Monday, December 12, 2011

The Man who Saved Christmas

In keeping with the season my first Historical Hearts blog has a Christmas theme.

As I said in my introduction to Historical Hearts my passion is the seventeenth century and in particular the English Civil War. In the years between the execution of Charles I (January 1649) and the Restoration of Charles II (known as the Interregnum), England was "ruled" by the puritans. Theatre, dancing, music - in fact most things that would be considered fun were frowned upon and banned and Christmas, that happiest of feast days, fell victim to the puritan edicts.

To the puritans the traditional merriment with the attendant drinking, feasting, frivolity and idleness that accompanied Christmas smacked not only of paganism, but (worse!) of Roman Catholicism (Christ's MASS). The tenet of puritan belief was that worship and devotion should be "pure" - based solely on the Scriptures. The Scriptures, of course, were silent on the celebration of Christmas, particularly with mummers, wassailing and carol singing. Oliver Cromwell is generally credited with the edict "banning" Chrismas but, in fact, it predated his rule.

frowning puritan
In 1645, a “Directory of Public Worship” was produced in Westminster to replace the prayer book.
"...THERE is no day commanded in scripture to be kept holy under the gospel but the Lord's day, which is the Christian Sabbath. Festival days, vulgarly called Holy-days, having no warrant in the word of God, are not to be continued."

In 1647 the parliament passed an ordinance abolishing the feasts of Christmas, Whitsun and Easter
"...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 notwithstanding..."

In 1652 this was taken further with a specific ordinance ordering shops and businesses to remain open on 25th December .
"Refolved by the Parliament...That the Markets be kept to Morrow, being the Five and twentieth day of December; And that the Lord Mayor, and Sheriffs of London and Middlefex, and the Iustices of the Peace for the City of London and Weftminster and Liberties thereof , do take care, That all such perfons as fhall open their Shops on that day, be protected from Wrong or Violence, and the offenders be punifhed.
Refolved by the Parliament...That no Obfervations shall be had of the Five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Chriftmas-Day; nor any solemnity ufed or exercifed in Churches upon that day upon that day in refpect thereof..."

William Winstanley
Christmas had been well and truly outlawed! Punishment for contravening this ordinance meant heavy fines and being placed in the stocks but many people still covertly celebrated the Nativity behind closed doors. 
In Essex, a barber turned poet called William Winstanley and his family lived in a Tudor farmhouse called, appropriately, "The Berries". Every Christmas day clandestine celebrations went on behind the closed doors of the Winstanley home. William wrote in his diary that he believed it was the duty of all Christians to celebrate the birth of their Saviour, with joyous festivity and open-handed generosity towards friends, relations and more especially the poor.

With the return of the monarchy in 1660 the Christmas ban was lifted, although, not surprisingly, after so many years it took some time for it to return to its familiar time of carousing and good cheer and the person who almost singlehandedly became responsible for restoring it to its proper place was no less than William Winstanley, our Essex barber.  Winstanley, writing as the poet Poor Robin Goodfellow, extolled the magic of Christmas. His wealthy patrons at court lobbied the King to set an example of hospitality and merriment. Christmas, Winstanley wrote, was a time for helping the poor and destitute and providing everyone with a happy time in the depths of winter. 

Winstanley kept up a relentless pro-Christmas propoganda for the next twenty years. He wrote about the holly and the ivy, the roaring log fires, the games, the music and the dancing, the food ("chines of beef, turkeys, geese, ducks and capons...minc'd pies, plumb puddings and frumenty...") and of course the carolling  (old favourites such as God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and I Saw Three Ships). According to Winstanley Christmas should last 12 days with gift giving on New Year's Day. 

By the 1680s Winstanley's Christmas had been restored in the form that we celebrate it today. Winstanley died in 1698, only a few days before Christmas.

So this Christmas time as we gather together with our families and share our "chines of turkey" and eat "mince pies" and sing the beloved old Christmas carols, spare a thought for William Winstanley, without whom we may have no Christmas. 

In  the spirit of the season I would like to share my own Christmas pudding recipe -  a genuine seventeenth century recipe. As I write my two puddings are simmering on the stove and the smell that is so uniquely Christmas is drifting up the stairs. Thank you Mr. Winstanley!


250g flour
1 tsp nutmeg
250g suet
1 tsp cinnamon
250g dark (Barbados) sugar
250g each of sultanas, raisins, currants and mixed peel
250g grated new carrot
100 slivered blanched almonds
250g grated raw potato
1 large wineglass of brandy or sherry
3 or 4 tsp mixed spice

  1.  Mix all ingredients thoroughly and put in greased basins, covered with greaseproof paper and a cloth.
  2. Steam for 8 hours.
  3. Cool and change cloth.
  4. 4.       Re-steam for 3 hours and serve with brandy butter, custard etc.

Notes:  Can be made not too long in advance and it can be frozen. It makes one large and one small  wonderful, dark, very rich pudding!

For more information on 
William Winstanley:  see the biography by Alison Barnes William Winstanley...the Man who Saved Christmas
The puritans and Christmas: see Anita Davison's blog The Puritans and Christmas on the Hoydens and Firebrands blog


Elle Fynllay said...

Hi Alison,
I had no idea Christmas was at one period in time, banned. How awful! I think I will have a private toast to William Winstanley on Christmas Day. One of the upsides of Christmas shopping is to go into a shop and hear the carols being played and there is always some one singing or humming along.
Thanks for some lovely Christmas history, Alison

C.J. Archer said...

Banning Christmas!! No wonder Puritan rule didn't last. Thank goodness for William Winstanley (although my bank balance doesn't thank him).

Your Christmas pudding recipe looks delicious, Alison. My mother makes one every year using her grandmother's old recipe. It's a family tradition and tastes yummy with brandy butter.

Maggi Andersen said...

Great post, Alison. I can smell that pudding!

Suzi said...

Thanks so much for the great historical Christmas info.
Would this be a good time to mention that Oliver Cromwell is my many-times-great uncle? NO?
I'm also pleased that William Winstanley brought back Christmas, because I adore all the fun and festivity.

Alison Stuart said...

C.J. and Elle...what I found so interesting was that after 18 years, nobody seemed to miss it and WW had quite a job convincing the world how wonderful it had been and what a special time of year it was! How sad.

We owe Mr. Winstanley a great debt.

Alison Stuart said...

Suzi...No! Really? I am reputedly descended from one of the regicides (Sir Michael Livesey) but we think that is more legend than fact.

I did a blog about him at Hoydens and Firebrands:

However my two published heroes are both royalist ("wrong but wromantic" to quote 1066 and All That) and I'm not sure where my own sympathies lie!

Allison Butler said...

Hi Alison,

Thanks for the fascinating post about Christmas at a particular time in history.
Huge THANKS William Winstanely. For continuing to celebrate in secret and for restoring Christmas to us:)

Cheryl Leigh said...

Fascinating post, Alison! I didn't know about gift giving on New Year's Day. Was that put into practice or was that just one of Winstanley's wishes?

Suzi, you're related to Oliver Cromwell? Wow!!

Alison Stuart said...

Cheryl..others can correct me if I'm wrong but I believe there is a tradition of gift giving on New Year's Day in some European cultures. (It also tranlates into Asian culture where it is traditonal to give Hong Bao on Chinese New Year).

From a Christian point of view the tradition of gift giving goes back to the three wise men who certainly weren't present at the nativity but turned up some time later so perhaps this is why Winstanley saw it as more appropriate to ring in the New Year with gift giving.

Winstanley was a firm believer in celebrating every day of the twelve days of Christmas, finishing up with a magnificent banquet of roast swan preceded by singing wassail songs around the tallest apple tree in the orchard and dousing its roots with cider for good luck (Anyone beginnng to side with the puritans here?).

Would love to hear other suggestions.


Carin said...

I love all Christmas traditions in London...Good post!

Anonymous said...

Alison how fascinating.
And Here here to Mr Winstanley! It is hard to imagine no Christmas, but alas I wonder are we about to have a turn around in the 21st Century!!What with Happy holidays and many schools banning christian greetings and gift giving etc, already.
I guess some traditions are not meant to be forever?

Anonymous said...

Lots of great facts of interest Alison. Thanks ...
and Here's to Mr Winstanley. But I'm wondering if all traditions are meant to be forever!
Alas the tide is changing again and will Christmas once again be a part of our past. Already there are public institutions where there is no longer the joy of gift giving, carols or holy and joyous decorations made.
Who knows what will become of the Holiday Season.
A sad thought that would have Mr Winstanley wondering if it was all for nothing?
Loved your post :)

Anonymous said...

Great blog, Alison, and I'm definitely going to try out your recipe! Your info about Puritans got me thinking, though .... I recently had the (mis)fortune to watch the movie 'Anonymous' (a.k.a. Shakespeare was a fraud), and it cast the bad guys - Elizabeth I's advisors William Cecil and son - as Puritans. Quite aside from the horribly demeaning portrayal of Elizabeth herself, and the fact that Puritans didn't exist before Elizabeth's reign, what bugged me was the simplistic and oft-repeated equation of Puritan=bad guys! (Yep, I'm having a minor rant here.) Now I'm not saying I'm in favour of banning Christmas, and I appreciate Mr Winstanley's efforts, but the Puritans did have a certain textual validity on their side. Well, I'm off to stick up some Christmas decorations and wrap a present or two, but I have to admit to a lurking sympathy to the Puritans in the face of their modern persection on film!
Carol Hoggart
(would-be historical novelist)

Alison Stuart said...

Mary De. Poor William would be aghast at our modern take on Christmas. At the heart of his belief was that it was a season where we should give to others more fortunate than ourselves and I think we have lost that message.

My friend writer, Anita Davison in the UK has written a lovely blog on why Christmas doesn't feel Christmassy any more.

Alison Stuart said...

Anon and Mary De. There is no doubt the puritans get very bad press (if you recall 1066 and All That...the cavaliers were Wrong but Wromatic and the roundheads Right but Repulsive). They believed in the purity of the word of the lord and there are worse things in this world to believe in!

Cromwell, in fact, rather liked a little music and dancing and portraits of his daughters done during the interregnum show them all done up in silks, satins and pearls.
In fact he practised a wider range of religious tolerance than his royal predecessor or any of the Kings who came after him. Unfortunately there were extremists and as in any society, when they got their hands on power, they exercised their view of the world.
The political debates of the period, such as the Putney debates, reveal a wide range of political views that would appear quite modern today.
It's a fascinating, and misunderstood, period of our history!

Cassandra Samuels said...

Thanks for that post Alison. It's amazing to think there was nearly 2 decades where christmas wasn't celebrated. Merry Christmas everyone!!