Victorian greeting card from the 1880s. A dead robin was regarded as a symbol of good luck in late 19th Century England.
Whatever you’re going today, it probably isn’t what you’d normally be doing on Christmas Day. I live in London so my family Christmas has been cancelled and I'm feeling a bit dead robin. I thought I’d look back to other years when Christmas didn’t happen. For eight years in the seventeenth century there were no official Christmas masses or celebrations.
The Observation of Christmas having been deemed a Sacrilege, the exchanging of Gifts and Greetings, dressing up in Fine Clothing, Feasting and similar Satanical practices are hereby FORBIDDEN with the offender liable to a fine of five shillings.
Strict Protestants and Puritans believed that December 25th should be a fast day devoted to sober religious contemplation. In January 1645 parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, a radical alternative to the established Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all, and traditional festivities were abolished by order of the both Houses of Parliament.
Naturally many people continued to celebrate in private but the issue became a political football and a war of words was fought in the wonderfully rich language of the period.
The royalist satirist John Taylor published a pamphlet, The Complaint of Christmas, from the King’s stronghold of Oxford, lamenting that the “harmless sports” are now extinct and put out of use… as if they had never been.” “Thus are the merry lords of misrule suppressed by the mad lords of bad rule at Westminster”.
In his later pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas (1652), John Taylor provided a lively portrait of how, he claimed, the old Christmas festivities were still being kept up by the farmers of Devon.
The Vindication of Christmas, or his twelve years Observation upon the great and lamentable Tragedy between the King and Parliament’
(In the speech bubbles;) Keep out, you come not here.
Oh Sir, I bring good cheer
Old Christmas, welcome, do not fear.
Puritans retaliated by conflating the elderly bearded Taylor with Old Father Christmas in their own pamphlets.
In 1653, this pamphlet attacked the Puritan tax on Christmas ale:
The Trial of Old Father Christmas
For encouraging Drunkenness Gaming, Swearing, Rioting, and all manner of Extravagance and Debauchery. At the Assizes held in the City of Profusion.
After the defeat of Charles at Naseby the conflict became more aggressive. In the words of a contemporary ballad: “To conclude, I’ll tell you news that’s right, Christmas was killed at Naseby fight.”
There were violent pro-Christmas riots. Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other. In December 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers who had opened on Christmas Day, and “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”.
When the Lord Mayor despatched some officers “to pull down these gawds,” the apprentices resisted them, forcing the Mayor to rush to the scene with a party of soldiers and break up the demonstration by force. they set up Holly and Ivy ” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit.” In December 1646 a group of young men at Bury St Edmunds threatened local tradesmen who had dared to open their shops on Christmas Day, and were only dispersed by the town magistrates after a fight.The worst disturbances took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city.
MPs demanded that the fast should be kept “with the more solemn humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending [to] the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.
After Cromwell became Lord Protector in 1653, the celebration of Christmas continued to be forbidden. Cromwell and his colleagues often made a point of transacting government business on 25 December.
John Evelyn, seen here in this portrait by Hendrick Van Der Borcht, was a Royalist and an Anglican. He describes in his diary the scene on Christmas Day 1657 when he was arrested, together with the entire congregation, while receiving Holy Communion at Exeter Chapel near Temple Bar:
When I came before them they tooke my name and abode, examin’d me why—contrary to an ordinance made that none should any longer observe ye superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteem’d by them)—I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but ye masse in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture. I told them we did not pray for Cha. Stuart, but for all Christian Kings, Princes, and Governors. They replied in so doing we praied for the K. of Spaine too, who was their enemie and a papist, with other frivolous and insnaring questions and much threatning; and finding no colour to detaine me, they dismiss’d me with much pitty of my ignorance. These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity. As we went up to receive the Sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us as if they would have shot us at the altar.
If, like me, you’re feeling hard done today, it’s worth remembering that Evelyn, and many others, managed to live on through the fire of London and the plague less than ten years later.
(This is the one we haven’t had yet.)
A good reminder of how history can help us reflect on our own times.
I was really struck by the Victorian greeting card with the image of a dead robin and an accompanying, seemingly contradictory (to us, at least) message of 'May yours be a joyful Christmas'. Such a beautiful painting of the robin.
Thank you for this post, Miranda, and a rather belated Happy Christmas to you!
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