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West Point’s Eggnog Riot of 1826

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Today, the United States Military Academy in West Point, New York is thought to have one of the most disciplined student bodies in the nation. It may come as a surprise, then, that the school was once the site of one of the worst examples of eggnog-fueled debauchery in history.

During West Point’s early years following its founding in 1802, it hardly resembled the highly revered institution that exists today. According to Smithsonian, admission standards were lax, and students could be enrolled at any point during the year. Drinking was also a significant part of the campus culture, especially around the holidays. It was an annual tradition at West Point for cadets to drink eggnog during their Christmas festivities, but in 1826, the school’s superintendent, Colonel Sylvanus Thayer, cut them off: As a means of whipping the community into shape, Thayer imposed a harsh new rule that prohibited the purchase, storage, and consumption of alcohol on West Point property. Unfortunately for Thayer, a few cadets took these new restrictions as a challenge come Christmas Eve.

Portrait of Sylvanus Thayer via Wikimedia Commons

The cadets (among them class of '28 student Jefferson Davis, a.k.a. the future president of the Confederacy) smuggled in three or four gallons of whiskey from a local tavern. Thayer suspected there might be shenanigans afoot for the holiday party, but he only took the normal precautions that night, assigning two officers to the North Barracks. The officers went to bed around midnight with no trouble to report, but that all changed around four in the morning. One of the officers, Captain Ethan Allen Hitchcock, was awoken by the sounds of partying a few floors above him.

He went to investigate and found six or seven cadets in a drunken state. He ordered them back to their rooms, and as he went to leave, he heard a second party going on in the room next door. There he found two intoxicated cadets hiding beneath a blanket, and a third party who was so drunk he refused to remove the hat he was using to conceal his face. When Hitchcock demanded that he show himself, they argued, and things got so tense that after the officer left, the cadets declared, “Get your dirks and bayonets … and pistols if you have them. Before this night is over, Hitchcock will be dead!”

Soon after, the infamous West Point eggnog riot was underway. Anywhere from 70 to 90 cadets ended up taking part, and while no one was killed that night, the chaos did result in assaults on two officers, several shattered windows, and banisters being ripped away from stairways. By the time morning arrived, the North Barracks had been completely wrecked.

Instead of indicting up to a third of the academy’s 260 students and further reinforcing its reputation as an unruly institution, superintendent Thayer chose to only target the worst offenders. Jefferson Davis was able to evade a charge, and he, along with fellow classmates (including future Confederate General Robert E. Lee) testified in their peers’ defense. Nineteen cadets were eventually expelled, and the buildings that served as the site of the riot were demolished.

When new barracks were constructed in the 1840s, the school took special precautions that would make similar riots more difficult in the future. The buildings were constructed to include short hallways that forced students to exit the building entirely before reaching another floor, which would introduce an added element of crowd control in case it was ever needed. Today, the story of the West Point eggnog riot is largely unknown to its current students, the school's historian told Smithsonian. Their debased holiday parties are a thing of the past, and when the school does throw parties, any alcohol that’s present is available in limited quantities. Perhaps the administration doesn’t want their cadets getting any ideas from the academy’s rowdy history.

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Bleat Along to Classic Holiday Tunes With This Goat Christmas Album
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Feeling a little Grinchy this month? The Sweden branch of ActionAid, an international charity dedicated to fighting global poverty, wants to goat—errr ... goad—you into the Christmas spirit with their animal-focused holiday album: All I Want for Christmas is a Goat.

Fittingly, it features the shriek-filled vocal stylings of a group of festive farm animals bleating out classics like “Jingle Bells,” “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” and “O Come All Ye Faithful.” The recording may sound like a silly novelty release, but there's a serious cause behind it: It’s intended to remind listeners how the animals benefit impoverished communities. Goats can live in arid nations that are too dry for farming, and they provide their owners with milk and wool. In fact, the only thing they can't seem to do is, well, sing. 

You can purchase All I Want for Christmas is a Goat on iTunes and Spotify, or listen to a few songs from its eight-track selection below.

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What Are the 12 Days of Christmas?
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Everyone knows to expect a partridge in a pear tree from your true love on the first day of Christmas ... But when is the first day of Christmas?

You'd think that the 12 days of Christmas would lead up to the big day—that's how countdowns work, as any year-end list would illustrate—but in Western Christianity, "Christmas" actually begins on December 25th and ends on January 5th. According to liturgy, the 12 days signify the time in between the birth of Christ and the night before Epiphany, which is the day the Magi visited bearing gifts. This is also called "Twelfth Night." (Epiphany is marked in most Western Christian traditions as happening on January 6th, and in some countries, the 12 days begin on December 26th.)

As for the ubiquitous song, it is said to be French in origin and was first printed in England in 1780. Rumors spread that it was a coded guide for Catholics who had to study their faith in secret in 16th-century England when Catholicism was against the law. According to the Christian Resource Institute, the legend is that "The 'true love' mentioned in the song is not an earthly suitor, but refers to God Himself. The 'me' who receives the presents refers to every baptized person who is part of the Christian Faith. Each of the 'days' represents some aspect of the Christian Faith that was important for children to learn."

In debunking that story, Snopes excerpted a 1998 email that lists what each object in the song supposedly symbolizes:

2 Turtle Doves = the Old and New Testaments
3 French Hens = Faith, Hope and Charity, the Theological Virtues
4 Calling Birds = the Four Gospels and/or the Four Evangelists
5 Golden Rings = the first Five Books of the Old Testament, the "Pentateuch", which gives the history of man's fall from grace.
6 Geese A-laying = the six days of creation
7 Swans A-swimming = the seven gifts of the Holy Spirit, the seven sacraments
8 Maids A-milking = the eight beatitudes
9 Ladies Dancing = the nine Fruits of the Holy Spirit
10 Lords A-leaping = the ten commandments
11 Pipers Piping = the eleven faithful apostles
12 Drummers Drumming = the twelve points of doctrine in the Apostle's Creed

There is pretty much no historical evidence pointing to the song's secret history, although the arguments for the legend are compelling. In all likelihood, the song's "code" was invented retroactively.

Hidden meaning or not, one thing is definitely certain: You have "The Twelve Days of Christmas" stuck in your head right now.

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