Monday, December 25, 2006

Poor Robin's Christmas

With all the pressures of daily life it is easy to take a jaundiced view of Christmas. "Humbug" was Scrooge's dismissive description. Luckily Scrooge's attitude did not prevail and through books like "A Christmas Carol" and "The Pickwick Papers" Charles Dicken's helped to create our modern idea of the "traditional" Christmas.

Yet a few centuries earlier, during the English Civil War in the Seventeenth century, Christmas was banned altogether when legislation was passed by the Presbyterian dominated Parliament in January 1644/1645 as an "Ordinance for taking away the Book of Common Prayer and for establishing and putting in execution of the Directory of the Publique worship of God". Charles I was still on the throne and it was only later that Cromwell enforced similar legislation after he became the Lord Protector, although banning Christmas came to be specifically associated with the killjoy attitude of the Protectorate.

After Cromwell's death and with the restoration of the monarchy Christmas was also restored, and it was William Winstanley of Quendon and Saffron Walden, who was to play a key role in shaping the way it was celebrated.

Winstanly was an ardent royalist, and during the English Civil War played a small part in the royalist rising in Linton (Cambs) in 1648. He was the author of several important 17th century books, including England's Worthies (1660), The Loyall Martyrology (1665) and Lives of the Poets (1687). He also compiled and published his own Almanacs under the pen name of "Poor Robin". The first of these, Poor Robin (1662) was suppressed as scandalous with the result that it sold an estimated 7,000 copies.

Winstanley's humour was bawdy and anarchic, and his Almanacs were lively, popular, and irreverent, treating the popular celestial "science" of astrology with contempt as in the title of the 1664 almanac:

Poor Robin, 1664: an Almanack after a New Fashion, wherein the Reader may see (if he be not blinde) many Remarkable Things worthy of Observation, containing a two-fold Kalender—viz., the Julian or English, and the Rozindheads or Fanatics, with their several Saints' Daies, and Observations upon every Month. Written by Poor Robin, Knight of the Burnt Island, a well-wisher to the Mathematics; calculated for the Meridian of Saffron Walden, where the Pole is elevated 52 degrees and 6 minutes above the Horizon. Printed for the Company of Stationers.

He included one calendar with saints' days marked, and another calendar with days devoted to notorious characters and rogues such as Mother Shipton, Cardinal Richelieu and Doctor Faustus. The almanacs were so popular they soon found imitators, and continued to be published long after his death.

Winstanley's royalist views shaped the contents of his almanacs and he frequently included "Wassail chansons" and short idealised descriptions of Christmas, often in verse:

Now thrice welcome, Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minc'd-pies and plumb-porridge,
Good ale and strong beer;

Poor Robin's verse was noted more for enthusiasm than the quality of his rhymes:

Christmas to hungry stomachs gives relief,
With mutton, pork, pies, pasties, and roast-beef;
And men, at cards, spend many idle hours,
At loadum, whisk, cross-ruff, put, and all-fours.'

Fashionably fond of long titles, he also wrote a pamphlet on Christmas: Poor Robin's Hue and Cry after Good House-Keeping. Or, a Dialogue Betwixt Good House-Keeping, Christmas and Pride (1687), in which he compared the ideal of Christmas against fashion and pride, suggesting that proper hospitality and an open house at Christmas was the essence of good housekeeping and a christian duty.

Winstanley's colourful descriptions of the English Christmas were taken up and idealised in the 19th century by Washington Irving in his account of "Old Christmas" in which he frequently quotes from the "Poor Robin Almanacs". Irving influenced Dickens and they both shaped popular taste creating a popular image of "merry" Christmas, which in one way started in the small market town of Saffron Walden.
Martyn Everett

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(Readers interested in learning more about the remarkable William Winstanley should consult Alison Barnes' pamphlet The Ingenious William Winstanley published by the Saffron Walden Tourist Information Centre.

Here is the whole text of one of Winstanley's poems, first published in Poor Robin's Almanac in 1695:

Now thrice welcome, Christmas,
Which brings us good cheer,
Minc'd-pies and plumb-porridge,
Good ale and strong beer;

With pig, goose, and capon,
The best that may be,
So well doth the weather
And our stomachs agree.

Observe how the chimneys
Do smoak all about,

The cooks are providing
For dinner, no doubt;
But those on whose tables
No victuals appear,
O may they keep Lent
All the rest of the year!

With holly and ivy
So green and so gay;

We deck up our houses
As fresh as the day,
With bays and rosemary,
And laurel compleat,
And every one now
Is a king in conceit.

from: Poor Robin's Almanack (1695)