Do you know about ‘The Man who Saved Christmas’?
- Credit: Archant
He defied a Puritan crackdown and kept the spirit of Christmas alive
The Puritans really were a glum lot. In the 1640s, via Parliament, they tried to quash all things showy and "Heathenish". Christmas was in their sights. It didn't work. The good folk of England decided to party on. So on Christmas Eve, 1652, Parliament issued a proclamation. It was now illegal to observe "the Five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas-Day".
William Winstanley wasn't ready to surrender. This son of a lawyer-turned-farmer had grown up with festive spirit. Father Henry had made sure the family celebrated properly.
"These idyllic Christmas holidays of his boyhood aroused in William Winstanley a passionate love for this great festival and from an early age inspired him to find out all he could about Yuletide customs, legends and traditions," said Jackie Worthington (writing as Alison Barnes) in her 2007 book "William Winstanley - The Man who saved Christmas". (Now, sadly, out of print.)
The adult William - a royalist and writer - took little notice of the crackdown. His wider family held a prayer and carol service of their own.
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Some families took the same approach; others felt cowed. Even after the Restoration in 1660, Christmas "failed to regain the universal popularity it had enjoyed in the 1630s, and was… in danger of dying out altogether".
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Jackie reported: "William Winstanley viewed this decline of Christmas with deep dismay...
"Ever a kind benefactor to the poor of north-west Essex, he recognised how immensely important to the destitute was the feasting and entertainment provided for them yearly at Christmas by the rich. For it gave them something to look forward to in the cold, dark days of November and December, and supplied a stock of heartening memories to tide them over till spring."
He would act.
William was a literary celebrity by the early 1660s. He persuaded influential acquaintances to follow the routines of a traditional English Christmas. He churned out books, articles and poems that spread the magic. He became something of a favourite of King Charles II, too.
The Winstanleys enjoyed Christmas in style at their farmhouse near Saffron Walden. Two days before, his pantry would heave with delights.
On the day, he'd first say hello to the farm animals and give them extra food. For humans, Christmas Day meant hugs and kisses, jokes and riddles, games such as Hoodman Blind and Shoe the Wild Mare, carols and stories.
It wasn't self-indulgent. William, she explained, believed it should be a time "when everyone rejoiced at the birth of the Divine Child and, for his sake, 'gave liberally to the poor' and 'provided good cheer for all friends and neighbours'."
William was such an enthusiast that by the late 1680s his vision was pretty much established as the norm "and the traditional English Christmas that he advocated was back in fashion again".
But it wasn't out of the woods.
Fall and rise
Jackie explained how the festivities remained popular for 20 years or so after William's death in 1698, but by 1750 had fallen into steep decline. "By 1800 it was virtually extinct." In 1820, though, it got another wind - largely down to William's legacy.
American writer Washington Irving (of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow fame) was researching English folklore when he happened upon William's Christmas writings and was captivated by the rituals.
Irving penned five essays, talking about the celebrations at a fictitious hall and drawing on William's Christmas dishes, games and songs. They reflected William's infectious enthusiasm - and hooked the public.
"Their popularity resulted in an immediate nationwide revival of interest in the old traditional English Christmas customs; a revival which was strengthened and consolidated in the 1830s and 1840s by Charles Dickens' The Pickwick Papers and A Christmas Carol," Jackie wrote.
As Winstanley's Christmas writings had inspired Irving's, so Irving's essays inspired Dickens.
By 1850, Christmas was revived - and established, by and large, as the festival most of us relish today.
Quite simply, argued Jackie, William "saved our traditional English Christmas customs for us". Without him, we might not now be enjoying turkey, mince pies, decorations and carols.