A Suspect Source in the Christmas Wars

One positive impact of the recent presidential election has been enhanced awareness of “fake” news and an emerging scrutiny of sources in general. Educators have been aware of the challenges in the information realm for a while, but it seems like a more general concern has emerged now, and this can only be good news. With time, I think we can tame the flood of fake words on the internet (or at least our reception of such stuff), but I am more concerned about images: they are potentially more impenetrable, and definitely more impactful. The problem is not just the images themselves, but the attribution that all-too-often accompanies them, or all-too-often does NOT. The phrase public domain covers a spectrum of sins, ranging from simple laziness to outright deception. A case in point is an image that has bothered me for a while now, as I simply cannot finds its source: I suspect it was crafted. It turns up quite a bit at this time of year, as it concerns the banning of Christmas in the mid-seventeenth century either here in Massachusetts or across the Atlantic in not-so-merry “old” England. Here it is, in characteristically fuzzy form from the Wikipedia entry on “The Christmas controversy” and in a variant form with “antiqued” edges which first popped up on a genealogical site. Both images are unattributed and have been shared tens of thousands of times.

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These images are featured in pat little articles about the “cancellation” of  Christmas in both New and old England: sometimes its place of publication and date is given as Boston, 1659 or 1660, and other times it is identified as a parliamentary proclamation that was “nailed to every tree in England” during the Cromwellian regime. Amazing! It’s just passed around with no scrutiny–or even curiosity. Several things bother me about this “document”: its appearance, its font, its composition–but most of all I am bothered by its absence from the English Short-Title Catalogue (ESTC), Early English Books Online, or Early American Imprints. I would love to stand corrected, but right now, I’m thinking this thing is an ephemeral imposter.

I’m not quite sure why someone would create this image as there are real historical documents that attest to the Puritan abhorrence of Christmas very vividly. Disorderly “Old Christmas” was a major flashpoint in mid-seventeenth-century England, between Reformers and “Papists”, Parliamentarians and Royalists. Everything about its observance–its date, its rituals, its length, its sheer revelry–were all major points of contention in a conflict that was religious, political, and cultural. After a war of words in the 1640s, Parliament did mandate that business as usual be conducted on December 25 in 1651, but there was considerable pushback, with more words and deeds. Likewise the Massachusetts Bay proclaimed a penalty for keeping Christmas in 1659, in a document which features some vaguely familiar words and phrases.

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Early English Books Online: Wing E2258; Massachusetts Historic Legal Documents and Laws, 1620-1799, Massachusetts Court System.

I’ve written about the Puritan disdain for Christmas both in general and as it pertained to Salem before (most recently here), and it is a pretty well-trodden field, but as I was searching (yet again) for this dubious document I uncovered several contemporary texts with which I was unfamiliar and can add even more context. In general, those under attack–the keepers of “Old Christmas” and “Christmas-mongers”– employ a wistful, humorous, satirical (and anonymous) defense of their holiday while the Puritans (as always!) are more strident in their opinions. Poor Father Christmas, forced to leave the country and come to (Puritan-dominated) London, where he was “arraigned, convicted and imprisoned”, but [fortunately] able to escape and get away “only left his hoary hair, and gray beard, sticking between two iron bars of a window”. The debate between Mistresses “Custome” and “New-Come” over the keeping of Christmas in Women will have their Will: or, Give Christmas his Due is a perfect expression of the power of custom–I’m going to use this one in class. Robert Skinner’s Christs Birth Misse-timed illustrates the Puritan concern about the dating of Christmas, more attuned to pagan traditions than biblical ones, and finally, Samuel Chidley’s Christian Plea against Chrissmass, and an Outcry against Chrismas-mongers is probably the most forceful indictment of Christmas merriment I have ever read. Appealing to Lord Protector Cromwell to be more vigorous in the repression of revels, Chidley asserts that the “Christmas-mongers” serve not Christ, but their own bellies. For Christ was not as they set him forth to be. He was no Mass-monger or belly God. No drunkard. He wanted neither cards, dice, nor tables to play with, to pass away the time, nor Lord of mis-rule to take his place. He needed no new Games to make him merry, no Holly or Ivy to dress his windows, nor mistletoe to conjure his lovers, nor other toys to please his fancy, or blindfolded fools, or Hot Cockle payers to make him sport. Wow! Great stuff–again, no need to make anything up. And the fact that Chidley is appealing to Cromwell at this relatively late date is a strong indication of the Protectorate’s failure to put down “old” Christmas: in just four short years the more merry Stuarts would be restored.

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Christmas Lamentation, /For the losse of his Acquaintance, showing how he is forst to leaue the/ Country, and Come to London. ESTC S108691;  The Arraignment, Conviction and Imprisoning of Chrismas on St. Thomas Day las. ESTC R200516; Women will have their Will: or, Give Christmas his Due. ESTC R208164; Christs Birth Misse-timed. ESTC R205570;  A Christian Plea against Chrissmass. ESTC R173825.


3 responses to “A Suspect Source in the Christmas Wars

  • mfearing

    Fascinating. It’s interesting that ‘fake’ news is getting so many headlines but from my memory of history there is a long history of ‘fake news’ causing issues all the way back to ancient Greece. Of course now it is disseminated in a heartbeat. But there is also a desire, a thirst for scandal and intrigue and secrets. Real news so rarely lives up to the adrenalin rush of a ‘good’ fake news story. Fake news plays a role like any piece of fiction – it creates a reaction with the reader and allows them to ‘connect’ a few more filaments in their life. It creates ‘ah-ha!’ moments like any screenplay does in its third act. It’s a combination of performance art and early 19th century traveling medicine man trickery. And people’s lack of critical thinking about such things scares me daily.

    Like

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