Friday, January 02, 2009

Banning Christmas

Still a few days to go of the Twelve Days of Christmas festivities. In the 16th century though, protestant churches in Scotland sometimes tried to ban mid-winter celebrations - even Christmas carols - as pagan and papist:

'at St Andrews, in 1573... the kirk session, the local unit of church govern­ment, punished a number of people for 'observing of superstitious days and specially of Yuil-day.' The following year it made a particular example of a baker, for filling his house with lights and guests on New Year's Day and shouting 'Yuil! Yuil! Yuil!' In that year, too, the kirk session at Aberdeen tried fourteen women for 'playing, dancing and singing of filthy carols on Yule Day at even'...

From 1583 the Glasgow kirk sessions ordered that those who kept Yule were to be excommunicated and also punished by the secular magistrates. A few years later bakers at Perth were questioned for making 'Yule Bread', and in 1588 the Haddington presbytery forbade the singing of carols at this time. In 1593 the minister of Errol equated this pastime with fornication and in 1599 the local elite of Elgin prepared for the season by forbidding 'profane pastime ... viz. footballing through the town, snowballing, singing of carols or other profane songs, guising, piping, violing and dancing.' In that decade also a piper from Dunblane was forced to promise not to play upon Christmas Day or any other old festival, having been hired to do so by Yuletide revellers in villages along the Allan Water.

The same sorts of record (which are all that we have) also make clear the large amount of opposition which these measures encountered. The ruling at Glasgow had to be repeated four times up to 1604, a sure sign of resistance to it. At Aberdeen in 1606, thirty years after the campaign of repression began, the kirk session had to condemn anew 'the superstitious time of Yule or New Year's Day' and direct that henceforth the citizens should not 'presume to mask or disguise themselves in any sort, the men in women's clothes, nor the women in men's clothes, nor otherways, be dancing with bells, other on the streets of this burgh or in private house'. The Elgin session ruling of 1599 had been the third, and most detailed, of its kind within five years. Every one of those before had been defied by revellers disguised by blackened faces, masks, handkerchiefs, or fancy dress; traditional festival costume now assuming a practical advantage. So was this order, by at least two young women going abroad attired as men. At Yule in 1603 a man rode through the town with a cloth over his head, while another was accused of 'singing and hagmonayis' at New Year. Two years later a set of Aberdonians got into trouble by going through the streets 'masked and dancing with bells'.

Source: Ronald Hutton, Stations of the Sun: a History of the Ritual Year in England (1996)

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