Thursday, 1 January 2015

Mistress Custom vs Mistress Newcome...


During the darkest days of Puritan ascendancy, Old Father Christmass was outlawed and a spray of holly was scorned as the detestable token of popery. The Royalist poet John Taylor (1578-1653) composed his many apologia for Christmass during this triumph of rebellion, most famously his Complaint of Christmass, in which Father Christmass went from town to town and saw no signs of holyday, the people thereof, mad and seduced to have arisen against God and King, and forbearing to keep any respective memory of Christ's birth. In London Father Christmass complained to a Mammonist merchant about the weakness of the beer, and is thereto told:

Alas, father Christmas, our high and mighty ale that would formerly knock down Hercules and trip up the heels of a Giant is lately struck in a deep consumption, the strength of it being quite gone with a blow from Westminster, and there is a Tetter and Ringworm called Excise doth make it look thinner than it would do.

Things were cheerier in the Devon farmsteads, where the poor went nimbly dancing, some to cards, some to carolling and good cheer. He left, exhorting them to call home exiles, help the fatherless, cherish the widow, and restore every man his due.

Taylor composed another in December 1648, a dialogue betwixt Mistress Custom, a victualler's wife in Cripplegate, and Mistress Newcome, an army captain's wife living in Reformation Alley just off Destruction Street. It was entitled Women Will Have Their Will or Give Christmas His Due. This, for me, is the most interesting as it questions the rightness of blind obedience to authority especially where cherished traditions are concerned. Mistress Newcome finds Mistress Custom decorating her house for Christmass and they discuss the feast. Quoth Mistress Custom:

I should rather and sooner forget my mother that bare me and the paps that gave me suck, than forget this merry time, nay if thou had'st ever seen the mirth and jollity that we have had at those times when I was young, thou wouldst bless thyself to see it.

When Newcome rejoins that Christmass custom ought to be put aside, being the writ of Parliament, Custom replies:

God deliver me from such authority; it is a Worser Authority than my husband's, for though my husband beats me now and then, yet he gives my belly full and allows me money in my purse... Cannot I keep Christmass, eat good cheer and be merry without I go and get a licence from the Parliament. Marry gap, come up here, for my part I'll be hanged by the neck first.

Newcome then responds, saying that putting the authority of Parliament aside puts her in the path of that "honest godly part of the army," to which Custom replies in delicious rhyme:

For as long as I do live
And have a jovial crew,
I'll sit and rhat, and be Fat,
And give Christmass his due.

It's reminiscent of my own arguments against papal authority to legislate dearly-held customs and traditions out of existence. If I am Mistress Custom and the Traddies are Mistress Newcome, which of us is right? Because it seems to me that Mistress Custom would be held in scorn by the Traddies which is ironic since they claim to be the godly elect and defenders, staunch in long years of trial, of that which has been set aside by the Bugninis of this world. God deliver us from papal authority indeed...

I hope that during this Christmasstide you raise your glasses to Mistress Custom and to Old Father Christmass whom she held so dear.

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