The harried English Catholic community stuck to its Christmas traditions, from carols to wild merry-making

Thomas Hodgson had trouble sleeping on Christmas Eve in 1599. He was a man of Catholic sympathies, well-connected in recusant circles and teaching children in the household of Elizabeth Vaux. For all that, he had continued to conform to the Protestant religious settlement of late Tudor England.

“On the very night of Christmas,” as the Jesuit missionary priest John Gerard reported, Hodgson had listened to the Catholic liturgy echoing through the halls with everyone but him “celebrating the birth of the Lord”. He “began to feel a sense of shame stealing over him”, “a trembling overwhelmed him” and, as Hodgson himself later recalled, “I went over my sins and my ingratitude with tears, sobs and sighs.”

Action was required, so Hodgson rushed to the chapel, demanding Confession, and we are informed that “after a few days spent in a careful examination of conscience he became a Catholic and joined us in celebrating the last days of the feast”.

Such was the power of Christmas within the much-harried English Catholic community. There was no better time to assert identity through outlawed rituals and devotions. Carols that blended late-medieval piety and the demands of post-Tridentine theologising were sung. Gifts that encapsulated a besieged faith were exchanged. Lucky John Gerard, who witnessed Hodgson’s return from the schismatic life, once received “a precious ornament with the Holy Name engraved on it” from one of his aristocratic protectors: it was “twice the size of a sheet of paper”, decked out with solid gold pins and pearls. As an early 17th-century ballad put it: “The Catholic, good deeds will not scorn / Nor will he see poor Christmas forlorn.”

Christmas also carried risks, of course. A few years later, in 1609, Sir John Yorke of Gowlthwaite Hall in Yorkshire mounted his annual theatrical entertainments for an exclusively Catholic crowd. Unfortunately, the Protestant Marmaduke Dornebrook, on the hunt for Catholics behaving badly, “by private means got into the house” and witnessed a play that was to the “great scandal of true religion”. In the play, a Catholic priest squared off with a Protestant minister and, following the latter’s defeat and humiliation, “the devils came and fetched him … one of them taking him by the arm and carried him away on his shoulder.” The ensuing legal prosecution made it all the way to the Star Chamber.

Happily enough, most early modern English Catholics did not have to inhabit a country which detested Christmas. As every schoolchild used to know, the 1640s and 1650s saw the holiday being banned but, both earlier and subsequently, most level-headed Protestants managed to sustain the traditions of hospitality and merry-making. The sniping always came mainly from the puritanical extremes: the grumbles about the holiday’s pagan origins, the lack of biblical precedent and the supposed invitation to moral turpitude. As the endlessly censorious Philip Stubbes put it: “More mischief is at that time committed than in all the year besides… what masking and mumming, wherein robbery, whoredom, murder and what-not is committed.”

Thankfully, such strictures were broadly ignored. But this did not prevent Catholics from defining and curating their particular vision of Christmas. Admittedly, enthusiasm occasionally spiralled out of control. A regrettable example was set by the Catholic-minded servants and tenants of Brampton, Westmorland, in 1608. When Christmas came around they “most grossly disturbed the minister in time of divine service … some of them drank to the minister when he was at prayer … others fired guns and brought in flags and banners … others sported themselves with pies and puddings in the church.”

It was more elegant, perhaps, to adopt strategies that displayed a winning combination of magnanimity and mischief. The Countess of Arundel had once helped a priest escape from the clutches of the Elizabethan authorities by bribing one of his pursuers. A sizeable amount of money had been paid to the man on the spot but the countess “sent him every year as long as he lived a venison pasty to make merry with his friends at Christmas”.

The pie-eating rabble in Brampton did foreshadow one curious Christmas quarrel, however. Radically minded Protestants took exception to all manner of Catholic holiday enjoyments but, according to one 19th-century antiquarian, mince pies were particularly offensive. They “were things of horror to all good Puritans, who looked upon them as papistical devices of the enemy of mankind”.

This did not spell disaster. On the contrary, as our author continued, “we fancy it is to their energetic denunciations of it that the mince pie owed its reputation as the sovereign dainty of the great festival, for of course the more the one party railed against it, the more the other delighted in enjoying it.”

Mince pies are not what they used to be and confessional enmities are pleasingly in abeyance but, as a nod to less congenial times, be sure to serve some up if the local vicar pops round for his glass or two of Christmas sherry.

Jonathan Wright is an honorary fellow in the department of theology and religion at Durham University

This article first appeared in the December 22 2017 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here