christmas was banned in scotland -- 12/6/19

Today's selection -- from Christmas A Biography by Judith Flanders. The Christmas traditions held by early European emigrants varied. Some English and Scottish emigrants may not have kept Christmas at all for political reasons:

"Earlier emigrants from the British Isles and France to the colonies in North America had taken the customs of their home countries with them. In the south, particularly in what was to become Virginia, the settlers were mostly adherents of the mainstream Church of England, and they observed Christmas as they had at home. Captain John Smith, of the Virginia Company that settled at Jamestown, spent December of 1608 among the Algonquian, 'where we were never more merry, nor fed on more plenty of good Oysters, Fish, Flesh, Wilde foule, and good bread, nor never had better fires in England'. Even in a wilderness setting, Christmas continued to be food, warmth and good company.

"In the north-east, as the Mayflower travellers arrived in what would become Massachusetts, the holiday was to become contested ground. On the settlers' first Christmas in 1620, a mere six weeks after landing, work was obliga­tory, not for religious reasons but for survival. The emigrants were still living on board ship, and on the 25th 'we went on shore, some to fell tymber, some to saw . . . and some to carry; so no man rested all day'. On that day, they 'begane to erecte ye first house for commone use'.

"Once shelter was no longer a pressing matter, however, fewer allowances were made. Yet the religious dissidents who had fled England and then the Netherlands in search of freedom of worship numbered just forty-one when they departed the Old World (seventeen men, ten women and fourteen children). They were heavily outnumbered by sixty-one other passengers, some servants of the Pilgrims, but many others simply hoping to find a new life in a new world. They had no interest in religious quarrels.

"Thus, when some residents of the, colony excused themselves from work on Christmas Day in that second year, professing 'it wente against their consciences to work on that day', it is likely that they were those 'strangers' who had also travelled on the Mayflower. Certainly the colony's governor, William Bradford, had no problem with permit­ting them to conform to their own practices -- at least, until they were seen 'in the streete at play, openly; some pitching the barr and some at stoole-ball, and such-like sports. So he went to them, and tooke away their implements, and tould them that it was against his conscience that they should play and others worke. If they made the keeping of [Christmas] a mater of devotion, let them kepe their houses, but ther should be no gameing or revelling in the streets.'

The Examination and Tryal of Father Christmas (1686)

"A unified population, all sharing identical beliefs, was never a reality in the colonies. ... In the 1630s, a further 20,000 immigrants settled in New England, bringing their own customs. Possibly it was this numerical imbalance that caused the Puritans to tighten their grip: they may have felt that they had not travelled all that way, in such peril, to be surrounded by those whose practices were so at odds with their own. Or it may have been that events in England and Scotland had given them hope that their own views could be made to prevail.

James VI of Scotland's love of holiday celebrations had been a problem for the Kirk, ensuring Christmas bans were impossible during his reign. When he gained the throne of England too, in 1603, with its populace more tolerant of the secular holiday, it must have seemed to the Puritans that the battle was lost. In 1617 the king attempted to enforce legally the celebration of the twelve days. Yet this was only ever partially successful; after his death in 1625 the monarchy lost even the appearance of control in Scotland, and in 1638 the General Assembly banned Christmas outright. Gradually, even gestures towards the holiday were liable to punishment.

"Initially, this was in marked contrast to England. Half a decade after the ill-suited Charles I succeeded James, Christmas continued to be a time of festivity and enjoy­ment. One 'lesson' instructed young men to 'Be holy in Lent. Be (painstaking] in Harvest. Be merry at Christmas.' Even churchmen agreed: Christmas was, said the Bishop of Winchester, a 'season of gathering together, of neigh­bourly meetings and invitations ... of good housekeeping and hospitality'. But once the Civil War began, there was no longer any space for neighbourly gatherings. Now what mattered were the views of reformers, who saw Christmas, unmentioned in the Bible, as a mark of the antichrist. At first their attacks on the day concentrated on its secular elements, and in 1642 Parliament banned seasonal plays. But in 1643, when the Long Parliament joined forces with the Scottish government, all holiday observances, secular and religious, were forbidden. Parliament sat on 25 December, to make sure the people understood that this was a working day like any other, and by 1645 'Festival days, vulgarly called Holy days, having no Warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued.'

Not everyone agreed. While the regime demanded that shops stay open, some apprentices forced their masters to close: in 1646 in Bury St Edmunds, they took to the streets, and further scuffles and fights broke out the next year too, with a 'great mutiny' in Norwich, while in Canterbury a mob demanding holiday church services attacked the mayor's house. Christmas traditions became symbols of the royalist cause. 'Christmas was kil'd at Nasbie fight', claimed one broadside: 'Charity was slain ... Likewise then did die, / Rost beef and shred pie." In London in 1647, there was a tense stand-off when now-illicit greenery was defiantly hung on City walls. The Lord Mayor and City Marshal rode out to supervise its removal, but their calls for ladders went unheeded by an angry crowd, who spooked the mayor's horse, making it bolt -- or, as a royalist pam­phlet gleefully interpreted the episode, 'The pulling down of holly and ivy was an act his very horse was ashamed of.'"



Judith Flanders


Christmas: A Biography


Thomas Dunne Books


Copyright 2017 by Judith Flanders


barns and noble booksellers
Support Independent Bookstores - Visit

All delanceyplace profits are donated to charity and support children’s literacy projects.


Sign in or create an account to comment