Thursday, 17 December 2009

Christmas in England: Another View

Also see this history by John Storey.

From A Dictionary of English Folklore (Oxford: Oxford University Press: 2000):
Christmas has a complex and much debated history. There is no scriptural clue to the date of Christ’s birth; the Early Church celebrated it (if at all) on 6 January, and the first document setting it on 25 December is a Roman calendar of AD 354. Possibly it was a conscious takeover of a Roman festival, ‘The Birthday of the Unconquered Sun’, honouring Mithras and other sun-gods. This dating had become standard throughout Western Europe well before Augustine’s mission to England; it was not devised to match Anglo-Saxon midwinter festivals. The Council of Tours (AD 567) ruled that the twelve days from the Nativity to the Epiphany would be a work-free period of religious celebration, and this became English law in AD 877. The word ‘Christmas’ itself only appears in 1038; previously the festival period had been called Yule, a native word for the midwinter season.

Medieval manorial records show villeins were not required to work during the Twelve Days; the lord of the manor provided a communal feast, and his tenants and subjects gave him gifts, normally farm produce. The pattern was varied; some wealthy landowners apparently kept open house, feeding and entertaining all comers, while others concentrated on their own local people. By Tudor times, Christmas at court and on the estates of the nobility was characterized by increasingly splendid banquets, balls, plays, masques, and mummings, often co-ordinated by a ‘Lord of Misrule’.

This official (also found at Oxford and Cambridge Colleges, the Inns of Court, and some civic corporations, such as the City of London) combined the roles of planning committee, master of ceremonies, jester, and mock king; sometimes he was accompanied (or replaced) by an Abbot of Unreason, who parodied the Church in the same way as the Lord parodied the court. They are first mentioned (under various titles) in the 15th century, and were conspicuous at the courts of Henry VIII and Edward VI; at the accession of Mary (1553) they vanished from the court, and rapidly went out of fashion elsewhere, except among young men at the universities and Inns of Court. A far less expensive domestic equivalent, the ‘King of the Bean’ chosen by lot on Twelfth Night, remained popular. To Victorians, the Lord of Misrule, despite his relatively brief and socially exclusive existence, came to symbolize a jovial role-reversal for which there is little or no evidence.

Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries Puritans waged a well-documented campaign against saints’ days and other religious festivals, as unscriptural and as encouraging gluttony, drunkenness, sexual licence, and public disorder. In the 1640s Christmas became a major target; in June 1647 Parliament finally banned Easter, Whitsun, and Christmas, but each successive year of the Puritan reign saw major disturbances in various parts of the country, and increasingly draconian enforcement. John Evelyn’s Diary for 25 December 1657 records his own arrest for attending a Communion service in London: ‘. . . the Chapell was surrounded with souldiers; all the communicants and assembly surpriz’d & kept prisoners by them . . . These wretched miscreants held their muskets against us as we came up to receive the Sacred Elements, as if they would have shot us at the altar . . .’ This policy proved counter-productive; the fate of Christmas became a rallying-point for anti-Puritan feeling, and a symbol of lost freedoms. After the Restoration most aspects of the celebration were revived, though with wide variations in the degree of lavishness even by the wealthy. As the festival was now no longer a bone of contention, documentary sources become fewer.

The diaries of 18th- and early 19th-century rural clergy take little notice of Christmas, though regularly noting money distributed to the poor around this time. Bell-ringing is sometimes mentioned, and drunkenness complained of. The tradition of charitable hospitality was still strong; thus William Holland, a Somerset parson, on 25 December 1799, had:
dinner by myself on spratts and fine woodcock. The kitchen was tolerably well lined with my poor neighbours, workmen, &c. Many of them staid till past ten o’clock and sang very melodiously. Sent half-a-crown to our Church Musicians who had serenaded the family this cold morning at five o’clock. (Holland, ed. Jack Ayres, 1984)
Many traditional visiting customs occurred at this season: mumming of various kinds, sword dancing, Hooden Horses, Old Tup, Plough Stots, wassailing, and waits. This concentration may reflect the importance of midwinter festivals in the remote past, but practical factors were important too; there was a lull in farmwork, potential audiences had gathered in gentry households, and the tradition of Christmas hospitality and generosity ensured a good welcome for performers. At least one custom, thomasing, was specifically aimed at soliciting alms.

What is regarded as the archetypal Christmas was forged in the second half of the 19th century by popular writers such as Charles Dickens and Washington Irving, using a combination of indigenous elements, imported ones, and new ones, in response to a widespread opinion that Christmas was no longer what it had once been, and something should be done. Their reinvention harked back to a romantic ideal of the lost golden age of ‘Merrie England’ -- perhaps specifically to Walter Scott’s description of a medieval baron’s Christmas in his best-selling poem Marmion (1808). Key elements in their vision were the Lord of Misrule, Boar’s Head, Yule Log, and the squire’s lavish display of hospitality in his ‘baronial hall’. Models for more homely celebration were sometimes sought abroad. As early as 1821 a correspondent in the Gentleman’s Magazine (pp. 505–8) praised a Christmas custom in the north of Germany ‘which cannot be too strongly recommended and encouraged in our own country’: children make or buy little presents for their parents and each other, which they lay out on Christmas Eve under ‘a great yew bough’ in the parlour, decked with tapers and streamers; next day the parents bring presents for the children. Written twelve years before Victoria married Albert, this shows court influence was not the only route by which German models impinged on English customs.

This ‘new’ Christmas evolved gradually by an astute combination of existing elements (e.g. carols, mince-pies, holly and mistletoe, candles, ample food and drink, hospitality to neighbours) with recent importations and inventions (presents, crackers, turkey, greetings cards, the tree, Father Christmas/Santa Claus as gift-bringer), each of which has its own history. [...] But many of these took a long time to filter down to the poorer sections of society; it can be argued that the ‘Victorian’ Christmas only became truly the norm after the Second World War.

Some commentators describe this reinvention as if it had been consciously aimed at taming the working classes and imposing ‘respectability’ on their boisterous and drunken traditions. Concern for public morals was certainly one factor, but commercialism was powerful too; cheap illustrated periodicals spread the fashion, and industry was eager to supply cards, toys, and other presents. It is significant that the new elements are conspicuously secular; the stress on charity was the only one with real religious underpinnings.

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