Christmas on Trial: Frances Hardinge Invites You to a Seventeenth Century Yuletide

Posted on 20th December 2017 by Martha Greengrass

Forget pudding, carol-singing and cosy nights by the fire, welcome to the twelve day feast of yuletide; a time of excess and hedonistic pursuits overseen not by jolly St Nick but by the devlish Lord of Misrule. As Makepeace, the heroine of the darkly atmopsheric mystery, A Skinful of Shadows, knows only too well, Christmas is a dangerous time for a country in the midst of Civil War and bitter religious division. Here, the novel's author Frances Hardinge introduces readers to the wild, hedonistic danger of a 17th Century English Christmas.

At one point in my latest book, A Skinful of Shadows, my heroine Makepeace labours in a manor house kitchen, helping create a lavish feast for Twelfth Night. It will be the maddest, most hedonistic day of Christmastide – and perhaps a chance for her to escape the home that is also her prison...

The story is set at the very start of the English Civil War. Unbeknownst to Makepeace, or her real counterparts, a few years later Christmas itself would be banned.

In the 1640s Christmas wasn’t cosy. It was dangerously controversial. The holiday was notorious for excess, licence, misrule, and turning the social order on its head. The more austere Protestants saw the whole festival as perilous to the soul – too Popish, too heathen, too worldly in its joys.

Diane Purkiss’s brilliant Civil War: A People’s History has a particularly fine chapter called “The War Over Christmas”. Christmas did indeed become one of the most bizarre battlefields of the Civil War.

Christmastide was a sprawling twelve days’ holiday, staring on Christmas Day itself. Twelfth Night was the holiday’s last hurrah, marked by the biggest, wildest feast. A great cake with a bean hidden in it was cut up and distributed to all, and whoever found the bean in their slice became King of the Feast. For a little while the lowly winner had a taste of lordship. 

Then order was resumed. The first Monday after Twelfth Night was Plough Monday, when ploughing restarted.  

In muttering about the ‘heathen’ nature of Christmas, the Puritans had a point. The timing was suspiciously similar to that of pre-Christian Midwinter festivals like Saturnalia. Like those, Christmas defied the darkest, most barren time of the year with feasting, merriment and light. The practice of decking rooms with holly, ivy and rosemary, and dragging in a log to be burnt for the full twelve days, also had distinctly pagan overtones.

As if heathen trappings weren’t enough, there was the heady seduction of food and drink, in beautiful, wanton excess.

Tables of rich households were weighed down with capons (neutered male chickens), roast swan, goose pies, jellies, creams, fools and tarts. Turkey was on the rise, but nestled alongside teal, curlews, larks and woodcocks. ‘Plum porridge’ was a soupy mixture of meat, dried fruit, breadcrumbs, spices and alcohol, not yet as dense as our Christmas puddings. The ‘minced pie’ or ‘Christmas Pye’ (complete with real minced meat) was usually large rather than palm-sized. There might be a ‘Grand Sallet’, a rather un-salad-like dish lavished with almonds, figs, currants, olive oil and sugar.

Traditionally a boar’s head was a show of status, but wild boar had become very rare, despite attempts by Charles I to reintroduce them. Often people instead used brawn (flesh from a pig’s head) forced into a boar’s head shape using a mould.

The lords of the manor were expected to open their doors to their tenants on Twelfth Night, allowing them a rare taste of the luxuries of the rich. Indeed, the poor could turn up at their houses and demand meat and drink. 

Wassailers were usually rowdy bunches of youths turning up at the gates of their ‘betters’ to clamour for hospitality. They were often given ‘lambswool’, a hot spiced ale with added roast apples, eggs, sugar, nutmeg, cloves and ginger. (Its name apparently came from the apple flesh, which took on a fluffy look like lamb’s wool.)

Some wassail songs hinted at trick-or-treaterish revenge if the singers were turned away. ‘We wish you a Merry Christmas’ demands refreshments and adds ‘and we won’t go until we’ve got some’. The jovial menace is less subtle in another wassail song:

We’ve come here to claim our right
And if you don’t open up your door
We will lay you flat on the floor.

The threat wasn’t entirely empty. Occasionally spurned wassailers resorted to vandalism or looting.

Mummers and morris men also brought their own brand of mischief and disguise into the household. Revellers sometimes cross-dressed, or blackened their faces with soot. This was a magical, subversive night where one could be somebody or something else with impunity.

Enthusiastic Twelfth Night gambling caused a lot of tutting amongst the devout. Dice was popular, as were card games like post and pair (a three stake game resembling a cross between poker and blackjack).

People also played blind man’s buff, hide-and-seek and ‘Hot Cockles’, which involved one person resting their head in someone’s lap - a rather intimate alternative to a blindfold - while everyone else took turns striking them from behind. Their victim had to guess who was hitting them. (In some versions they were struck on the nether regions rather than the back, so this painful-sounding game presumably got a bit racy sometimes.)

Another game involved dangling a stick from a roof beam by a thread, with a lit candle fixed to one end of the stick and an apple to the other. Participants tried to bite into the apple, without the stick spinning round and the candle burning off their eyebrows. Other games had intriguing names like “Shooing the Wild Mare” and “Feed the Dove”.

A ‘Father Christmas of sorts had started to crop up in plays and masques, but he wasn’t the red-robed, gift-toting moral arbiter we would recognise. “Sir Christmas”, “Captain Christmas” or “Old Christmas” was an embodiment of the festival, with all its unruly cheer. He didn’t have much to do with St Nicholas, children, or the birth of Christ for that matter. And he really didn’t care whether you’d been naughty. 

In Ben Jonson’s masque for the royal court, Christmas His Masque, old Christmas is rowdy and gregarious, and leads in his ‘children’ Cupid, Misrule, Carol, Mince Pie, Gambol, Post-and-Pan, New Years Gift, Mumming, Wassail, and Baby Cake – all kinds of earthy, rumbustious fun. He knows he’s disreputable and a bit suspect, and has to spend the first couple of minutes arguing his way in past the guards.

This personification of Christmas had a lot more in common with the traditional ‘Lord of Misrule’ or the ‘King of the Feast’. During his little reign, the rules about gluttony, drunkenness, gambling and mischief were all relaxed, and hierarchies were turned upside-down.

Needless to say, the Puritans hated him and everything he stood for. 

As religious and political cracks became craters, and civil war broke out, Christmas was caught in the crossfire, and found itself firmly on the Royalist side. 

When Christmas was at last banned by victorious Parliament, it didn’t go down without a fight. In some cities, crowds of pro-Christmas rioters marauded through the streets, smashing shops that had dared to open, and violently defending public Christmas decorations.

Warring tracts arguing for and against Christmas used Father Christmas to make their points. In An Hue and Cry after Christmas, he is portrayed as a scurrilous old traitor who has been arrested and imprisoned, but has escaped and gone on the lam, leaving his hair and beard caught between the prison bars. The Royalist pro-Christmas faction retaliated by portraying him as a poor, maligned old man who just wanted to bring everyone cheer. 

In 1868, long after the monarchy and Christmas had both been restored, another pamphlet called The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas saw Father Christmas on trial again. Droves of the poor push forward to testify in his defence, speaking of the joys he has brought to their lives in dark days.

This time, poor, long-suffering Christmas was acquitted.


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