Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Puritan Christmas

In the first half of the 17th century, the 25th December was an important religious festival, and a public holiday when all places of work closed and everyone attended special church services. During the twelve days of Christmas, families attended masses, and buildings were dressed with rosemary, holly and ivy and. There was non-stop dancing, singing, drinking, exchanging of Christmas favours' to give to family members-gifts of special herbs tied up with ribbon which protected them from harm and illness. Stage plays were popular and everyone indulged in feasts of roast beef, plum porridge, minced pies and special ale. Twelfth Night, the final day of celebration, often saw a fresh bout of feasting and carnivals.

When Christmas was Made Illegal

The Puritans viewed Christ's mass as an unwanted remnant of the Roman Catholic Church, arguing that it and other holidays had no biblical justification. In 1642, they issued ordinances to suppress the performance of plays. Some shops in London were opened on Christmas-day 1643, and in 1647 some parish officers were committed for permitting ministers to preach on Christmas-day, and for adorning the Church.

On the 3rd of June 1647, Parliament ordained that Christmas should be no longer observed, and instead, scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month. An order dated the 24th of December 1652, directed, "That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof."

The problem the Puritans faced, was that the reasons for celebrating Christmas were not Satanic; more an attachment to having fun during the darkest, most miserable time of the year. All work was seasonal; and occupations from farming, fishing and trading stopped in midwinter. Christmas was the poor's one sustained "holiday", offering rare access to large quantities of rich food, especially meat, and strong drink - paid for by someone else. Traditionally, the poor entertained the rich with singing, dancing and plays: the rich, in turn, would reward them with food, wine and money.

The formal abolishment of Christmas came on 8 June 1647 with the announcement: "Be it ordained, by the Lords and Commons in parliament assembled, that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and all other festival days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed within this kingdom of England."

John Greene, a London lawyer, recorded in his diary: "This Christmas Day we had but few sermons anywhere, many of them that intended to have preached being interrupted by some from the parliament . . . the Lord Mayor was very zealous in pulling down holly and ivy, and received divers affronts in doing it."

In September 1649, the Rump Parliament passed an act banning "hawkers and ballad-singers" - any who persisted were to "be conveyed to the House of Correction, there to be whipped as common rogues". But this couldn't stop the flow of anti-Puritan propaganda:

"To conclude, I'll tell you news that's right,
Christmas was killed at Naseby fight:
Likewise then did die
Roast beef and shred pie."

A popular device of protest against the banning of Christmas, was an ignored and dejected figure dressed as Father Christmas would walk the streets of English towns in which no one dared to welcome him. John Taylor, a popular poet, scorned the regime by writing: "Their madness hath extended itself to the very vegetables, the senseless trees . . . holly, ivy, mistletoe, rosemary, bays, are accounted ungodly branches of superstition."

Cromwell ordered inns and playhouses shut down, sports were banned and anyone caught swearing fined. Women caught working on the Sabbath could be put in the stocks. They had to wear a long black dress, a white apron, a white headdress and no makeup. The men also dressed head to toe in black and sporting short hair.

All shops and markets were to stay open throughout the 25th December and anyone caught holding or attending a special Christmas church service would suffer a penalty. In London, soldiers patrolled the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for a Christmas celebration.

Despite imposing these rigid measures on the common people, Cromwell himself liked music, playing bowls and hunting and, after becoming Lord Protectorate, soon took to the high life. For his daughter's wedding he permitted a lavish feast and entertainment fit for royalty.

Yet ten years later in the late 1650’s, the authorities were still instructing Justices of the Peace to stop the festivities, a clear admission that ban on Christmas hadn't worked.

John Evelyn’s diary shows that he was unable to find a service to go to until 1656. Then on 25 December 1657, he was with his wife in the private chapel of Exeter House, on the north side of the Strand, when he was arrested. The sermon had ended, and the priest was distributing communion, when soldiers burst in. “These wretched miscreants”, he later wrote, “held their muskets against us as we came up to receive the Sacred Elements, as if they would have shot us at the Altar.” Evelyn was held for 24 hours, lectured on his "ignorance", and then released.

After the Restoration of King Charles II in May 1660, Christmas Day that year witnessed open, well-decorated, and well-attended churches. John Evelyn went to Westminster Abbey, where he was thrilled to find that “The Service was also in the old Cathedrall Musique.”

Christmas traditions condemned by the Puritans, were now seen as signs of loyalty to the restored monarchy and the re-established Church of England. The “good ribs of beef roasted and mince pies . . . and plenty of good wine” with which Samuel Pepys typically marked the festival were symbols not only of Christmas, but also of the return to right order of the nation as a whole. Not everyone approved, however, for John Evelyn recorded on 25 December 1662, that the curate had preached on “how to behave ourselves in festival rejoicing”.

Sunday, 13 December 2009


It is hard to believe that it was just on a year ago when the Hoydens and Firebrands launched their blog and I thought I would take this moment to thank not only my fellow Hoydens – Anita (who deserves extra special thanks for being our webmistress!), Sandra, Mary and Kim for their friendship and fabulous insights into all things seventeenth century, and also our Followers and friends for their support of our blog over the last year.

Because the five of us, while sharing a passion for the seventeenth century, have such different interests, I have learned so much from the other hoydens and we would love to hear from our regular (and irregular) readers, which blogs have piqued their interest over the year or indeed if there are any suggestions for topics they would like to see in the coming year. Please leave us a comment!

The Hoydens are scattered around the world and it is only the marvels of the internet that can bring us together. I am the only Australian and like everyone else looking forward to Christmas, my favourite time of year. I haven’t dared look at the weather forecast because down here in Melbourne, Christmas day can be anything from a very pleasant low twenties to high thirties (celcius). Being of Anglo-Celtic descent, my family enjoys a “traditional” English Christmas of Turkey, ham and pudding – although on very hot days we have been known to do it as a cold buffet!

I am ashamed to admit that I am a little behind in my Christmas baking. Christmas is now the only time of the year when I do bake (oh the calories!) and I love it because a day spent in the kitchen with the smell of cakes and mince pies wafting through the house, marks a connection with the women of my family back through the ages and I know this an unseventeenth century topic but I would like to tell you about one of those women!

My mother’s family came from the border country of Lancashire and Yorkshire (the Pendle witch country that Mary writes about) and the women were formidable. According to Grandmother Brown (my great grandmother) if domestic work wasn’t finished by lunchtime then you were an idle housekeeper. My heavens, she’d be turning in the grave to see my standard of housekeeping! Sundays were for the Lord and woe betide my mother if she wore a dress without sleeves or picked up anything other than the “good book” on the Lord’s Day of Rest!

And then there was my Aunty Etty (Hetty), one of a number of elderly great aunts collectively referred to as "the prickly aunts" not by virtue of their personalities but because they always seemed to be prickly to kiss! Aunty Etty enjoyed the reputation of being the best cook in the family and she was, as you can probably imagine, a round, sweet natured old lady. I only met her on a couple of occasions, the last being at the grand old age of twenty one when she looked me up and down and the following conversation ensued.

“How old art thou?”
“Err, twenty one, Aunty Etty.”
“Twenty one! Twenty one and not married! Aren’t there any decent boys in Australia?”

Last year I shared the seventeenth century Christmas pudding recipe with you, so this year I would like to share “Aunty Etty’s mince pies” (which were legendary!). No one quite made them like Aunty Etty, even my Mum and I have to confess to tweaking the recipe slightly, so along with Grandmother Brown, poor Aunty Etty is now probably spinning in her grave!


8 oz (250gr) plain flour
1 tsp baking powder
4 oz (125gr) sugar
4 oz (125gr) butter
I beaten egg
¼ tsp mixed spice
1 tsp lemon rind

• Sieve flour and add sugar

• Rub in butter until mixture resembles bread crumbs

• Make into dough with egg

• Wrap in cling film and rest in fridge ½ hr and then turn on to floured board and proceed as for ordinary pastry.

• Makes about 12 pies using one jar of fruit mince (of course, Aunty Etty made her own fruit mince!)

A safe and happy Christmas to my fellow hoydens and our friends and we look forward to continuing on in the new year with more special guest bloggers and fascinating corners of the seventeenth century to explore.

Aunty Etty as a child, 2nd from left front row...
(Uncle Bateman - in uniform back row was killed in the fighting in Mesopotamia WWI, my grandfather is next to him)

Wednesday, 9 December 2009

Divine Award

Sandra Gulland, our wonderful author member, has passed on The Divine Award to our blog. Many thanks Sandra. Part of the task is to nominate another five blogs and respond to twenty five questions. This first requirement I have completed in co-operation with Alison, and the choice is below. However, as the questions are quite personal and there are a group of us who compile this blog, our response is below.

The Hoydens are five fabulous women of differently coloured hair and nationality,who being the fine writers that they are, love a good glass of wine and are addicted to chocolate. They love all things seventeenth century. Anyone wishing to know more about us will have to search the annals of the web, which are listed in the right-hand column.

Word Wenches

Edwardian Promenade

Mercurious Politicus

Historical Novel Review Blog

Jane Austen Today

Sunday, 6 December 2009


Child with smallpox courtesy of CDC/James Hicks

Variolation was a form of inoculating a person with the smallpox virus in an effort to minimize the severity of the disease. I first became intrigued by the concept while watching a movie about John Adams, the second president of the United States. To my surprise, the scene that depicted Abigail Adams purposely infecting her children with smallpox had really taken place. But John and Abigail Adams lived during the eighteenth century. What about the seventeenth?

The technique predates vaccination as we know it, and apparently had its origin in eighth century India. Records indicate that China used variolation by the tenth century. In the West, Lady Mary Wortley Montague is credited for bringing it to England in 1721 after witnessing the practice being used by a doctor in Constantinople.

Again, I thought this would be a plot point that I would have to bypass since I'm writing about seventeenth-century Virginia. Then, I did a little more reading. In Massachusetts, Cotton Mather had heard about variolation from a slave in 1706. The slave, from western Africa, had been inoculated as a child which according to him was common practice there. This gave me the lead I needed as the slave would have grown up during the seventeenth century.

According to medical historians, variolation made its way to Egypt during the thirteenth century. When north and western Africa learned of the technique remains a question, but it was definitely known by the late seventeenth century and most likely earlier.

With this knowledge, I reasoned, why couldn't I write such a scene? The circumstances were very similar in seventeenth-century Virginia as Massachusetts. Because my scene takes place during mid-century, the Africans were usually indentured servants, rather than slaves, but the knowledge could have been available. Even during the eighteenth century in the colonies, variolation was often thought of as African black magic, therefore frequently discredited among the medical community.

The process consisted of collecting the virus with a lancet from a pustule of an infected person and transferring it under the skin in the arm or leg of the person without the disease. Unlike modern vaccination, this procedure gave the noninfected person an active case of smallpox. However, with the use of variolation, the person, hopefully, contracted a milder form.

Death resulted in 2-3% of the cases where variolation was used. Whereas, the normal fatality rate was 20-30% with much higher percentages for children and Native Americans. Most survivors were left with disfiguring scars, while blindness and limb deformities were less common complications.

The obvious disadvantage was that people infected through variolation could spread the natural severe form of the virus to others. But in a time before routine vaccination, the risks seemed to far outweigh the consequences.

Kim Murphy


Tuesday, 1 December 2009

Interview With Author Christie Dickason

An Interview With Christie Dickason by Sandra Gulland

Christie Dickason writes historical fiction, most of it set in the (broad) 17th century. Her published titles include:

The Principessa — 'A stunning novel of history, passion and politics ... ' —The Bookseller, October 2007

The Firemaster's Mistress —'Atmospheric and impressively researched, it is highly entertaining.' —Elizabeth Buchan, The Sunday Times

... as well as The Memory Palace, Quicksilver, and The Lady Tree.

Her most recent title, The King's Daughter — about Elizabeth, daughter of James I — will also, no doubt, to garner enthusiastic reviews. (See below for more on this title.)

Before I begin with the interview questions, I asked Christie to introduce herself:

I’m both shy and naturally nosy, with a grasshopper mind, so writing is perfect for me. Each book is like living a new experience. And research is a kind of licensed nosiness. In the name of research, I can ask questions I wouldn’t otherwise dare ask. I approach strangers whom I would never otherwise talk to — like a man flying a hawk in Richmond Park. Or a woman walking a pair of stag hounds. (See THE LADY TREE.) I am constantly surprised and delighted by how generous people are with what they know. I find research a wonderful way of making new friends, people with passions, even more obsessed by hawks, or side saddles, or 17th century shoes or plumbing than I am.

"Research is a kind of licensed nosiness": I like that. What draws you to the 17th century in particular?

I feel something familiar in the people of that period. That we would understand each other quite well if we time-travelled. They were dealing with many of the same issues — belief, cultural diversity, gender roles, a changing society, fragmentation. It’s a big subject. They even had their own versions of spin doctors, fanatics and lager louts.

What aspect of the 17th century do you find the most appealing?

The vigorous energy. The rise of self-made men through commerce and education. (And buccaneering.) It was still very hierarchical, but you could earn your place on the ladder, not just inherit it. Even women managed it, from time to time. (But don’t be misled by Elizabeth I into thinking that the 16th and 17th centuries were a time of sexual equality!)

The most difficult?

The ruthlessness. But I can’t see that this has changed much today.

Too true. Tell us about your new novel, THE KING'S DAUGHTER.

THE KING’S DAUGHTER tells the story of Elizabeth Stuart, the only surviving daughter of James I of England and VI of Scotland, and her struggle with her powerful and dangerous father to become more than a pawn in his political games. She must survive the corruption and political maneuvering at court to try to marry a man she loves. To have a real human relationship. But for me, it’s also about fathers and daughters. About growing up. About the child learning to take power in the world. And as a former tomboy who once carried a grass snake around in her pocket, talked to animals and, at the age of ten, wanted to marry a horse called Deacon, I felt a real kinship with Elizabeth, with her 26 dogs and the animal-like acuteness in her own awareness that I have given her.

Very interesting. What did you find most challenging about writing this particular novel?

Too many of the wrong kind of facts. In historical records, Elizabeth is endlessly described in flattering poems, letters and commentaries. Everyone is nice to the king’s daughter. Any dangerous opinions were unlikely to have been published, much less to have survived. She’s locked in to events by report, with no record of what she thought about anything or anyone. And most accounts are of her better-known later life as The Winter Queen.

So, first of all, I had to work hard to create suspense in a plot that was also consistent with where she was said to have been at any given time – not always the most exciting choice. Equally, as a mere girl, she was often not mentioned when I’m certain she was likely to have attended a particular masque, tilt, or banquet. Sickly little Charles, much less important at the time, now gets all the mention because hindsight knows that he grew up to become king.

As a researcher, I'm dying to ask: What are the on-line and print resources you use the most often?

The Great God Google. And the National Archives at Kew, which are conveniently close to where I live. (I sometimes think I live THERE.) But there’s no substitute for the direct sensory input of field research – visiting houses, touching a straw mattress, trying on the clothes, spending time without electricity.

What are you working on now?

DANGEROUS FRIENDS is the working title. One of the characters in THE KING’S DAUGHTER kept sneaking onto centre stage and I kept telling her, ‘Get back in your box! This isn’t your book.’ But it’s her turn now. She’s Lucy Harrington, who was Queen Anne’s chief lady of the bedchamber and best friend. In THE KING’S DAUGHTER, Elizabeth is still young and jealous of this lovely, self-assured-seeming older woman. In DANGEROUS FRIENDS, the two women have become close friends, as they became in real life.

Lucy’s a delightful spendthrift, lively and witty, at the centre of court intrigue and probably the lover of John Donne. She’s also childless and restless, searching for love, easily bored but passionately loyal. A woman who fights off a sense of inner emptiness by getting mixed up in things she shouldn’t, including a plot to assassinate Charles. Watch this space.

I certainly will. It sounds wonderful! (And I like the working title.) Thank you so much, Christie — It has been a pleasure. Sandra Gulland

For more on Christie Dickason and her work, be sure to explore her beautiful website: here. Click here to see all her books on, or here on