10. When Christmas Was Scary
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.