Wednesday, December 9, 2020

A Whipple Christmas in 1606

© By Blaine Whipple

By the time of Amy's birth in 1606, the Matthew Whipple, Sr. family should have been able to celebrate Christmas in grand style. The citizens of Bocking and Braintree joyously celebrated the birth of Jesus. The inns, taverns, and alehouses were wreathed with Christmas greenery and within those warm, noisy, crowded places, good beer and ale and all the best wines were served. All houses from leading citizens to the lowly rat-catcher were open to hospitality. Few if any went hungry, including prisoners who received baskets of good things to eat and drink.

At night the streets were lit with lanterns and torches, minstrels played music, and young men rang church bells until it seemed the spires and steeples would tumble down in a heap like the walls of Jericho. Firewood sprinkled with the musk and leaves of flowers, was burned in place of the usual stinking sea coal. The firewood brought the congenial sounds of axes, the rasping hum and whining singsong of long and short saws, and the creaking of the carts of the wood bearers who looked forward to their best season of the year.

A great blast from a ram's horn announced the opening of Bocking's manor house and owner Sir Robert Barker dispensed Christmas hospitality to all. Servants served tankards of nappy ale and wonderful cakes and cream. A fiddler played country dances enjoyed by all, especially Sir. Robert who was light of foot and quick as a fox. No one was better at Shake-a-Trot or Bishop of Chester's jig.

The Whipples celebrated Christmas in grand style. They opened their home to employees, neighbors, and strangers. The usual torches and plain tallow candles and sputtering rushes dipped in fat were replaced with the best candles of berry and beeswax scented with herbs and perfumes. They burned night and day along with the perfumed oil in the lamps and the yule log in the hearth of the hall lighted with a brand preserved from last year's log. All chambers in the house seemed to be choirs of candle flame.

Wreaths and branches of evergreen were hung throughout the home. They included slender, brittle branches of potted rosemary with narrow, shiny leaves; blue-green juniper with stiff, bristling, little leaves like those that sheltered and concealed the Holy Family from Herod's murderous soldiery; strong-scented myrtle in honor of true and unfeigned love; glossy, fragrant leaves of bay; ivy with clusters of black berries and thin, smooth, shiny, sharp-pointed, leaves, each looking snipped and cut out of tin and then painted with rich green. And because it was Christmas, they scattered the three herbs strewn in the manager in Bethlehem in the yard, barn, and shed: wild thyme, grounsel, and sweet woodruff which made the oldest hay smell newly mown.

Mistletoe, its twin leaves like a pair of slender, delicate wings and berries like tiny pearls, and smooth, prickled holly brightened by round, blood-red berries were hung as "remembrance of the most precious blood of Our Lord and Savior." These evergreens remained in place until Candlemas, when for good luck they were fed to the fires and replaced through Lent until Easter Day with the deep green leaves of the box tree.

It was time for Christmas cakes and ale; to wear their most gaudy, light-colored, lighthearted costumes; to put on jewels both true and paste; time for hobby horses, for dancing with strings and ropes of little bells twisted around each leg; time for mumming and masking and disguising; time to tune instruments, make music, and sing the ancient and ageless carols. When the tables were finally cleared of the Christmas feast, Matthew and Joan would watch the children play their games and join in late singing and dancing.

As the evening wore on, Matthew, feeling the need for fresh air, might have gone outside alone to stand in the cold, star-dazzled night, thanking God for his family and his good fortune. Full of love and charity, he would wish on a star seeking good fortune for both friend and enemy, wishing the dead from Adam and Eve to now their rest in peace, and the living, from the beggar in his hedge to the queen in her soft bed, the best life had to offer. As he made these wishes he would have wondered what the queen was thinking: was there a place in her dreams for the Bocking clothier and his family, for the plowman, the butcher, the baker, the beggar and the school master? As the last echoes of the midnight bells faded into silence, he re-entered the home and joined Joan in bed.

The day after Christmas, the Whipples prayed and feasted in honor of the martyrdom of St. Stephen and the second day rejoiced in honor of St. John the Evangelist. On the third day they prayed and fasted in honor of Childermas the day they were to think upon the blood slaughter of the Holy Innocents by king Herod. If Matthew wasn't one to relinquish all the old ways for the sake of the new, he probably said a private silent prayer on December 29 for the blessed English saint, Thomas à Becket of Canterbury, for whose death an English king once bared his body and knelt to be whipped in penance. It was not an easy thing for an Englishman, no matter what he professed or whatever his religious persuasion, to forget communion of English saints and martyrs.

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