Perhaps so. But the lesson taught in this book was not necessarily taken to heart by the children who read it—a fact that comes across clearly in some lines handwritten on the flyleaf to one copy of that very book that is now owned by the American Antiquarian Society. These lines serve to remind us that books were not always used by readers in quite the way their authors intended. The lines read as follows: “Touch not this book / For if you do / The owner / Will be after you. Punch. Punch you.—Touch not this book / For fear of shame. / For you will find the owner’s name. Punch.—Touch not this book / For fear of life. / For the owner has / A big Jack knife.”

•     •     •

PARENTS DID NOT have to invent their own games for children to play on such occasions. By the 1830s a spate of Christmas books were available that consisted mostly of suggestions for children’s games and puzzles. These books were generally published during the Christmas season, and they were intended to be purchased as Christmas presents. Lydia Maria Child published such a book, The Girl’s Own Book, in 1831. The preface makes the purpose of the book clear. It concludes: “To all my readers, little ones especially, a merry Christmas and a happy New-Year.”59 Like other such books, this one, too, contained several activities intended specifically for Christmas. The American Girl’s Book, also a popular collection of harmless but entertaining games, appeared in the same year. (This book was authored by Eliza Leslie, the woman who would a few years later write the cautionary tale “Snow-Balling.”) And while there is no printed evidence that this book was intended as a Christmas present, a copy of a later (1859) edition, also owned by the American Antiquarian Society, is inscribed by a father to his daughter with the date “Christmas 1860.”60

But children (and grown-ups, too) did not have to rely on the Christmas-party games featured in books; ready-made games were widely available for purchase at bookshops and other stores. As early as 1817, one Broadway merchant advertised (under the heading “Amusement for the Holydays”) a “complete assortment” of children’s games: “Different games with tetotums, such as Panorama of Europe, Heathen Mythology, Who Wears the Crown…. The celebrated Chinese Puzzle, and Philosophical &Mathematical Trangrams … is one of the most curious and entertaining amusements ever contrived … Price $2.” Seven years later, in 1824, another Broadway store advertised

a large assortment of Juvenile Pastimes, all of which are calculated to improve as well as amuse the youthful mind, viz: Geographical Games. The Traveller’s tour through the United States, performed with a tetotum and travellers [also The Traveller’s tour through Europe and The Traveller’s tour round the world]. They are put up in three different modes—on pasteboard and double folded on cloth, with a case, and dissected [i.e., jigsawed]. Dissected Maps. Vernacular Cards, Geographical Cards, The Cabinet Of Knowledge Opened, PHILOSOPHICAL Cards, Astronomical Cards, Scriptural Cards, Botanical Cards, Dissected Pictures…. In addition, [the store has] a good assortment of Juvenile Books, in plain and elegant bindings. Also, Pocket Books, Chess Men, Backgammon Boards, Pen-Knives, and Ladies’ Work Boxes.61

By the 1840s these games had reached flood proportions. The largest selection I have encountered comes from a Cincinnati, Ohio, shop that in 1845 advertised “A Great Variety of Games.” Heading the list was a game that actually seems to have been about the process of Christmas shopping itself: “The laughable game of ‘What d’ye Buy.’” This amounts to an ironic comment on the list that followed:

The Oracles of Fortune, The Game of Heroes, The Game of Characteristics, Shakespeare in a New Dress, The Christmas Cards, Robinson Crusoe and His Man Friday, The Strife of Genius, The Game of Cup and Ball, Jack Straws, The Pickwick Game, The Game of Kings, The Mansion of Happiness, The Game of Pope and Pagan, Dr. Busby’s Cards, The Game of Graces, Master Rodbury and his Pupils, The Game of the American Eagle, The Devil on Sticks, &c. &c.62

But these indoor games had not replaced more traditional forms of Christmas revelry. In 1844, a Cincinnati confectionery concluded an advertisement that featured “Sugar Plums” and other sweets with the added note that the store “also” offered a “splendid assortment of Fire-works, for both little and big Pyrotechnists.” That same day the Cincinnati press carried an admonitory reminder from the local mayor: “The city ordinances impose a fine for discharging fire-arms, or firing squibs, crackers, &c., ‘in the streets, alleys, market spaces, and public commons’ in the city proper. The Holidays are not made an exception.”63


The battle for children extended to another form of popular Christmas amusement: attending the theater. Before the 1820s American theaters did not offer performances on Christmas Day, either in a gesture of respect for the holiday or, more likely, because the actors refused to work on that day. But on the two adjacent days they did offer performances, and these were specially designed for the season. Thus in 1821 a Cincinnati theater offered performances on both December 24 and 26 of “a comic Pantomime Ballet, called CHRISTMAS FUN; or, The Village in an Uproar.” When Boston’s Haymarket Theater was first established back in 1796, it deliberately settled on December 26 for its opening night. A Boston newspaper remarked disdainfully in 1823 that the theatrical productions of the Christmas season were “of a mixed nature and not of a high intellectual order.” The reason was that those productions had to compete with the local Circus (which was “thronged every evening”). In response, the theater managers “have thought it expedient to introduce rope-dancers and tumblers, as adjuncts to the drama.”64

By the 1820s pressure was building to hold performances on December 25 itself. In 1825 the New England Galaxy praised the managers of the local theater for remaining closed that day, and thereby “sacrificing the profits of [their] ordinary business.” The article noted that if the house had been open on Christmas evening, its receipts would have approached the record $800 chalked up on the previous Thanksgiving Day. (The Circus had an audience of 1,600 on Christmas evening, and another 500 had been turned away.)

The Boston theater soon succumbed to this pressure; beginning in 1826 it held yearly Christmas-night performances. Once again, Boston was typical. Christmas performances began during the mid-1820S in New York, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati as well. By the 1830s they were being advertised as special Christmas productions; and by 1840 the Christmas special had become part of every theaters stock-in-trade. In the 1840s, for example, the Boston Museum offered “Christmas pantomimes” that were “built around the characters of Harlequin, Columbine, old Pantalon, and Clown … [performed] without conversation.” And in 1843, Christmas week at the Boston Museum opened with “The Christmas Gift, or The Golden Axe.” The following year’s Christmas pantomime was “The Busy Bee, or Harlequin in the Hive of Industry.”65

These were wild affairs on both sides of the curtain. Going to the theater in early-nineteenth-century America did not mean sitting passively through the performance; audience behavior resembled that seen at modern rock concerts. As at rock concerts, the audience at these events thought of themselves as an active part of the performance, shouting back responses to the lines delivered onstage—sometimes they even threw objects at the actors. (This was especially true in the cheapest seats, known as the Gallery.) All in all, attending the theater was not very removed from participating in “street theater,” and it was the same group of people who were most likely to engage in both.66

That was particularly true at Christmas. Christmas productions tended to be especially exaggerated, burlesque affairs. And audiences behaved correspondingly. In 1837 the New York Herald reported that the theaters attracted “a considerable portion of the Christmas revelers.” One house especially, the Bowery Theater, was “more peculiarly a holiday theater than [any other].” “The audience here, [even] upon most occasions, performs as much before the curtain as the actors do behind it; but on Christmas eve … the acting on the stage is altogether secondary to the acting in the body of the house.” By 1844 things had become even wilder: “In the noisy theaters, nothing was heard of the performances; and the actors and actresses might as well have gone through their parts in dumb show.” In one place, the play itself “was neither seen nor heard, the fun all being this side the foot-lights….”67

Worst of all that year was the Chatham Theater, where several hundred newsboys had assembled to witness—of all things—a musical play based on Charles Dickens’s novels Christmas Carol, which had been published in book form only a year earlier. Here’s how the New York Herald described the scene:

Some three hundred news boys, sharp set for relaxation in the shape of theatrical criticism, were engaged throughout the earlier part of the evening in an animated contest with the police officers, and several “stirring scenes,” and peculiarly animated exits and entrances were enacted, to the uproarious delight of the gods and goddesses of the gallery, who cheered on the combatants with the various slogans and war-cries of the tribe, known only to the initiated, and altogether untranslatable. Several of the noisiest and most unmanageable of these amateurs, were, at length, snaked out by the police, and the scene of their exploits changed to the Tombs [the city jail]….

Even after “comparative quiet” had been restored, the “clamor” of a noisy youngster “quite drowned the bass drum, in the melo-dramatic music which ushered the ghost of old Jacob Marley through the trap.”68

Newsboys, the source of all this disorder, were themselves a new phenomenon on the urban scene. The development of cheap newspapers in the 1830s (the “penny press,” so called because that was now the price of a daily paper) had helped create the need for street vendors who would hawk the afternoon papers on street corners. (In contrast, their predecessors in the trade—the “carriers” we encountered in Chapter 1—delivered newspapers only to the houses of those who had subscriptions.) Newsboys were drawn from the poorest classes of large cities; often they were homeless—in fact, the word newsboy was sometimes used interchangeably with homeless boy or street arab. Their love of theatergoing was notorious; everyone agreed that they attended “night after night.” They used the theater as a gathering place and even as a place where they could sleep. But above all, newsboys loved theatrical performances and responded interactively to events onstage just as if they were witnessing real life. The presence of police officers in the theaters was a standard precaution against newsboy excesses.69

Newsboys at Christmas. This picture appeared in the 1844 Christmas edition of a New York newspaper, Brother Jonathan. These were the same newsboys who would end up disrupting several of the city’s theatrical performances later that evening. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Newsboys may have been a new phenomenon in the late 1830s, but they fit a social and demographic profile that had long been associated with rituals of Christmas misrule: They were poor and youthful males. So it is no wonder that they took to acting up with particular intensity during the holiday season. This was as true in Philadelphia as it was in New York. An 1844 advertisement for one Philadelphia theatrical production ended with a notice assuring other prospective theatergoers that “[efficient Police have been engaged to preserve order; boys will be prevented from congregating in front….”70 Just a year earlier, in 1843, the Christmas-evening theatrical scene suggests the reason:

The Arch Street [theater] was also crowded, where as well as at the National [theater], the boys amused themselves by tossing each other, as well as they could in the crowd, over each other’s heads and jostling the weak under foot, to the great discomfiture of their apparel.71

To put all this in context, consider the program presented at two theaters on that occasion. The matinee performance at the National Theater opened with a drama, “George Barnwell,” continued with a blackface show, the “Original Virginia Minstrels,” and ended with another drama, “King of the Mist.” The Arch Street Theater matinee opened with “Hunter of the Alps,” continued with “a Comic Song,” and concluded with “the Colored Music Festival, by the Virginia Minstrels.”The evening show at that same theater opened with a drama, followed once again by the Virginia Minstrels, and concluded with “a new Pantomime, entitled ‘Sante Claus’—Old Krisskingle [played by] Mr. Winans.”

Old Krisskingle. By 1843 this figure had become the lead character of a Christmas pantomime performed in concert with a minstrel show. (This would not be the only occasion on which Santa Claus converged with blackface minstrelsy. In about 1840 a collection of minstrel songs was printed in New York under the authorship “by Santaclaus.” And remember, too, the Belsnickles who went wassailing in blackface in areas of Pennsylvania.) Two years later Kriss Kringle would once again appear at the theater, this time in front of the lights, in the form of a costumed actor distributing gifts to the children who attended the show: “KRISS KRINGLE will deliver Presents of Toys, &c. to all his Juvenile Visiters [sic]…. KRISS KRINGLE will positively appear, in propriae personae, and present Toys, Sweetmeats and Fruits to the juvenile visitors….”72

By this time Kriss Kringle was a ubiquitous presence in Philadelphia, and several places were announcing themselves as his “headquarters.” One of these places advertised that “‘KRISS KRINGLE’ has determined to make the Assembly Building his Head Quarters over the Holidays….” He would be appearing there with a ventriloquist for six performances on Christmas Day (every two hours from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.) But on that same day a bookstore, too, advertised itself as “KRISS KRINGLE’S HEAD QUARTERS FOR CHRISTMAS BOOKS”:

Come and choose—come one, come all—he has laid a great variety on the counter for you to choose from. Parents bring your children. Children don’t forget to ask your parents, and remember that it is at JOHN B. PERRY’S, No 198 Market street.”73

Bookstores and theaters represented two different cultural worlds. If theatergoing was part of the rowdy world of Christmas carnival, reading books was part of the world of quiet domestic pleasures. By the mid-1840S Kriss Kringle had entered the world of books, and he was urging his youthful readers to do the same. In 1842 a Philadelphia publisher brought out Kriss Kringle’s Book, a gift book for children that explained the ritual of St. Nicholas (it even included Clement Clarke Moore’s poem, “A Visit from St. Nicholas”) and urged its youthful readers to “prepare” for his visit by acting “obedient to their parents, studious, respectful to their teachers, gentle to their play-fellows, and attentive to their religious duties.” If they did so, such children would be certain to receive “numerous tokens” of Santa Claus’s goodwill. And among these tokens there were sure to be books: “Saint Nicholas … loves to give the children nice little story books, such as will teach them to be good, and at the same time afford them a good deal of innocent amusement….”74

Santa in Blackface. The cover page of a collection of minstrel songs published in New York in about 1840. The songs were written and performed by one of the best-known American minstrels, Thomas Rice, who performed onstage as “Jim Crow.” The exact reason for attributing the authorship of this pamphlet to “Santa Claus” is obscure. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

In 1845 two other Philadelphia publishers entered the Kriss Kringle market. One came out with Kriss Kringles Christmas Tree, which contained a poem in which a boy chooses a book as his present, passing over the rowdier options of a “sword or drum.” The other publisher produced a book called Kriss Kringles Raree Show, for Good Boys and Girls. This, too, was a gift book. Its text consisted of a series of history lessons—thirty-eight very brief stories (two pages each), most of which were accounts of famous battles in American or European history.75

Santa Claus as Theater Manager. This illustration, from the title page of Kriss Kringle’s Raree Show (1845), shows Kriss Kringle in the role of a theater manager, collecting tickets from the eager boys shoving to get into the show on Christmas Day. Kriss Kringle is depicted as a plebeian here, and he even smokes a short pipe! (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Theater Interior with Curtain Down. Kriss Kringle is now seated atop the chandelier at the top left, his pipe tucked into his cap. From this position he will draw the curtain for each change of scene. The audience itself suggests elements of misrule: One boy is sitting on the stage; the little girl in front of him is crying; and another little girl (at the right) is blowing a tin horn. (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

Theater Interior with Curtain Raised. Only the scene onstage has changed here—the rest of the setting remains the same (as it does in every single illustration in this book). The dramatic scenes, this one showing Indians battling Conquistadores, are all represented as merely drawings on an inner curtain. This is a low-budget operation even in fantasy! (Courtesy, American Antiquarian Society)

But the text of Kringle’s Raree Show is the least interesting thing about this book. What is more intriguing is the way the book was organized around the conceit implied by its title. A raree show meant either of two things.76 Its first meaning was “a show carried about in a box,” such as an exhibition of pictures, viewed through a magnifying lens inserted in a small opening at one end of the box (this would later become known as a “peep show”). Indeed, each of the thirty-eight historical accounts contained a full-page picture—and instead of being divided into chapters, each account was labeled a “sight” (thus “Sight the Twenty-First” was “the Capture of Stony Point” during the American Revolution; and “Sight the Thirty-Eighth” was “the Battle of Lake Erie” during the War of 1812).

The second meaning of the term raree show, by extension, was large-scale and theatrical: “a spectacle of any kind,” or a “spectacular display,” especially a theatrical spectacle (often, apparently, one related to pantomime). Kriss Kringle’s Raree Show fit this definition because it pretended to offer the experience of going to the theater—specifically, the experience of a group of children attending a theatrical “exhibition” at Christmas. On the title page is pictured the arrival of the children at the theater. Kriss Kringle plays the role of theater manager in this picture. Standing at the entrance, he takes the children’s tickets as they attempt to press into the hall. He is pictured much as Moore described Santa Claus—a plebeian, short and plump, bearded, holding “the stump of a pipe” in his teeth. (But that is also, I suspect, very much the way an actual theater manager of the time might have looked.)

The book’s brief introduction sets the scene and also describes the interior of the theater. This description is accompanied by a full-page illustration of the interior of the theater, with the lowered curtain at its center (the inscription on the curtain is the title of the book). Kriss Kringle, the manager, now magically sits poised atop a candelabrum at the left side of the proscenium, where he will presumably manipulate the curtain for each of the “sights” in the show (or book). In the foreground we see the children who will be the audience (or readers). These children may not exactly resemble the real Philadelphia children who had disrupted theatrical performances two years earlier by “tossing each other … over each other’s heads and jostling the weak under foot.” But they aren’t exactly quiet or passive, either. One boy has already climbed onto the stage; several are laughing and talking, and waving (apparently to Kriss Kringle). The little girl on the extreme left is crying, and the little girl at the right is blowing a tin horn (presumably she has received it as a Christmas present; tin horns were such notorious noisemakers that they were later banned in the city of Philadelphia). Finally, several youthful couples appear to be taking the opportunity to do some flirting. I suspect that the artist drew the scene this way because he wanted to convey at least a semblance of how such a theatrical audience would have looked and behaved on an occasion like this—to provide, perhaps, just enough verisimilitude to evoke in the young readers of the book something of the vivid sensation of actually being there.

On with the show. At the signal of a ringing bell, the curtain rises abruptly, and the performance begins. Kriss Kringle is still present, again in the role of theater manager: “He is enjoying the astonishment and delight of the children at the scene which presents itself on the rising of the curtain.”77 In each of the scenes that follow—the thirty-eight “sights”—the same full-page background illustration I have just described appears; the only thing that changes is the “sight” itself (i.e., the historical scene behind the curtain). The purpose of this repetition was presumably to save money and time on the books artwork; but it also inadvertently suggests what we already know from other sources: that a real audience would not have quieted down when the curtain went up.

In Kriss Kringle’s Raree Show we see in action the battle between the two cultures of Christmas—going out into the loud streets and staying quietly at home. But the battle is not really joined. Reading is presented here not so much as an attractive alternative to misrule as a mini-version of it, one in which the rowdy adventure went on inside one’s head. Here the two forms of behavior, the two cultures of Christmas, seep into each other. Reading the book promised the adventure of theatergoing, and even showed it, and a little of its misrule, led by plebeian Kriss Kringle. It was possible to experience the excitement of the theater without leaving home—and without posing (or risking) any real danger. But that, perhaps, has always been the promise of reading itself.78

By the 1840s the police in Philadelphia and other American cities were regularly on the lookout for gatherings of unruly boys, and ready to throw them in jail. That was one prong in the assault against Christmas misrule. Kriss Kringle’s Raree Show is a very poor book, but it does show us something of the second prong in that same assault—something that other, better books did far more effectively. One of those was the famous Christmas story “The Nutcracker,” authored by the German writer?. T. A. Hoffmann and first published in 1816. Here a proper young girl has an extended fantasy of misrule in which her world turns crazily upside down. “The Nutcracker” ended up becoming, in the hands of Peter Tchaikovsky, a brilliant and popular theatrical spectacle, while Kriss Kringle’s Raree Show was quickly forgotten. But both the trite Philadelphia book and its far more ingenious German counterpart shared a single purpose: to offer youthful readers a secure yet exhilarating Christmas treat—a carnival of the mind.

* The term whoreson meant “bastard” (or “coarse fellow”) but, as here, it could be used affectionately between men, as for example, in the modern usage “you old bastard.”

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