Fantastic Thoresby V: a late seventeenth-century Christmas

Laura Sangha

Last week Jonathan laid bare the attack on Christmas in England in the 1640s and 1650s, describing the puritan campaign to convince the public that Christmas was popish and profane, and to persuade people to abandon the traditional merry-making that took place on 25 December. This got me wondering about the resilience and enduring popularity of the festival. Specifically, what did Ralph Thoresby do when the day came around each year?

Thoresby’s Christmas 

Ralph Thoresby

Ralph Thoresby, antiquarian, pious diarist, author of the first history of Leeds.

For those of you that haven’t met him yet – Ralph Thoresby (1658-1725) is the pious Leeds antiquarian and life-long diarist that I am currently researching (view the related posts here).[1] Disappointingly, but probably predictably, Thoresby’s diaries suggest that Christmas didn’t register that much on the antiquarian’s radar – Thoresby didn’t gorge on plum-pottage and mince pies, he didn’t entertain lavishly, he didn’t feast with his neighbours, and there is no evidence that he even indulged in a little tipple. On the morning of 26 December 1680 he did write that he ‘lay too long’ in bed, which we might chalk up to overindulgence the day before, but since Thoresby’s regular habit was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning to pray, we probably shouldn’t read too much into this supposed sloth.

Why do I say that this lack of interest is quite predictable? It is because Thoresby began his life as a moderate nonconformist, attending both dissenting meetings as well as Church of England worship (though in the 1690s he conformed fully to the Church of England). In Thoresby’s case, his nonconformity was of a distinctly puritan flavour, so his lack of enthusiasm for the festivities of the Christmas season are in keeping with his austere style of piety, his avoidance of unsuitable company and his horror of idleness. Yet clearly times had changed – this was the 1650s no longer. On Christmas day Thoresby did attend Church without fail (by contrast, during the interregnum churches were locked on December 25), often hearing a sermon ‘suitable to the day concerning the birth of Christ’.

St John the Evangelist, Leeds. The engraving appeared in Ralph Thoresby's 'Ducatus Leodiensis' (1715).

One of many churches Ralph Thoresby worshipped in. This engraving appeared in Thoresby’s ‘Ducatus Leodiensis’ (1715).

Public worship at Christmas

The messages that Thoresby heard at public worship reflect a range of opinion about how Christmas should be celebrated. In 1679 the local dissenting minister drew attention to the lack of scriptural evidence for the precise date of the anniversary, when he ‘shewd the uncertainty of the day that is by many judicious persons supposed to be a full quarter year distant from the time of his nativity, whose name it bears’. But in the Church of England the general consensus seemed to be that keeping the day as a ‘grateful remembrance’ of the nativity of Christ was a Good Thing, and ministers tailored public worship on the day accordingly.

John Evelyn. John Evelyn preferred a different style of churchmanship to Thoresby, but their experience of Christmas worship was similar.

John Evelyn preferred a different style of churchmanship to Thoresby, but their experience of Christmas worship was similar.

Thus in 1682 an unnamed preacher ‘made a very seasonable discourse concerning the nativity of our blessed Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ exhorting to praise God for the wonderfull condescension’ that it showed. In 1691 a minister combined reflection on the incarnation with a topical refutation of anti-Trinitarian beliefs (Socianianism), as he ‘preached excellently from 1 John 14: and the word was made flesh when he very learnedly refuted the Socinian Errors’. In 1682 the theme was that Jesus Christ had a perfection above all other beings, in 1684 that the angels’ song at the nativity of Jesus glorified the wisdom and power of God, in 1708 that the nativity marked ‘the establishment, enlargement, and success of our Saviours kingdome in this world’. The diary of the royalist courtier John Evelyn shows a similar pattern. In December 25 1682 he noted that the Vicar made ‘a discourse apposite to the festival’, in 1686 the subject was again ‘apposite to the occasion’, though in 1705 he was disappointed that a chaplain ‘Spake so fast and so as I heard very little’.[2]

The lawfulness of Christian feasts

Yet this ecclesiastical enthusiasm for marking the anniversary was tempered by old anxieties that echo what Jonathan found earlier in the century. In 1691 Thoresby’s dissenting minister concluded his sermon by cautioning his congregation against traditional seasonal excesses, with ‘an excellent and serious Exhortation that this Festival which we pretend to set apart to solemnise the Incarnation of our blessed Redeemer be not perverted by Intemperance’. In 1703 Thoresby heard a sermon that took this as its focus, the two main messages being:

1 the lawfulness of instituting Christian feasts, and the benefit of observing them, in Christian charity, and there is nothing in the observance of them that is immorrall, or against any positive command of God.

2 the restraint that ought to be put upon persons in the observance of these Religious Festivalls, that the charms of company etc may not draw us to any indecencys, much less to excess and debauchery.

John Evelyn again heard a similar message in 1699 when his preacher reproved ‘the customary misspending the solemnity of this and other Festivals, in debauchery, and riotous behaviour etc’. The tone in the later seventeenth-century was evidently one of moderation – scripture supported ‘a gratefull commemoration of Christ’s coming into the world’ with ‘prayers praises and meditations’ but the temptations of the festive season were particularly dangerous and required a strong will to resist.

The Founders love to us

Interior of St John the Evangelist.

Interior of St John the Evangelist.

When reading up on Thoresby’s activities during Christmas week, I noticed that December 27 was another lawful Christian feast that the antiquarian was quite happy to observe. This was the feast day of the patron saint of his local Church, St John the Evangelist. Yet rather interestingly, the commemoration sermons on this day did not focus on the saint, but on another John, that is, the original founder of the church, John Harrison.[3]

John Harrison (bap.1579-d.1656) was a wealthy merchant and vital benefactor for Leeds, who poured his money into civic improvement, building St John’s Church, forty almshouses and a grammar school in the town. Throughout Thoresby’s lifetime, sermons on the feast of St John inevitably evoked Harrison’s generosity, and provided an occasion for the minister to urge his parishioners to similar acts of charity. In 1701 Thoresby wrote that the Mr Bright Dixon’s commemoration sermon on December 27 ‘shewd that the building of this Christian synagogue was an argument for the Founders love to our Nation, to us of this place in particular and to our souls in special’. In 1694 the sermon was accompanied by ‘a recital of Mr Harrisons noble Benefactions’, in 1703 the minister used the sermon to call for ‘pitty upon the poor’, showing ‘who are the proper objects of charity in what manner, and what measure’.

A series of stained glass windows at St John's depicts its benefactor, John Harrison. This depicts an apocryphal tale in which Harrison presented Charles I, imprisoned in Leeds, with a tankard of gold coins disguised as a draught of ale.

A series of stained glass windows at St John’s depicts its benefactor, John Harrison. This is based on an apocryphal tale in which Harrison presented Charles I, imprisoned in Leeds, with a tankard of gold coins disguised as a draught of ale.

What conclusions might we draw from all this? The sermons indicate that some Restoration clergymen remained uncomfortable with the license and merry-making that accompanied the commemoration of Christ’s birth, though the season also provided a useful didactic opportunity. Beyond that, although Thoresby’s diary reveals a typical lack of enthusiasm towards the feast, I was also expecting to find at least a few related complaints about the unsuitable conduct of close relations, or some moaning about the unseasonable visits of ‘too merry’ friends. Yet there is nothing approaching this, not even a mention of the antiquarian’s father-in-law, who at other times Thoresby didn’t hesitate to criticise for his ‘too liberal’ attitude towards Thoresby’s own liquor. Thoresby just doesn’t seem that interested in the politics or the devotions associated with Christmas, and in some ways he seems more invested in the commemoration of a local benefactor shortly afterwards.

What does this suggest? Are we seeing a Protestant ‘secularisation’ of the ritual calendar, part of the same process that saw saints’ days abolished and then replaced with celebrations of national importance (such as celebrations to mark coronation days or military victories)?[4] Perhaps Thoresby preferred St John’s feast day because it was not an occasion of merry-making but was instead dedicated entirely to pious contemplation. Certainly civic pride, local history, religious piety and seasonable charitable giving were all safely incorporated into the St John’s commemoration, making it a convenient and quite natural alternative to the more embattled Christmas feast day. This reinforces a sense that we can only fully understand the pattern and significance of the English ritual year when we are alert to local and regional nuances, resonances and customary practices.


[1] My thanks to the Yorkshire Archaeological Society for their permission to reproduce material from the Thoresby papers. The following extracts are from Thoresby’s diaries, YAS MS21-MS25.

[2] The diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. Beer (London, 1959).

[3] Joan Kirby, ‘Harrison, John (bap. 1579, d. 1656)’, Oxford Dictionary of National Biography (OUP, 2004) [, accessed 17 Dec 2015]. Ralph Thoresby’s notes on Harrison in his history of Leeds included the information that he lived in a house where there were holes cut in the wainscot ‘to allow the free passage of cats’, for which he had a ‘strange inclination’.

[4] See David Cressy, Bonfires and Bells: National Memory and the Protestant Calendar in Elizabethan and Stuart England (London, 1989).

4 thoughts on “Fantastic Thoresby V: a late seventeenth-century Christmas

  1. Pingback: Merry Christmas from the Monster! | the many-headed monster

  2. Pingback: Christmas Through the Centuries 2018 edition ~ Random Bits of Fascination

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  4. Pingback: A Little Christmas History 2017 edition ~ Random Bits of Fascination

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