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Christmas in Postgate's Day

It is difficult to know how Father Nicholas Postgate would have celebrated Christmas, known in his time as the Nativity of Christ. Fortunately I possess a prayer book published in 1688, only nine years after his martyrdom. It includes the Mass in both Latin and English, prayers before and after confession and communion, the Rosary, vespers and evensong in Latin and English, an explanation of priests' vestments, prayers for King James, Queen Mary and Queen Katherine and even advice about not resorting to witches.

My old missal also features an explanation of feasts and holy days, saying that January 1st, the Feast of the Circumcision, "is vulgarly called New Year's Day" and it then gives a detailed account of holy days and feast days. At the time of Nicholas Postgate's birth, New Year's Day was The Feast of the Annunciation, otherwise known as Lady Day which occurred on March 25. For this reason, the year of his birth is sometimes written 1599/1600.

Pope Gregory decided to amend the calendar and succeeded but although most Catholic countries accepted his new calendar in 1582, it was not adopted by Protestant England until 1752 with January lst as New Year's Day. Even today, some of us refer to Old Michaelmas Day or Old Christmas Day! They are references to the "old" calendar.

Christmas in 1688 included The Four Sundays of Advent, stressing that December 25 is a most solemn feast celebrated by the whole Catholic Church, "even from the Apostles' time to this day." However, my book does not refer to either vigil masses or Midnight Mass although both were being celebrated by the fourth century.

One early reference to Midnight Mass is when the Basilica of St Mary Major was built in Rome c. AD 430. Pope Sixtus III included a replica of the cave where Jesus was born and there instituted Midnight Mass to celebrate His Birth.

However, there can be no doubt during his priestly Ministry of the Moors, Father Postgate celebrated three Christmas Day Masses probably with one at midnight but these would not have been held in a church. They would be secretly celebrated in safe houses, large or small.

Celebrating Christmas

Illustration from 'A Christmas Garland'

By Christmas Eve, most houses would be decorated with evergreen leaves such as holly and ivy or even mistletoe. There would be lights from candles and from a blazing fire which, on Christmas Eve, would burn the traditional Yule log that required an open hearth. It was ignited from remains of the previous year's Yule log. It was important that a Yule log burnt throughout Christmas Day and that a piece was kept for the following year.

Some of us might associate these items - the greenery and the Yule log - with superstition and pagan customs and some people express surprise at finding such items in Catholic churches over the festive season.

However, Pope Gregory I wrote to St Augustine of Canterbury to advise him that, in hoping to convert the English, he should permit or even encourage popular and harmless customs. One very old example at the Roman Saturnalia and in some Scandinavian countries was the evergreens that adorned one's home. Indeed, the name Yule for Christmas is a pagan word whilst use of mistletoe dates to the druids. Now, we make good use of those "pagan" customs.

In addition to his priestly duties Father Postgate would surely have enjoyed the festive atmosphere. During his long ministry around Yorkshire, he would have tasted frummety, furmety or frumenty, a dish made from boiled wheat or barley which was allowed to cool, be strained and then boiled again along with egg yolks, milk, sugar or broth. In some places dried fruit such as raisins or sultanas were added whilst in other areas, spices were included. There were many varieties of frummety. When I was a child, we ate it on Christmas Eve after coming home after Midnight Mass at Lealholm in the Esk Valley.

The traditional Christmas fare, once regarded as the greatest of Christmas treats, was roast beef. The King always had a baron of beef which was two sirloins joined by the backbone and roasted on Christmas Day. Accessories would have included bread, roots, pot herbs, beetroot, carrots, coleworts (herb bennet), parsnips, salsify (edible plant with a long root), skirrets (carrot-like plants) and turnips. Potatoes had been introduced in 1586 so they might be included, although in Father Postgate's time, they were quite rare. Spiced ales or wines might be enjoyed too.

Whilst the wealthy would arrange huge sumptuous meals of rich food, inviting everyone rich and poor to join them, the poorer people made merry with much less. A recipe for "Minst pyes" at the time of James I used half a peck of flour, a loin of fat mutton, two pounds each of sugar, butter, raisins and currants, six eggs and various spices. The poor would settle for brawne, pork that had been boiled and pickled.

Dominating Christmas festivities in the 17th century were the Puritans who in 1652 abolished Christmas - "the superstitious Yule" - and made Christmas Day a day of fasting. At that time, Father Postgate was at Halsham in the East Riding. From 1642 until 1659 he was chaplain to the Dowager Countess Dunbar but we are not told how the Halsham people dealt with the Puritanical antics that persisted until the Restoration of Charles II in 1660.

What can be certain is that Father Postgate would have celebrated Christmas in a holy and prayerful way and he would have shared everything with those poorer than he.

A Christmas garland of holly and ivy

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