Christmas nowadays is a family holiday that most Americans associate with a bundle of positive emotions and images. White snow; Santa and his reindeer; non-stop Christmas music at malls; presents under an evergreen tree; family and loved ones gathered around a dining table groaning beneath a sumptuous feast. The only controversial thing about Christmas today seems to be that fraction of the public who grow livid if they hear others say “Happy Holidays” instead of “Merry Christmas”. That is pretty tame, however, compared to how many Americans viewed Christmas in centuries past.
Christmas was once a time of drunken riots, in which the streets were transformed into free for all drunken brawls and scenes of widespread viral crime. Back in the days, many feared and loathed Christmas. In the 1600s, the Massachusetts Bay Colony criminalized Christmas celebrations. The Puritans were not upset so much by the religious devotions, as by the disorders and crime sprees that accompanied Christmas celebrations. While many American families commemorated the holiday with wholesome outdoor activities such as skating or watching horse races, Christmas for single men was a time to get wild.
The viral fad of getting get wild on Christmas – and concerns about the out-of-control loud and frequently violent celebrations – reached a peak in the nineteenth century. In cities such as New York and Philadelphia, marked by sharp racial, ethnic, and economic divisions, Christmas was a time for dangerous mob actions. Working class young men would get liquored up, dress up as women or put on blackface, hit the streets looking for trouble, and commit sundry crimes. Many of Philadelphia’s young and drunk Christmas celebrants donned masks – a forerunner of Philadelphia’s Mummers Parade.
That led contemporaries to label them “fantasticals”. They were also referred to as “callithumpians” – partly from their habit of thumping things (and people). The celebrants would gather in groups, and in a mockery of real music, bang on pots, cowbells, improvised horns, and sing off key as they made their way from tavern to tavern. There, they would demand free drinks, and beat up anybody who objected. The drunken celebrants, many of them unemployed, formed themselves into gangs, and paraded – or staggered – into rich neighborhoods, to indulge in crimes petty and grand.
9. Viral Christmas Violence Played a Key Role in the Formation of American Police Forces
Sozzled and often belligerent Christmas celebrants were full of anything but good cheer. They beat drums, sang loudly, rang doorbells, expressed social discontents, smashed windows, fired their guns, and otherwise made themselves disagreeable and strove to “make the night hideous“. Such nuisance crimes were just the tip of the iceberg. Knifings, shootings, arson, and other acts of mayhem and murder were also common. It was a reminder to the era’s 1% that class conflict and violence seethed beneath America’s surface. The authorities were largely powerless to stop the Christmas crime sprees and disorders. Understandably, respectable citizens condemned Christmas as a disgrace.
Newspapers railed against “the drunken men and boys in the street“, and the “black sheep … who made night hideous with Galathumpian doings“. In 1844, a New YorkLedger editorial deplored the streets being overrun with a “riotous spirit … our city has almost daily been the theater of disorders which practically nullify civil government “. Pressure finally led to the creation of modern police forces capable of effective crowd control. They kept the crime spree relatively controlled by keeping the celebrants out of the business districts and wealthy residential areas. Instead, they made sure that the Christmas hooligans confined their disorders to their own working-class neighborhoods. Eventually, a cultural shift took the wild partying from holy Christmas, and made the secular New Year’s the time for rowdiness instead.
Most of us like to travel, and see a bit of the world from time to time. However, some people take that to extremes. We’re not talking backpacker types and those driven by an adventurous spirit who roam the world for years on end, but ones who literally can’t stop wandering. Dromomania is the medical term for an uncontrollable psychological urge to aimlessly walk, wander, and travel. It was classified alongside other impulse control disorders, such as pyromania and kleptomania.
In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, dromomania became a viral rage in France. Tourism can be like an addictive drug. One of the best case studies on that was that of Jean Albert Dadas, a gas fitter from Bordeaux, France. In 1881, as he served his term of conscription in the French Army, Dadas went AWOL in order to travel. He abandoned his post and headed to Prague in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and from there, to the German capital, Berlin.
7. An Aimless Wanderer Mistakenly Arrested for Terrorism
Jean Albert Dadas’ dromamania became the subject of a nineteenth-century medical doctoral dissertation. From Berlin, he continued on into the Russian Empire and ended up in Moscow. There, he was arrested on suspicion of radical terrorism – he was unlucky to arrive soon after Tsar Alexander II had been assassinated. The authorities did not believe his explanations for why he was in the Russian Empire. However, they found no evidence linking him to terrorism or radicalism and simply ordered him expelled.
Dadas ended up walking all the way to Constantinople. There, he was assisted by the French Consulate, which arranged for him to travel to Vienna. He settled in the Austrian capital for some time, before he hit the road again. He finally returned to France, worn out and a bit incoherent, in 1886. His case gained widespread publicity. From the mid-1880s until around 1909, his example was emulated by numerous Frenchman, who gave in to an uncontrollable urge to travel.
6. Reaction Against This Viral Fashion Trend Led to Riots
Throughout history, older generations have often given the side eye to youth fashion. Seldom, however, does it go from eye rolls to widespread violence. An exception was America’s reaction to the viral zoot suit fashion fad. Zoot suits took American youth culture by storm in the late 1930s and early 1940s. The outsized outfits stood out with their eye-catching look, of a long coat with wide lapels and broad shoulder pads. Baggy, tight-cuffed, and high-waist pants accompanied the coat, as did pointy French-style shoes. A watch chain dangled from the belt to the knees, then back to a side pocket. Finally, a color-coordinated fedora, sometimes with a long feather, completed the ensemble.
The distinctive zoot suits made their first appearances in African American communities in Harlem, Chicago, and Detroit. Eventually, they crossed over and became popular with the rest of America as part of the emerging jazz culture. In addition to African Americans, zoot suits became a huge hit with young Latinos, Filipinos, and Italian Americans. The outfit was sported by many young whites, but there was always an “ethnic” aura about zoot suits that made it problematic for much of the white mainstream. As seen below, the suits became even more controversial when America joined WWII.
5. Media Whipped Up Moral Outrage Against This Item of Youth Fashion
The elaborate zoot suits were luxury items that required significant tailoring and materials to produce. When America was thrust into WWII, the US War Production Board singled out zoot suits for criticism, as wasteful of materials and production time. The youngsters who sported the outfits saw them as expressions of their freedom and individuality, or even rebelliousness. Others, however, saw the viral fad as unpatriotic extravagances in wartime. When Life magazine ran a 1942 article about youths in zoots, it concluded that the outfits “were solid arguments for lowering the Army draft age to include 18-year-olds“.
Other media outfits followed suit, with sensational accounts that often exaggerated the suits’ actual cost. Before long, a backlash had built up against the outfits. Youngsters in zoot suits were frequently berated and verbally assailed in public, and sometimes physically attacked. Police would often stop people clad in zoots, and sometimes slash them into ruin. The most dramatic manifestation of the backlash, however, took place in Los Angeles in June of 1943, in what came to be known as the Zoot Suit Riots.
The ground was prepared for the Zoot Suit Riots a year before they erupted. Los Angeles area newspapers whipped up racial tensions with sensationalist reports about a “crime wave” caused by Mexican-American youths, whose signature getup was zoot suits. It existed only in the newspapers’ imagination. Before long, a full-blown media campaign demanded that the authorities crack down on the “zoot suiters”. In response, law enforcement conducted frequent roundups, in which hundreds of Mexican-American youths were arrested. They were guilty of nothing more than going along with a viral fad and wearing oversized suits. During WWII, LA became a major military hub, as hundreds of thousands of servicemen were stationed there or passed through en route to other postings. Many white servicemen saw the wearing of zoot suits as flouting the war effort.
Mexican-Americans came to be seen as unpatriotic, despite the fact that they were overrepresented in the military, and served at a higher rate than whites. They also had one of the highest percentages of Medal of Honor recipients. Trouble began in June of 1943, when mobs of white servicemen roamed that city, and attacked allegedly “unpatriotic” Mexican-American’s wearing zoot suits. The rioters focused on Latino youths, but young African Americans and Filipinos were also targeted. Riots against Latinos soon spread throughout California to San Diego and Oakland, then across the country to Chicago, Philadelphia, and New York City. It was one of the few times – the straw hat riots being another example – when fashion choices led to widespread civil unrest in America.
Remember planking, the Ice Bucket Challenge, or similar viral fads that pop up, spread like wildfire, then fade into oblivion? Their 1950s equivalent was phone booth stuffing. People around the world – or at least the English-speaking world – competed to see how many folks they could cram into a phone booth. It is often assumed to have begun in colleges on the US West Coast, but in reality, it started in Durban, South Africa. There, in early 1959, twenty-five students tried to see if they could fit into a phone booth.
They pulled it off, and submitted their accomplishment to the Guinness Book of World Records. Word of their stunt spread, and before long, a fever of phone booth stuffing had spread to England, Canada, and the US. To participate, people – usually college students – squeezed themselves into a phone booth, one after another, until nobody else could fit in. While seemingly straightforward, there was a lot of complexity involved. In 1959, college kids began to skip class to devise plans to beat the record. As seen below, things spiraled from there.
College kids drew schematics to try and figure out the optimal configuration for cramming the highest number of human bodies into a phone booth, kind of like a 3-D Tetris. In Britain, where the fad became known as the “telephone booth squash”, some students went on diets to reduce their bulks. At MIT, some turned to geometry and advanced calculus to figure out the most efficient configuration to cram bodies into a tight space. As the competitive juices flowed and the competition heated up, accusations of cheating were hurled.
Some universities’ claims were challenged because of violations of supposed rules that should have been followed. Some argued that booth stuffing was valid only if somebody inside was able to make a phone call. In some universities, the count was based on any part of a competitor’s body placed inside the booth. They were challenged by other campuses, who contended that it only counted if all participants had their entire bodies inside. Eventually, amidst heated recriminations, the viral fad died out by the end of 1959.
Nowadays, wigs are so cheap that you can get a realistic looking one for under ten bucks. There was a time, however, when wigs were necessities for the upper crust – and quite expensive necessities at that. In the eighteenth century, for example, to make a decent wig usually took “six men working six days from sunup to sundown“. As a result, a good wig could cost as much as an average workman earned in a year. Such a small fortune propped atop rich people’s heads made wigs an attractive target for crooks. The result was a viral crime wave of wig robberies.
Aristocrats with elaborate wigs became particularly attractive targets for highwaymen. Since only the wealthy could afford big wigs, wealthy nobles were nicknamed “bigwigs”, after the lucrative target atop their heads. Not all wig thieves used force. One account tells of a wig bandit so bold and skilled, that he was able to replace his target’s expensive wig with a cheap rug when the mark was distracted. The nobleman, oblivious to the switch that had taken place, would then walk away, unaware that he had just lost a fortune. Unfortunately for the wig snatchers, their gravy train came to a halt when wigs went out of fashion.
Where Did We Find This Stuff? Some Sources and Further Reading