“As for our Plum-Pottage, and Minc’d Pies, stand off, and doe not let them trouble you, we dare eat, making no question for conscience, because our stomacks are strengthened by that forecited piece of invitation, Nehem. 8,10, Eat the fat, and drink the sweete’ … As for our Baies and Rosemary, and other green trimmings of our Churches and Houses, truly Brethren, we doe, and may doe it, by the same warrant that the Israelites doe it in the Feast of Tabernacles, Nehem. 8, 16. ”
I have been reading Commonwealth-era pamphlets for and against the celebration of Christmas, and so offer (in this posting) a seasonally-themed spasm of self-edification. This is an instance where New Historicism’s central claim for significance comes undone: modern consciousness is not to be seen developing, rather the winning side in this 17th century controversy managed to preserve and transmit medieval norms and practices.
The seriousness of the Puritan assault on Christmas should not be underestimated: the title Certain quaeries touching the rise and observation of Christmas; propounded to the consideration of all such as are zealously (but blindly) affected towards the observation of it. To which an answer is desired and expected by Joseph Heming (1648) captures the confidence that the case against celebration of Christmas is unanswerable: Heming offers sixteen trenchant questions about whether the observances made have ‘sure footing on the Word of God’. ‘The Observation of this Feast hath no warrant in the holy Scriptures’, begins Mercurius religiosus: faithfully communicating to the whole nation, the vanity of Christmas (1651): and that’s really both the beginning and the end of the author’s argument.
My image – which we might see as a 17th century English anticipation of a Christmas card – comes from Edward Fisher’s learned The feast of feasts. Or, The celebration of the sacred nativity of our blessed Lord and Saviour, Jesus Christ; grounded upon the Scriptures, and confirmed by the practice of the Christian Church in all ages (1644).
Perhaps more interesting as a writer is the persistent – and finally triumphant - Allan Blayney, author of my opening quotation. His Festorum metropolis: The metropolitan feast. Or the birthday of our Saviour Jesus Christ, annually to be kept holy, by them that call upon him in all nations looks in its first printing (1652) almost like one of those fugitive pamphlets about religious matters the Jesuits or defenders of John Darrel put out: poorly impressed, its author operating under the pseudonym of ‘Poor Pastor Fido’ (‘exiled a while agoe’), signing his dedication only with a ‘B’.
‘Come zealous Lovers, solemnize with me,
The despis’d day of Christs Nativity.
Wake lungs, wake Heart, wake Tongue, and let us sing,
The glorious praises of our now-borne King.
Sing, sing aloud, feare noe Timeservers Rod,
Let them serve Hogs, Themselves, while we serve God…’
Subsequent (and expanded) editions are less embattled. Blayney, a clergyman excluded from his parish, has to be Christmas’s main defender in the century, and in keeping with his pious purpose, he lifts sections (more or less acknowledged) from Fisher’s shorter tract. In the second edition he notes that the first was ‘fearfull’. Writing pseudonymously, he didn’t hold back: ‘alas, I find of late, Jewes in
Blayney has at this point done a thorough job on the biblical precedents (the angel’s command to the shepherds and the rest), and the opinions of the assembled church fathers. He even cites two Arabic manuscripts in the Bodleian, transcribed and Englished by ‘painful Mr. Gregory’, which relate to the dating of the nativity. Like Fisher, but more categorically, he has dismissed the Puritan’s connection between the ‘–mas’ of Christmas and the mass itself. Rival dates for Christ’s birth have been mentioned and dismissed (they included my own birthday, September 24th), and every symbolic value for a midwinter, nocturnal birth of the saviour expounded.
And after all this, he surrenders to miracles. I don’t know anything about a fountain of oil in Rome; Blayney cannot resist a sacred oak tree in the New Forest, with, ‘on this very day, new and greene leaves upon it’, and, still more extraordinarily, the Glastonbury thorn tree, which he can’t bear to let go: ‘But whether that be true or no, I know not, it may be; this I am certaine, that the whole Countrey cryes it up for a truth, and a knowne one, that time out of mind, even to this day, it hath every year blossom’d in full measure upon the 25 day’ (p.75).
The thing about Blayney, is that he has a poetic imagination. Literature does seem to be on the side of Christmas. Blayney sounds exactly like he would, a man who has read Herbert, and maybe Vaughan. A long verse translation of a ‘divine hymn’ by Prudentius occupies a number of his pages: it is a bit stumbling in places, and I have tried to clarify the punctuation
…O noble Virgin do’st not see
(Made pregnant by humility)
The Honour of thy chastity
By him enhaunc’d, that’s born of thee.
O how great joyes themselves entomb:
Of things below in thy chast womb,
Out of which, this day came in sight
A new age and a golden light.
The crying of thy Babe began
The worlds spring; before the Sun,
For then the world made new that day
Her old foul coat did cast away…
In these ways, Blayney defended ‘the day of his power … in the morning whereof, his power was manifested in breaking open the gates of MARIES Wombe’. And with that odd piece of thinking through, I will leave the topic. Merry Christmas (and no small thanks to the Reverend Blayney for that).