Tag Archives: Stuart England

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I’m not quite sure why someone would create this image as there are real historical documents that attest to the Puritan abhorrence of Christmas very vividly.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.


Anxious Apparitions

As part of a larger project I’m working on, I have spent the past few weeks reading stories about seventeenth-century apparitions. In general, they are not a very scary bunch, but they are anxious, because they’ve definitely got a role to play, in quite a theatrical sense. Ghosts either have a message for those they appear before–generally a warning–or they themselves have suffered a violent death and thus their appearance is a “wonderful token of their disquiet”. The English Civil War is a golden age for ghosts: fourteenth-century rebels Wat Tyler and Jack Straw appear to warn the rebellious Parlementarians along with the more recently-deceased King James. Only the slain (by either the Royalists OR his former commander Oliver Cromwell’s agents) Colonel Rainsborough has personal reasons for being so anxious. At the end of the interregnum, Cromwell himself appears, just after his own fateful death. All of these revolutionary ghosts are easily-recognizable in their top-knotted shrouds or “winding sheets” (so this is great material evidence for burial customs, yes?), and they have a lot to say.

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There are some non-political, non-celebratory ghost appearances too, wonders, signs and portents to those that who see them as well as the larger community. Sometimes their appearance is very personal, but it always seems to be a public concern. In Strange and True News from Long-Alley in More-Fields, Southwark (1661) we read about the wonderful and miraculous appearance of the Ghost of Griffin Davis at the house of Mr. Watkins in Long-Alley; to see his Daughter Susan Davis, taking her by the hand at Noon-day and in the Night uttering such terrigle groans and hideous cries, that many neighbors have been too frightened, they are daily forced to remove their lodgings, with the several speeches between them, and how she and the maid were both flung down stairs by him….lots of details but we never really get WHY the ghost of Mr. Davis is so very agitated. His story is combined with that of the very popular Powel ghost as well as that of Jane Morris, a Wakefield widow who was alive but ghostlike in her behavior. The ghosts of the later seventeenth century don’t seem to have the same missions as their counterparts from earlier eras (and they have lost their shrouds) but they are still anxious. By the end of the century, if not before, ghosts turn up in ballads, rendering them slightly less serious but still not the satirical characters they will become a century later.

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Seventeenth-century ghosts:

 The just reward of Rebels, or the life and death of Jack Straw, and Wat Tyler … whereunto is added the Ghost of Jack Straw. London: printed for F. Couls, I. Wright, T. Banks, and T. Bates, 1642.

Strange Apparitions, or The Ghost of King James, : with a Late Conference between the Ghost of That Good King, the Marquesse Hameltons, and George Eglishams, Doctor of Physick, unto Which Appeared the Ghost of the Late Duke of Buckingham Concerning the Death and Poisoning of King James and the Rest. London: Printed for J. Aston, 1642.
 Colonell Rainsborowes ghost or, a true relation of the manner of his death, who was murthered in his bed-chamber at Doncaster, by three of Pontefract souldiers who pretended that they had letters from Leiutenant Generall Cromwell, to deliver unto him. To the tune of, My bleeding heart with griefe and care. London, 1648.
The World in a Maize, or, Olivers Ghost. London, Printed in the year, 1659.
Strange and True Newes from Long-Alley in More-Fields, Southwark, and Wakefield in York-Shires.  London: Printed for John Johnson, 1661
Sad and Wonderful Newes from the Faucon at the Bank-Side. London: printed for George Horton, 1661.
An answer to the unfortunate lady who hanged herself in dispair. London: Printed for P. Brooksby, J. Deacon, J. Blare and J. Black, 1684.
All accessed via Early English Books Online

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