I just ran across this. We knew about Saturnalia. We knew that Christmas as we know it today was an attempt to create a Dickenian myth when there had really never been Christmas in America. But I didnt know fully why...
Christmas in the England the Puritans were escaping was essentially a drunken riot.
Here's how it generally went down, according to Stephen Nissenbaum in his book "The Battle for Christmas." On Christmas Day, the lower classes would dress up in strange costumes to "invert" their roles: Men would dress up as women, young boys as bishops, and the lowliest peasant or the town drunk might be declared the "Lord of Misrule."
They would gather into a mob and go around to the houses and estates of the well-to-do, making a racket, singing bawdy songs and demanding entry. Amazingly, most of the time they were let in and given alcohol, food and even money. There was gambling and promiscuity (often leading to marriages at the end of the misrule). Once the mob was satisfied, it would move on to the next rich person's estate.
These mobs would generally roam until Epiphany - Jan. 6 - hence, "the twelve days of Christmas." But some places, the mobs would carry on until February.
If it seems surprising that rich people would willingly let a drunken mob in their homes and get them even drunker, that's because the alternative was worse. If a homeowner tried to block entry, the mob would break in, destroy property, assault the homeowner, frighten his wife and children, and then take the food and drink anyway.
You can see this in the wassails and "carols" the mob sang. While focusing on being merry, many of them contained a threat. For example, a carol from the 1600s that began, "Come bring with a noise/My merrie merrie boys/The Christmas log to firing," ended like this: "And if you don't open up your door/We will lay you flat upon the floor."
December meant three things in early Europe: The work of harvesting the year's crops was done, the beer and wine they'd been brewing was ready to drink, and it was cold enough to slaughter animals without the meat going immediately bad. December was often the only time of year when people got to eat fresh meat.
So a period of gorging and resting was almost written into the stars, and most pagan European cultures had a holiday for this.Puritans were fully aware of the non-Christian roots of Christmas, and unlike the Anglican church, they were having none of it.