Winstanley: A True Spirit of Christmas Past

Four centuries ago, when England erupted in civil war, Christmas there was in a sorry state. In 1644, the victorious Puritan faction outlined its numerous and fundamentalist decrees by completely banning the holiday. They saw Christmas as a solemn, pious occasion and opposed the drunken debauchery and revelries that, in their opinion, had distorted its religious significance. In addition to this, the Puritans also objected to the name itself: Christmas (“Christ’s Mass“) resounded with Roman Catholicism; the ultimate anathema to Puritanism. They changed the name to “Christ’s Tide” and celebrated the day in a quite subdued manner…with fasting!

These Puritans weren’t joking; they made their menacing presence known to one and all in a not very merry old England. Soldiers patrolled the streets and would fine or arrest anyone holding church service, along with entering households and seizing any food they suspected would be used for festive purposes. Markets and shops were forced to remain open, as on any other day, and anyone with a restful holiday in mind would have done better to leave the country for good. Violators of the Puritan’s “Christ’s Tide” jamboree could find themselves celebrating Christmas Day in the stocks.

With Cromwell’s vainglorious triumph in 1646, Britain was consigned to being a country without a Christmas for eighteen desolate years. Whereas Jacob Marley was as dead as a doornail, Christmas in England had become deader than ten million doornails on the doors of ten million mausoleums.

However, as the human spirit endures so did the spirit of Christmas. Despite the injunction, secret festivities continued to be held. One of these secret merrymakers was a diarist and writer by the name of William Winstanley (his story has recently been unearthed by historian Alison Barnes). He lived in a Tudor farmhouse at Quendon, a village between Bishop’s Stortford and Saffron Walden. When the doors of the parish church were locked on Christmas against worshipers, the Winstanley family held its own secretive carol services; an open house to all who knew their secret. With Cromwell on the throne of dictatorship, these were dangerous times and spies were constantly lurking in the shadows.

Winstanley was far from being a capricious party animal, risking life and liberty merely to eat, drink and be merry. He was an educated man: amateur historian, lover of folklore and, despite being a Royalist politically, was also a pious Puritan.

As Alison Barnes writes: “He believed it was the duty of all Christians to celebrate the birth of their Saviour, with joyous festivity and open-handed generosity towards friends, relations and more especially the poor.” In spite of political extremism, religious fanaticism, and militaristic oppression, he would not cease in his ways nor buckle under their dictates.

In 1658, Cromwell performed the one noble deed for which the British people granted him their heartfelt and eternal gratitude…he died.

Charles II, the executed king’s son, was restored to the throne and the anti-Christmas mandate was repealed. However, Christmas merriment didn’t instantly return for one outstanding reason: after eighteen lean and hungry years of Yuletide fasts, most people had forgotten what being merry was all about.

This was Winstanley’s moment of glory; a time for overt joy and goodwill. Already an accomplished writer of poems, pamphlets and books, he had influential friends and acquaintances in the highest echelons of British society. He lobbied earls and lords, even the King himself, to open their houses as examples of Christmas cheer. He believed that nobleman and commoner, peasant and pauper, alike would benefit from having a royally sanctioned time of festivity to carry them through the bleak winter.

For over 38 years, Winstanley not only resurrected but seemed to be re-inventing Christmas as he went along. He instructed the nation on long-forgotten festivities, frolicsome games, sumptuous repasts, solemn and mirthful carols, and any other physical or spiritual incidental that would help make Christmas even more festive. Up until the time of his death, he was a sort of Puritan Santa Claus who merely sought to focus the joy of the festivity towards that of the nativity: the birth of Jesus that reasonable Christians would view as a reasonable time to be joyous. By the late 1680s, Christmas was restored to England…it would be further enhanced throughout the country and throughout the world. A formidable legacy for a man who was forgotten for such a long time.

Source: Mail Online


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