"Doing It Wrong" Christmas History, Or Me Wishing You A Merry Everything

I'm actually having a good time with this article - but confession, I do love the story of how the Puritans try to get rid of Christmas, and fail in the long term because people like to celebrate something they're used to celebrating. 


No Christmas Under Cromwell? The Puritan Assault on Christmas during the 1640s and 1650s

History Extra, Dec 2013


"...So strong was the popular attachment to the old festivities, indeed, that during the postwar period a number of pro-Christmas riots occurred. In December 1646, for example, a group of young men at Bury St Edmunds threatened local tradesmen who had dared to open their shops on Christmas Day, and were only dispersed by the town magistrates after a bloody scuffle.


[1647:] ...In London, a crowd of apprentices assembled at Cornhill on Christmas Day, and there “in despite of authority, they set up Holly and Ivy” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit. When the lord mayor despatched some officers “to pull down these gawds,” the apprentices resisted them, forcing the mayor to rush to the scene with a party of soldiers and to break up the demonstration by force."


I should add that the Presbyterians were in there too with the Scroogery, but frankly there was quite a bit of "there's only one way to do X religious thing" attitude flung around by certain groups in those days - same as now. (Skip this and the next paragraph if you want to get on with the 1600s and avoid this "hey, it's topical!" bit. I'll never know.) The US has a weird "War on Christmas" myth at the moment - a chunk of which is mostly media driven. There are no huge bands of protesters, and the same people that will rudely berate someone at the cash register for saying "happy holidays" would rant at them for many other things anyway - those folk never clue into the fact that the person at the register doesn't make the rules. (Personally I think most of these folks don't bother to actually read the book they're using to justify all this bossiness, but that's my opinion.)


In fact one thing to notice when anyone starts pontificating on "not doing it right" at this time of year - see how few of them focus on the fact that those shops are open all the time, and not everyone is getting a day off, no matter how those working folk celebrate or what they celebrate. It's the same mindset that has only food stamps going to "deserving poor" and health care as not a necessity to all. Anyway this is where I try and go out of my way to be extra polite to people in retail, because they deal with some of the worst society dishes out and are supposed to smile in response.


Meanwhile, back in the 1600s London, one of the people upset with Christmas being taken away was John Taylor - who I had a bit of time finding in wikipedia, as there are masses of John Taylors. Until you know he's a poet you're lost. Anyway the History Extra link mentions him and some of his publications, specifically: The Complaint of Christmas and The Vindication of Christmas (1652). Granted both of these are pamphlets (not always stuff that's collected/kept) and not books, but with that date you'd think they'd be easier to find online, right? Well unless you figure out that Taylor is a poet and not an author/journalist/etc., good luck. His works on Christmas are cited a LOT in various articles - but then those are what pops up, and not the originals.


[Imagine brief rant here where I despair at the fact that on the first page of a search for those I'm getting someone's pinterest of the first page of the pamphlet and someone else's twitter cite. But no primary sources, or anything much on John Taylor. Sigh.]


But in all the secondary sources I did track down this link;


Works of John Taylor, the Water Poet, Issue 21 - The Complaint of Christmas

By John Taylor

Free ebook thanks to Google


Loads of other stuff in that text, I'm still rooting about in it. And this was before I had the correct wikipedia page (and figured out to search The Water Poet for Taylor). Also I haven't checked Gutenberg yet - I did need to actually stop and write something. Anyway if you're interested, that'll set you off.


Now, do I recommend you rush and read that because it's fascinating? Well, not exactly - but it's way more readable than a lot of the stuff from the 1600s, which I admit can get tedious. (Especially if the part about the letter f and the letter s being interchangable bugs you.) Honestly you can get the gist in that History Extra article. But it's not just about religion, it's also a political pamphlet, an opinion piece - and behind all those pro-Christmas things you'll read you should also remember that it was in the Royalists best interest that people remember who was keeping them from celebrating, and that the other side was pro-Christmas, so hey, don't you want those old rulers back?


Short version: It's not new that Christmas gets political. This isn't terrible, just keep an eye on it, and realize that. With the long, long history of how this particular holiday was celebrated, people who get fixated on "how to do it right" haven't figured out that there are hundreds of years of ways of celebrating at this point. It's flexible as to how to celebrate, and even exactly what is being celebrated isn't always clear.


Another short version: go celebrate how you want, with who you want. Even if all you want to celebrate is a few days off of work or school. Enjoy yourselves and whoever you choose to share your time with. 


That's my wish to you all anyway!


[If I could doodle accurately I'd add a sketch of Puritans in a cage match - Thunderdome! - with Dickens's Spirit of Christmas Present, just to mash things up a bit.]