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Giving Christmas his Due

Today, the threat of cancelling or “killing” Christmas is most frequently the stuff of televised holiday specials. But from English Civil War (1642-1651) through the Interregnum (1649-1660), Christmas was recognized as a symbol of gluttony and idleness, whose very name invoked the Catholic Mass—in other words, it was a high profile target for those enforcing a new rule and way of life.

Frontispiece from "The examination and tryall of Old Father Christmas. At the assizes held at the town of Difference, in the county of discontent. Written according to legal proceeding, by Josiah King." London: printed for Thomas Johnson, at the sign of the golden Key in Pauls Church-yard, 1658.

In the early 1640s, attempts to bring the Church of England in line with Scotland’s reformed liturgy led to the re-examination of Christmas, with the conclusion that there was no biblical basis for the dating of the Nativity and that the holiday was nothing more than a “compound of Catholic superstition and godless self-indulgence.” In 1645, new liturgy issued by Parliament “made no provision” for Christmas, and within a few years its celebration was “declared an offence” by parliamentary ordinance.[1]

A few topical texts from this era have been keyed by the TCP so far:

In 1649, the first year of the Commonwealth, resistance to this development was published in the form of a private argument between Mistress Custome and Mistress New-come. The debate begins with the juxtaposition of Mrs. Custome’s nostalgic memories of Christmases past against Mrs. New-Come’s religious conviction that the holiday is simply an excuse for excessive revelry and gluttony:

M. Cust.: No truely, here no Feasting, but what doth fall out according to the Time.

M. New. Time; pray now what Time?

M. Cust.: Why, Christmas, woman; have you forgot it? Indeed these Wars and Jars would almost make one forget their Christen name, if they were not often called on, to put one in remembrance.

M. New.: Iudeed Christmas can hardly be beaten out of many folks heads, which is a very strange thing.

M. Cust.: Not so strange as true, woman; I should rather, and sooner forget my mother that bare me, and the paps that gave me suck, then forget this merry Time; nay, if thou hadst ever seen the Mirth and Jolitie that we have had at those Times when I was young, thou wouldst blesse thy selfe to see it.

M. New.: Nay, undoubtedly I might very well beleeve you without swearing; for surely, there was then excessive Sports, Pastimes, & Revels, that it would make a bodies haire stand an and to heare and see it.

Only toward the end of the discussion does Mistress New-come point out that the holiday has been outlawed by Parliament, though Mistress Custome seems unswayed by this argument, and determined to keep the tradition of Christmas in the privacy of her home:

M. New. What, will you keepe it in spite of Authoritie?

M. Cust. What Authoritie? I am sure my fa∣ther and mother had the greatest authoritie over me ever since I was borne, and other authoritie I knew none before I was married, & now it seems I am under a crabbed Husbands authoritie, and besides him I will be subject to none, and I am sure he is as strong for Christmas as the greatest of our Ancestours; and therefore that Authoritie will not curb me.

M. New. Then it semes you know no other authoritie?

M. Cust. No by our Lady, not I: neither doe I desire to know any, for he is crabbed enough of a∣ny conscience; if I should tell you all, you would say so too: therefore the Devill take all other Authority, if it be no better then a dogged, crosse-graine Devillish Husband.

M. New. Why, then you count the Parliament no Authoritie?

M. Cust. I hope Gossip you are not come to pick quarrells with me in my owne house?

Mistress New-come, then, invokes the threat of military punishment:

M. New.: But the Armie hath something to say to you then: for if no power will tame you, they can and will tame you; were you as fierce as a Lyon, they will new-mould you into batter breeding, and make you leave off your Superstitious Feasting, and turne to Fasting, if you doe not mend your manners.

But in the end, Mistress Custome has the last word:

For as long as I doe live,

And have a Joviall Crew,

I’le sit and Chat, Laugh, and be Fat,

And give Christmas his Due.

Nearly a decade later, in 1568, the last year of the Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell, resistance to the abolition of Christmas is elevated from the domestic sphere to the courtroom in The Tryall of Old Father Christmas. In this allegory, Father Christmas is brought to trial:

Christmas,

thou art here Indited by the name of Christmas, of the Town of Super∣stition in the County of Idolatry, and that thou hast from time to time abused the peo∣ple of this Common-wealth, drawing and in∣ticing them to Drunkennesse, Gluttony, and unlawful Gaming, Wantonnesse, Uncleanness, Lasciviousness, Cursing, Swearing, abuse of the Creatures, some to one Vice, and some to another, all to Idleness: what sayest thou to thy Inditement, guilty, or not guilty? he an∣swered not guilty, and so put himself to the Tryall.

After this, the Parties that can give Evi∣dence against him are call’d.

Witnesses Mr. Grutchmeat, Mr. Pinch-gut, Mr. Allwork and Mr. Meanwell testify against Father Christmas, claiming that he is “a great waster and a spendthrift,” “an Epicure,” “and a very idle fellow”:

this old fellow devours all, and produces nothing, hee passes the great eater of Kent, his mind is wholly set upon his belly, for satisfaction of which, hee murders the poor innocent Creatures: My Lord, let the Records be searcht; and before the flood, we cannot find, that man ever eat any thing but fruit or hearbs, but this Cormorant is all for flesh flesh, and eats it with the blood thereof, which is the cause that he is so beastly minded

Father Christmas requests a lawyer to defend him, “in regard of mine Age, and defect of memory and expression”, and the counselor mounts the following defense:

Me thinks my Lord, the very Clouds blush, to see this old Gentleman thus egregiously abused. if at any time any have abu∣sed themselves by immoderate eating, and drinking or otherwise spoil the creatures, it is none of this old mans fault; neither ought he to suffer for it; for example the Sun and the Moon are by the heathens worship’d are they therefore bad because idolized? so if any abuse this old man, they are bad for abusing him, not he bad, for being abused

Father Christmas also disentangles himself from the dangerous allusion to Mass, and the notion that Christmas is meant to mark the date of Jesus’ birth:

And first my Lord, I am wronged in be∣ing indited by a wrong name. I am corruptly called Christmas, my name is Christtide, or time.

And though I generally come at a set time, yet I am with him every day that knows how to use me.

Witnesses Sam Servant, Peter Poor, and Nicholas Neighborhood are called to testify for the defense, but sadly, the last pages of the book are missing, so we don’t truly know the outcome of the trial, though it is clear enough where the sympathies of the author lie.

Along with the monarchy, Christmas was formally restored in 1660, and though rants about the holiday continue to be published, their focus changes, echoing the themes of similar pre-war texts: rather than addressing whether Christmas ought to be acknowledged at all, they complain against misers who fail to honor the  day with sufficient merriment and generosity. This is the theme that seems to have stuck in the popular imagination, as it was famously picked up centuries later by Dickens and remains familiar today.

[1] Hutton, Ronald. The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996.

1 Respond for Giving Christmas his Due

  1. […] 3. Father Christmas as pictured in Josiah King’s The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686). Source […]

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