Saturday, December 22, 2012

English Recusants and Christmas

This article, "Lords of Misrule: The Puritan War on Christmas 1642-60" from History Today contrasts Puritan and Recusant views of Christmas in 17th century England:

During the seventeenth century, as now, Christmas was one of the most important dates in the calendar, both as a religious festival and as an important holiday period during which English men and women indulged in a range of traditional pastimes. During the twelve days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; Christmas Day church services were widely attended, gifts were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor; great quantities of brawn, roast beef, 'plum-pottage', minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed, and the populace indulged themselves in dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays.

Such long-cherished activities necessarily often led to drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess. In fact the concept of 'misrule', or a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas, and has been viewed by historians as a useful safety-valve for the tensions within English society. It was precisely this face of Christmas, however, that the Puritans of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England found so objectionable. . . .

In addition to this association with immorality and the concept of misrule, another of the central objections to the feast for the stricter English Protestants between 1560 and 1640 was its popularity among the papist recusant community. Within the late medieval Catholic church, Christmas had taken a subordinate position in the liturgical calendar to Easter. Its importance, however, had been growing and was further enhanced by the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, for whereas, as John Bossy has recently pointed out, the more extreme Protestants had little time fox Christ's 'holy family', reformed Catholicism laid great stress on this area. The Tridentine emphasis on devotions to the Virgin Mary in particular elevated the status of the feast during which she was portrayed as a paragon of motherhood.

Certainly, English recusants seem to have retained a deep attachment to Christmas during Elizabeth I's reign and the early part of the seventeenth century. The staunchly Catholic gentlewoman, Dorothy Lawson, celebrated Christmas 'in both kinds... corporally and spiritually', indulging in Christmas pies, dancing and gambling. In 1594 imprisoned Catholic priests at Wisbech kept a traditional Christmas which included a hobby horse and morris dancing, and throughout the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries the Benedictine school at Douai retained the traditional festivities, complete with an elected 'Christmas King'. The Elizabethan Jesuit, John Gerard, relates in his autobiography how their vigorous celebration of Christmas and other feasts made Catholics particularly conspicuous at those times and, writing on the eve of the Civil War Richard Carpenter, a convert from Catholicism to Protestantism, observed that the recusant gentry were noted for their 'great Christmasses'. As a result, by the 1640s many English Protestants viewed Christmas festivities as the trappings of popery, anti-Christian 'rags of the Beast'.

The celebration of Christmas thus became just one facet of a deep religious cleavage within early seventeenth-century England which, by the middle of the century, was to lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it but the attempt foundered on the deep-rooted popular attachment to these mid-winter rites.

Read the rest here.

William Palmer wrote The Life of Mrs. Dorothy Lawson, which Father Philip Caraman excerpted in his collection of primary sources The Years of Siege: Catholic Life from James I to Cromwell, describing her rigorous devotional life in contrast to her celebration of Christmas:

In this time of mirth and joy for his birth who is the sole engine and spring of true comfort, she unbent the stiffness of her brow a little, and dispensed with her accustomed rigour in so small a relaxation that I want a diminutive to explain it, unless I deem it that in quantity which philosophers call atoms or indivisibles in quality. . .

She had in a room near the chapel a crib with music to honour that joyful mystery, and, all Christmas, musicians in her hall and dining chamber to recreate her friends and servants. She loved to see them dance, and said that if she were present, greater care would be taken of modesty in their songs and dances.

More on the Puritans against Christmas from an earlier edition of History Today. Perhaps Mrs. Lawson's musicians performed William Byrd's Carroll for Christmas Day, "This Day Christ Was Born" or played this galliard for dancing?

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