The commercialization of the holiday, a familiar lament this time of year, helped rescue Christmas from the grip of violent street gangs
By Jason Zweig of The WSJ. Economists talk about how gift giving can be inefficient (see related posts linked below). But if the emphasis on gift giving reduced the chaos caused by the gangs, maybe it it is worth it (or not quite so inefficient). Excerpts:
"Everyone seems to complain about how Christmas has been commercialized. But without the business of gift-giving that sprang up in the 19th century, Christmas might still be what it once was for many people: a riotous bacchanalia in which drunken gangs brawled in the streets and bashed their way into houses demanding money and alcohol.
With the hard work of the harvest behind them, December was downtime for Americans, as it had been for Europeans as far back as the raucous Saturnalias of ancient Rome. The Puritans were so offended by the disorder surrounding Christmas that celebrating the holiday—by feasting, “playing either at cards or at dice,” or even just taking the day off from work—was illegal in Massachusetts from 1659 to 1681. The fine was five shillings, roughly $50 in today’s money."
"In the 1800s, at Christmastime in cities like Boston, New York and Philadelphia, gangs of drunk young men, dressed in outrageous disguises, marauded through the nighttime streets, often setting off firecrackers, lighting fires or shooting guns in the air."
"These gangs were called “mummers” and “fantasticals” for their flamboyant costumes or “callithumpians” for the rough music they banged out on pots, pans and other makeshift instruments. Rampaging from house to house, the mobs might smash windows, tear down fences or wrench the handles off doors if homeowners wouldn’t let them in.
Once inside, they helped themselves to food, commandeered alcohol, spit tobacco on the carpets and wiped their greasy hands on the curtains. Not even the watchmen hired by local residents could deter them."
"“As soon as Santa Claus entered the picture,” says Prof. Nissenbaum, “people had to go shopping.” Santa Claus was part of a broader movement to domesticate the holiday by creating a warm, comforting family event centered around giving gifts to children. Mayors, merchants and the middle class all wanted to get the violent Christmastime gangs off the streets.
“There’s a general taming of the holiday that goes on throughout the 19th century,” says Penne Restad, author of “Christmas in America” and a retired historian at the University of Texas, Austin. The mass marketing of Christmas gifts, she says, was “a way of creating boundaries.”
"As the holiday became about giving gifts to family and friends, rather than about seizing food and drink from strangers, the seasonal street gangs faded away."
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