Painful Truth: Traditional Christmas includes booze, riots, and heresy

So you want a traditional Christmas?

None of those fakey artificial trees, no pop stars singing brand-new carols with references to Twitter and global warming, and no consumerism. Just a nice simple celebration.

Okay. Hope you like damp toast, songs about heresy, and being blackout drunk.

First, let’s look at Christmas carols.

The oldest carols sung around Christmas were in Latin, and not to be snooty, but because Latin was what people spoke back in the third and fourth centuries. Many of them were austere songs that were aimed at stamping out Arianism, and we all know that Arianism was declared heresy by the First Council of Nicaea in 325 AD!

But almost all the carols we know come from the Victorian age. Some of them were original compositions, created due to the huge increase in interest in Christmas, which was in turn sparked by popular commercial writers such as Charles Dickens, and by Queen Victoria (who helped elevate the Christmas tree from some weird German custom into a widespread trend).

Some of the carols repurposed old tunes, such as Good King Wenceslaus, which used a traditional Easter melody and married it to the story of a Czech saint. Somehow it became an English Christmas carol standard.

Carolling is linked to the idea of wassailing, which is about as traditionally Christmas as you can get.

Wassailing was a  winter practice in which bands of people (often young men) would visit their lord’s house, and other homes, and demand desserts (figgy pudding) and booze. Wassail is basically spiced hard apple cider.

As you can imagine, this sometimes got out of hand. There was occasional violence and property damage, especially if people didn’t pony up the booze and food fast enough.

Of course, to be really traditional, you’re going to have to wait until January 5 or 6 (Twelfth Night) to do your wassailing. To be really, really traditional, you’re going to need an apple orchard. Farmers in England’s West Country used to wassail the orchards in the winter, drinking and splashing cider on the roots and singing in hopes of a bountiful apple harvest in the coming year.

Some regions had a local “queen” who would hang cider-soaked toast in the branches of the trees. I have not been able to find out why, but I assume it has something to do with alcohol consumption and a lack of cable TV.

Before Dickens, in fact, alcohol was a key component of Christmas. Which is why another repeated tradition is trying to ban Christmas, as the Puritans did from 1647 to 1660. This was followed by riots.

Is there a lesson in this?

I think the only lesson is that the idea of a “traditional” Christmas, especially in the secular trimmings that surround the original religious meaning, is impossible to pin down. If your traditional holiday includes a plastic tree, a couple of gallons of store-bought eggnog, and Santa hats for your pets, that’s fine. As long as it brings you some seasonal joy, it’s a perfectly traditional Christmas.

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