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.”

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