21 Annotations

First Reading

vincent  •  Link

Christmas was banned in June 1647, England Parliament , headed by Puritans passed legislation abolishing Christmas and other holidays: "Forasmuch as the feast of the nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other festivals, commonly called holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed; be it ordained, that the said feasts, and all other festivals, commonly called holy-days, be no longer observed as festivals; any law, statute, custom, constitution, or canon, to the contrary in anywise not withstanding." - Daniel Neal, The History of the Puritans (London, 1837; rpt. Minneapolis: Klock , p. 45


Christmas came back as Yuletide (Missed the Plum pud maybe)

steve h  •  Link

Puritans on Christmas (from Macaulay's History of England)

"Perhaps no single circumstance more strongly illustrates the temper of the precisians than their conduct respecting Christmas day. Christmas had been, from time immemorial, the season of joy and domestic affection, the season when families assembled, when children came home from school, when quarrels were made up, when carols were heard in every street, when every house was decorated with evergreens, and every table was loaded with good cheer. At that season all hearts not utterly destitute of kindness were enlarged and softened. At that season the poor were admitted to partake largely of the overflowings of the wealth of the rich, whose bounty was peculiarly acceptable on account of the shortness of the days and of the severity of the weather. At that season, the interval between landlord and tenant, master and servant, was less marked than through the rest of the year. Where there is much enjoyment there will be some excess: yet, on the whole, the spirit in which the holiday was kept was not unworthy of a Christian festival. The long Parliament gave orders, in 1644, that the twenty-fifth of December should be strictly observed as a fast, and that all men should pass it in humbly bemoaning the great national sin which they and their fathers had so often committed on that day by romping under the mistletoe, eating boar's head, and drinking ale flavored with roasted apples. No public act of that time seems to have irritated the common people more. On the next anniversary of the festival formidable riots broke out in many places. The constables were resisted, the magistrates insulted, the houses of noted zealots attacked, and the prescribed service of the day openly read in the churches."


David Quidnunc  •  Link

One good source for Christmas history

Stephen Nissenbaum, in his book, "The Battle for Christmas" (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 1996), describes how the holiday's traditions changed over the centuries, often by people trying to reform it. Nissenbaum warns that simply because a Christmas tradition was once described in one place, that doesn't mean it was celebrated everywhere in the same country or by everyone in the same community in the same way. But it is surprising how certain themes in the traditions were maintained, even as the holiday was transformed in various ways.

His book focuses on Christmas in the United States, but several sections are relevant to Christmas in Pepys's day. One clear strength of the book is that the author, a professor of history at the University of Massachusetts, relies on contemporary accounts and reliable histories. There are many Internet sites that delve into Christmas history, but many of them have inaccuracies.

After reading Nissenbaum and doing searches on the Internet, here are some questions I have that other readers might be able to answer: What was the role of Father Christmas *in Pepys's day*? Was there an *English* tradition concerning St. Nicholas leaving presents for children on his saint-day, Dec. 6? Did it go back to Pepys's day?

David Quidnunc  •  Link


Academic Stephen Nissenbaum disagrees with Macaulay's benign view of the holiday that the Puritans banned. Distinctly unchristian ways of celebrating the holiday were a long tradition -- in fact, the *longest* tradition for the Christmas season. All quotes below are from Nissenbaum's "Battle for Christmas":

In the fourth century, the Church officially set Christmas on December 25, a date "chosen not for religious reasons but simply because it happened to mark the approximate arrival of the winter solstice, an event that was celebrated long before the advent of Christianity. ... Most cultures (outside the tropics) have long marked with rituals involving light and greenery those dark weeks of December when the daylight wanes, all culminating in the winter solstice -- the return of sun and light and life itself."
- p 4

"In early modern Europe, roughly the years between 1500 and 1800, the Christmas season was a time to let off steam -- and to gorge. It is difficult today to understand what this seasonal feasting was like. ... early modern Europe was above all a world of scarcity. ... for everyone the availability of fresh food was seasonally determined. Late summer and early fall would have been the time of fresh vegetables, but December was the season -- the only season -- for fresh meat. Animals could not be slaughtered until the weather was cold enough to ensure that the meat would not go bad, and any meat saved for the rest of the year would have to be preserved (and rendered less palatable) by salting. December was also the month when the year's supply of beer or wine was ready to drink. And for farmers, too, this period marked the start of a season of leisure. Little wonder, then, that this was a time of celebratory excess."
- pp 5-6

"From the beginning, the Church's hold over Christmas was (and remains still) rather tenuous. There were always people for whom Christmas was a time of pious devotion rather than carnival, but such people were always in the minority. It may not be going too far to say that Christmas has always been an extremely difficult holiday to *Christianize.* Little wonder that the Puritans were willing to save themselves the trouble."
- pp 7-8

David Quidnunc  •  Link


Grand old Yuletide traditions described in Nissenbaum's "Battle for Christmas":

"Christmas was a season of 'misrule,' a time when ordinary behavioral restraints could be violated with impunity. ... Christmas 'misrule' meant that not only hunger but also anger and lust could be expressed in public. ... Often people blackened their faces or disguised themselves as animals or cross-dressed, thus operating under a protective cloak of anonymity. The late-nineteenth-century historian John Ashton reports one episode from Lincolnshire in 1637, in which the man selected by a crowd of revelers as 'Lord of Misrule' was publicly given a 'wife,' in a ceremony led by a man dressed as a minister (he read the entire marriage service from the Book of Common Prayer). Thereupon, as Ashton noted in Victorian language, 'the affair was carried to its utmost extent.'"

[John Ashton, "A Right Merrie Christmasse: The Story of Christmastide," 1894, London and New York, p 125-126]
- p 6 in Nissenbaum

"At other times of the year it was the poor who owed goods, labor, and deference to the rich. But on this occasion the tables were turned -- literally. The poor -- most often bands of boys and young men -- claimed the right to march to the houses of the well-to-do, enter their halls, and receive gifts of food, drink, and sometimes money as well. And the rich had to let them in -- essentially hold 'open house.'"
- p 9

"The wassail usually possessed an aggressive edge -- often an explicit threat -- concerning the unpleasant consequences to follow fit he beggars' demands were not met."

From one wassail song:

We've come here to claim our right. . . .
And if you don't open up your door,
We will lay you flat upon the floor.
- p 10

David Quidnunc  •  Link


From Nissenbaum's "Battle for Christmas"):

"The generality of Christmas-keepers observe that festival after such a manner as is highly dishonourable to the name of Christ. How few are there comparitively that spend those holidays (as they are called) after an holy manner. But they are consumed in Compotations, in Interludes, in playing at Cards, in Revellings, in excess of Wine, in mad Mirth ..."

-- The Reverend Increase Mather, "A Testimony against Several Prophane and Superstitious Customs, Now Practiced by Some in New-England," London, 1687, p 35; quoted in Nissenbaum, pp 6-7

"[T]he Feast of Christ's Nativity is spent in Reveling, Dicing, Carding, Masking, and in all Licentious Liberty ... by Mad Mirth, by long Eating, by hard Drinking, by lewd Gaming, by rude Reveling ..."

-- The Reverend Cotton Mather (son of Increase Mather), "Grace Defended: A Censure on the Ungodliness, By Which the Glorious Grace of God, Is Too Commonly Abused," Boston, 1712, p 20; quoted in Nissenbaum, p 7

"Even an Anglican minister, a man who *approved* of 'keeping' Christmas (as it was then put), acknowledged the truth of the Puritans' charges. Writing in 1725, the Reverend Henry Bourne of Newcastle, England, called the way most people commonly behaved during the Christmas season 'a Scandal to Religion and an encouraging of Wickedness.' Bourne admitted that for Englishmen of the lower orders the Christmas season was merely 'a pretense for Drunkenness, and Rioting, and Wantonness.' ... As for singing Christmas carols, that practice was a 'disgrace,' since it was 'generally done, in the midst of Rioting and Chambering, and Wantonness.' ('Chambering' was a common euphemism for fornication.) It was another Anglican cleric, the sixteenth-century bishop Hugh Latimer, who put the matter most succinctly: 'Men dishonour Christ more in the twelve days of Christmas, than in all the twelve months besides.'"
- p 7 in Nissenbaum (quoting from various pages in Bourne's "Antiquitates Vulgares")

David Quidnunc  •  Link


Pages cited are from Nissenbaum's "Battle for Christmas":

"Legislation banning the celebration of Christmas was contested in many places even during the 1640s and 1650s, when Puritans controlled the government (there were riots in several towns) ..."
- p 13

"In England, Christmas was forbidden by Act of Parliament in 1644; the day was to be a fast and a market day; shops were compelled to be open; plum puddings and mince pies condemned as heathen. The conservatives resisted; at Canterbury blood was shed; but after the Restoration, Dissenters continued to call Yuletide 'Fooltide'."
-- "Christmas" entry in an online edition of the Catholic Encyclopedia (last paragraph)

"[T]he 1659 law passed by the Massachusetts Bay Colony ... levied a five-shilling fine on anyone who was 'found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way.' ... [and] remained in force until 1681, when it was repealed under pressure from London."
- pp 14-15

"Even among devout Puritans, there had never been complete unanimity about the need to deny that Christmas could be an occasion for legitimate religious observance. In England, in 1629, no less prominent a Puritan than John Milton wrote a Christmas poem, 'On the Morning of Christ's Nativity.' ... In Boston itself, on December 18, 1664, the young minister Increase Mather felt it necessary to deliver a sermon reinforcing the colony's official policy. The day after Mather delivered it, he was confronted by three of the wealthiest members of his own church, who demanded that he discuss the subject further with them. In his diary Mather recorded the argument with tantalizing brevity: 'Discoursed much about Christmas, I Con, they Pro.'"
- p 31

Susanna  •  Link

For an interesting study of the ways in which the Christmas season was celebrated in England during this period, I recommend the first 10 chapters of Ronald Hutton's "The Stations of the Sun: A History of the Ritual Year in Britain." Charles II would celebrate the season with balls, parties, dancing, and gambling, but not the elaborate masques of his father's day (they had gone out of fashion). Christmas dishes that are coming in to fashion include mincemeat pies, plum porridge, and hot spiced ale with apples floating in it ("lambswool").

Pauline  •  Link

David Q, thank you for the research and time in adding the above for us

Appears to be a holiday that will ever manage a disjoint between excess, joy, family, and religion. So I hope.

Australian Susan  •  Link

Plough Monday
Sam probably wouldn't celebrate this, but in the country, Plough Monday was the first day back at work for the rural labourers after two weeks of Chirstmas feasting, misrule, cakes and so on. Ploughs were dragged to churches on the Sunday after epiphany and blessed. Supposedly, they were then used the next day (Plough Monday), but surely you couldn't plough in frozen ground? Was this just a symbol? In Cheshire, in the '80s, the country church were I attended used to have an old horse-drawn plough brought into the church to be blessed (along with a new born lamb) and then the vicar processed out into the car park and blessed a tractor, driven there by a local farmer. I think this is a pagan relic and very little to do with Christianity (along with Yule logs, holly, ivy, mistletoe and boar's heads) - inter-village football matches on Boxing Day are also probably a pagan relic - and going on in Sam's time.

Paul Chapin  •  Link

Sorry to wander a bit off topic, but anyone who follows Pedro's link to the Plough Monday essay in the Book of Days should also read the fascinating article about lotteries which immediately precedes it. The author, writing in a time when there was no lottery, expressed amazement at the social behaviors surrounding it, behaviors which are very familiar to us today. And the article concludes with a description of financial practices that we know today as derivatives.

dirk  •  Link

Plough Monday

Still celebrated (in a way) in some parts of Flanders (northern part of Belgium) - although now the only part of the celebration that remains is the custom of serving "sausage bread". In Pepys time (and before) this day was more like a "Mardi gras", with lots of drinking and bands of men going from one pub to another untill they'd had their full. The guilds served a free meal to their members, consisting of sausages on a plate of hard bread, and of course nobody worked that day... which is why it was called "Lost Monday" ("Verloren Maandag" in Dutch).

Nowadays very few people are aware of the origins of the festival. All that has remained is the habit of eating a "sausage bread" (a sausage baked into a roll) - some pubs still serve you one for free on this day though.

Diana Bonebrake  •  Link

What topic? Just kidding

Rex Gordon  •  Link

Sam's Christmases ...

From L&M's Companion Volume:

Pepys's own Christmas may be taken as typical of the celebrations of the middle-class Londoner. His celebrations, too, express social obligations - in his case to family, neighbourhood and colleagues. All join in provided they live within easy reach. Even with old enemies like the Penns there was "much correspondence" at Christmas time.

The Christmas fare Pepys ate was much the same as ours - turkey, beef, mince pies and plum porridge. There were evergreen decorations (at any rate in public places); wassailers sang carols; the household played games until the small hours; theatres put on plays (though no recognisably modern pantomimes until 1717). The biggest difference was perhaps that the season had a shape - a beginning, a middle and an end. It began with a holy day; it had at its centre a festive day, New Year's Day, and it ended with a carnival, Twelfth Night. During the twelve days work did not entirely stop - Boxing Day was often a busy day for the Navy Board - but for most of the season it took second place to entertainment. For Pepys - with guests even for breakfast - it was a season of almost unending sociability.

Christmas Day itself was a quiet day for him. He usually spent it alone with his wife and always went to church. Once, in 1662, he almost went to communion. On Boxing Day (which he never refers to by that name - it did not then exist) he would distribute his "boxes" to tradesmen, porters and the like. The last days of the year were the time for paying bills, making up the old year's accounts and writing out the new year's vows. Placeholders at court exchanged presents and were in duty bound to give them to the King, but there was little present-giving between private individuals. (Slight spoilers are coming.) Pepys once gave a New Year's gift of gloves to his mistress, Doll Lane, and at New Year 1669 gave his wife a valuable walnut cabinet - probably a peace offering after *****(major spoiler omitted!)*****.

New Year's Day was the great day for feasting, but the climax came on Twelfth Night when guests were bidden to supper. Sometimes there was music and dancing; always there was the eating of the Twelfth Night cake in which (according to immemorial custom) a bean and a pea were concealed. The cake was divided so that one of the men got the bean and one of the women the pea. They then became the king and queen for the evening and ruled the revels until midnight, when the company dispersed and Christmas was over.

Christmas had been frowned on by the Puritans, but Cromwell's London was not Calvin's Geneva and little had been changed except for the abolition (itself never completely enforced) of the Prayer-Book service for Christmas Day. In describing his Christmases in the '60s Pepys never remarks on their being novel or different from those of the '50s.

Kate Bunting  •  Link

In answer to the questions about Father Christmas - The idea of a jolly figure personifying Christmas existed (there's a medieval carol "Sir Christemas"), but wasn't universal and didn't become linked to St. Nicholas and gift-bringing until the late 19th century.

Second Reading

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

The phrase “Merry Christmas” can be traced to the 16th century.

The earliest known greeting is found in a letter by an English Bishop, John Fisher, who wrote in his correspondence to Thomas Cromwell: “And this our Lord God send you a merry Christmas, and a comfortable, to your heart’s desire.”

Around the same time the carol “God Rest Ye Merry, Gentlemen” was written (although it was not published until the 18th century). The English vocabulary was different then, so “rest ye merry” did not mean to relax and be happy.

The word “rest” meant “to keep, cause to continue to remain,” and merry could mean happy, but also “bountiful” and “prosperous”.

So the opening line should be translated to, “[May] God keep you and continue to make you successful and prosperous, Gentlemen.” This definition of “merry” makes sense regarding the Nativity, which they believed brought great prosperity to the world through its salvation.

Note the comma in the carol must come after the word “merry”, as it would change the meaning if it were placed before. The comma after “merry” means, “God keep you prosperous, gentlemen.” When it comes before it means, “God keep you, prosperous gentlemen.”

It is a common mistake to move the comma, so this may help explain where the “Merry Christmas” greeting comes from.

The use of the phrase developed over several hundred years. What may be a greater mystery than where the greeting came from is that it is no longer what people say in Britain, where they tend to wish each other a “Happy Christmas.”

Perhaps by adding a unique descriptive term, one which we only use for Christmas, gives it a special feeling and gets Americans ready for the Christmas season – which traditionally is from December 24/25 to January 6. The addition of the American Thanksgiving as the start of the shopping and party season has changed the focus and stolen the meaning of Christmas.

The “prosperous” Merry continues to rule.

San Diego Sarah  •  Link

A conversation about the Puritan Christmas humbug practiced in 17th century New England contains this opinion:

"DH: The concern about Christmas is really a product of the Protestant Reformation. And Puritans have sometimes been referred to as a hotter sort of Protestant. So they're of a piece with reformed Protestants as they appear across the European continent and in Britain. But they are on a particular end of that spectrum in terms of the intensity of their commitment to certain Protestant principles.

"And some of those principles involve the active purification of the church from what they see as the vestiges of Catholicism, which they see as, in turn, vestiges of paganism. And so Christmas has this sort of double disadvantage, through Puritan eyes, being both a Catholic tradition — that the very word mass is in it, the mass being something that Puritans as a non-scriptural liturgy and form of worship. And not just was it a Catholic tradition, but it's a Catholic tradition that they saw as drawing its roots from pagan origins.

"HDS: In fact, when Puritans would sometimes talk about Christmas, they'd refer to it as yule, which was the Germanic tradition that predated Christianity. They were well aware of that. And so when they invoked those sort of pagan terms to describe the holiday, they were underscoring the connection of this Catholic tradition with non-Christian vestiges of a kind of European paganism.

"DH: And so this was the source of their concern. Puritans abided by what's sometimes been called the regulative principle of Biblicism, which is that not only do you need to do what the Bible enjoins you to do, but you should avoid establishing, as practices of spiritual significance, things that the Bible does not expressly endorse. And so the absence of Christmas in scripture was the primary source of the kind of Puritan concern about it and condemnation of it, that it is this non-scriptural practice that comes from places that they saw as antithetical to true and pure Christian devotion."

Later they talk about the Catholics allowing drinking and sports and appearing to tolerate some bad behaviors, and we know the many stories about how New Englanders did their best to regulate fun.

So it comes down to the fear of Catholicism again.

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