In Defence of Christmas

A blog by Dr. Dan Sperrin, Junior Research Fellow at Trinity College Cambridge. Dr Sperrin is writing a history of satire. He is also a caricaturist and has provided the illustrations for this blog.

According to some, there is nothing friendly about Father Christmas. In a short satirical prose skit devised in 1658 by a man who supposedly went by the name of Josiah King, the brandy-soaked old rake stands on trial for ‘encouraging his Majesty’s Subjects in Idleness, Gluttony, Drunkenness, Gaming, Swearing, Rioting, and all Manner of Extravagance and Debauchery.’ No longer a purring giver of gifts in a snowy world of infinite joy, this Father Christmas is a public nuisance and has to defend himself.

The Examination and The Tryal of Father Christmas was composed by King for seasonal entertainment and may have been printed in considerable quantities throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but Trinity seems to possess the only surviving copy in the UK of an edition that was revised and printed in 1736 – at least, no other copies of this edition have been found so far. It may be rare and peculiar, but perhaps no other document furnishes us with the following information about the accused: ‘Gentleman of the Jury, look upon the Prisoner, and hearken to his Charge: he stands indicted by the Name of Old Father Christmas, late of Pye-corner, in the Parish of Pampering, in the City of Profusion.’ We now think of Father Christmas as being in eternal residence in a vague, snowy nowhere-land somewhere near the North Pole. However, this man’s precise whereabouts are known to the authorities.

Black and white line drawing of four men in pointed hats behind Father Christmas
© Dan Sperrin

Plucked from Pie Corner (in the parish of Pampering in the city of Profusion), Father Christmas stands on trial for a variety of dreadful crimes. He is accused of tempting someone to ‘comit the fulthy Sin of Fornication’, drinking the town dry, breaking and entering, inciting violence, and thinking only of his enormous appetites. Those appetites take up a lot of the court’s attention. According to a man called ‘Frugal’ (whose name should tell us all), Father Christmas behaves ‘as if his Thoughts were altogether taken up in providing for his Belly.’:

For indeed he devours all and produces nothing — at least nothing but Mischief. In former Days Men were content to live upon Herbs and Fruits and Water, but this Cormorant is never satisfy’d without Flesh and strong Liquors. How many innocent Bullocks and Turkeys have been murder’d, to cram his ungodly Paunch!

Another man called ‘Carefull’ accuses him of something very similar:

I have known him eat a thousand Hams, twelve hundred Dozen of Fowls, fifteen hundred Chines, two thousand Turkeys, twenty-five hundred Surloins of Beef, three thousand Gallons of Plumb Porridge, seventeen thousand minced Pies, with Bread in Proportion to the Meat: And as for Drink, he has guzzled strong Beer, Geneva, Brandy, Punch and Wine, beyond all Proportion.

Father Christmas makes clear that he has no time for his accusers:

They have nothing but Skin to cover their Bones: They have made mere Skeletons of themselves to save Charges; a Stranger would take ‘em for Anatomies that had made their Escape from Surgeon’s-Hall; they will feed a Month together upon mouldy Crusts of brown Bread and Suffolk Cheese; and if they make a Feast, they club their three Farthings a-piece for a Joint of Carion at Ragfair, or a stale Bullock’s Liver, stuff’d with Garlick and Chews of Tobacco, and larded with an Ounce of rusty Bacon. Indeed they would hardly venture at such Extravagance, but that they find their Advantage in it, for it makes ‘em so sick, that they can eat nothing for a Week after.

It is perhaps no wonder that one of the accusers refers to Father Christmas as ‘the greatest Epicure living.’

Why would Father Christmas be on trial, either in 1658 or 1736? Why would this satire depict Father Christmas as a fun-loving, morally-upright man accused of criminal activity by censorious critics? The earliest edition of The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas seems to have been printed right in the middle of the interregnum when Christmas was officially banned (although, it must be said, this ban was widely ignored). A hardline Puritan establishment had cancelled Christmas because it was considered a dangerous temptation. Indeed, Christmas had long been seen as a period of unnecessary festivity by Puritans, partly because there is no obvious scriptural authority for its celebration. A whole range of tedious and austere discussions about the word ‘Christmas’ itself (and its many possible dangers) were entertained by Puritan pamphleteers and preachers in the interregnum period, who preferred ‘Christ-Tide’ because this eliminated any dangerous traces of the Catholic Mass that might be detected in the usual word. Some of these people also argued that everyone should go about their business on Christmas Day and that markets should remain open, rendering the entire day a miserable damp squib.

The reappearance of Old Father Christmas in the 1730s might have something to do with the revival of Puritan evangelism and the rise of Methodism in this period. The Puritan movement of the 1730s and 40s revived all of these old arguments and more: these were people who really did want to cancel Christmas, as their depressing forebears had done less than a century before.

This would explain why Father Christmas has to defend himself. The whole purpose of this satire is to argue that Christmas is not a contaminating or dangerous period that damages the spiritual health of the ordinary believer, but is in fact – if taken carefully – a great nourishment. Indeed, over the course of the trial, Father Christmas starts to look like a well-behaved Anglican moderate who understands the whole Puritan argument but respectfully disagrees. At first, he defends himself by giving the Puritans precisely what they want by picking up on the old debate about the word ‘Christmas’ vs. ‘Christ-Tide’:

I am wrong to be indicted by a wrong Name: I am corruptly called Christmas, whereas my Name is Christ-tide. And though I generally come at a set time, yet I am with him every Day that knows how to use me. […] We are commanded to be given to Hospitality, and this hath been my Practice from my Youth upward: I come to put Men in Mind of their Redemption, to have them love one another, to impart with something here below, that they may receive more and better Things above.

Black and white drawing of Father Christmas facing to the side with crowds of people behind
© Dan Sperrin

However, after luring the Puritan reader into the court, Father Christmas then moves into a carefully articulated rebuttal of the Puritan argument, and this proves to be a winning tactic. The defence is so carefully constructed and so forcefully expressed that the Puritan court is entirely convinced and feels ashamed of its original censoriousness:

Methinks, my Lord, the very Clouds blush, to see this old Gentleman thus egregiously abused. If at any time any have abused themselves by immoderate eating and drinking, or otherwise spoil’d the Creatures, it is none of this old Man’s fault, neither ought he to suffer for it.

As the judge says in his final pronouncement: ‘[you have silenced] the Clamours of such, as have this Day shown themselves your Adversaries.’

I have been wondering whether the name of the supposed author, ‘Josiah King’, isn’t part of the game. As the various censorious forces of Puritanism bear down ever more harshly on society’s festivities, someone has got to defend them — but, as Father Christmas makes clear, the best way of winning over these depressing Puritans is to pretend to be one of them and convert them from the inside. Intriguingly, we have almost little record of a seventeenth-century satirist who went by the name of Josiah King, but we do know of a King Josiah in the Old Testament who was loved by Puritans because of his destruction of pagan idolatry in the ancient city of Jerusalem (it is worth remembering that Edward VI, the evangelical son of Henry VIII, was widely hailed as a new Josiah who had come to extinguish Popery in England). In other words, the satirist — who may or may not have actually been called Josiah King — has created a deceptive little text, here, which looks like a standard piece of Puritan pamphleteering by a Puritan hero but is in fact a devious piece of infiltration designed to civilise these Christmas-cancellers from inside their own ranks.

Everyone keeps Christmas (or Christ-Tide) according to their own custom, and if Josiah King’s Father Christmas – apparently drunken, loutish, and violent, but actually good-hearted – has a point to prove, it is that no-one should be put on trial for doing so. I suppose the other moral might be that one should aim to consume two thousand turkeys and seventeen thousand mince pies when the time comes.

You can read the Tryal of Old Father Christmas (Crewe 77.26.16 ) online.



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