December 21, 2015

The Puritans' Christmas Party

(published in the EDP 19 Dec 2015)

And here I am talking baubles on Dec 23 2015 on BBC Radio Berkshire, 24 minutes in-

What would a Christmas Party at Oliver Cromwell’s house be like? It sounds like one of those oxymorons the great Puritan epic poet John Milton (Cromwell’s Latin Secretary) favoured – the ‘darkness visible’ of hell for instance. Oliver Cromwell’s House in Ely is inviting visitors to find out.

There would be poetry and music – Cromwell was a generous patron of the arts. There would even be minced pies and mulled wine – Cromwell, contrary to popular misconception, banned neither. But this is not really the issue. The issue is what would Cromwell celebrate.

Milton’s famous Ode ‘ On the Morning of Christ’s Nativity tells us.

In it Nature is represented as an Eve figure, a fallen woman. At Christ Tide, the dead of winter, she is nervous about meeting her Maker. Though naked of her ‘gawdy trim' – her flowers and foliage - her ‘guilty front’ is shameful.

Nature needs a December covering of virgin snow. In such wise, eyes downward, she is able to meet Christ’s gaze.

So far so anti-festive and anti-fun. The party-pooping killjoy Puritan, fearing life and the female, which some less spartan strands of Christianity, embellished with millenniums of solstice festival imported from pagan traditions - comparatively - embrace.

But hold you hard there. Milton’s poem is called ‘ON the morning of Christ’s Nativity.’ Eternity has entered Time; there is a deeper magic afoot. Every Christmas day is still the first. And on it, all evil and all pagan gods are banished.

Milton describes himself at the Nativity running ahead to offer his gift – the poem - ahead of the three ‘wisards’ bringing the newborn Christ their pagan gold, frankincense and myrrh.

It is this Eternity that the Puritans sought to enter at ‘Christ Tide’ behind closed doors and in quiet reflection with their families.

And though Cromwell never sought personally to impose such peace on the wassailing revellers whom Puritans would see as worshipping Mammon, his fundamentalist government did and it has rankled ever since.

There is nothing in the Bible telling Christians to celebrate Christ’s birth on 25 December (Mithras’s birthday and the Roman Saturnalia) nor to observe our chilly season of gifts, ghost stories, gluwein, or even the robin – a bird sacred to Thor. Pagans worshipping the sunrise at Stonehenge would recognise our 'Christ'mas before Jesus of Nazareth would.

But English Protestants defending the Reformation from what they saw as a sneaky Stuart slide back towards the excesses of Rome felt the same about the Stuart ‘Mass'. So even the mild Anglican Midnight service we attend as a concession to a half-forgotten faith in the midst of a month of shopping, feasting and boozing would have offended Cromwell let alone some of his more extreme supporters.

Cromwell bitterly divides opinion. As a board in Oliver Cromwell House asks, is he hero or villain?

His hero status is as a pioneer of Parliamentary government and constitutional monarchy. Modern Britons might admire his combination of strong progressive leadership with ‘warts and all' lack of vanity and personal ambition; the way a humble inspired Fen farmer rose to lead cavalry charges, then a new model army he founded with Sir Thomas Fairfax and finally the Greater England which conquered and constitutionally modernised (in Ireland, alas, brutally though no more brutally than the Tudors and Stuarts) the home nations.

AUDIO. The Ballad of Cromwell's Head, sung live in the Civil War Room at Oliver Cromwell's House, Ely.

Much – not all - of the Cromwellian project was reversed at the Restoration. But The Glorious Revolution of 1688 and subsequent progressive legislation restored it and revealed a man centuries ahead of his time. We admire too his Protestant non-sectarianism, his principles, the lack of corruption in his regime.

We don’t like him very much though. And much of that comes out in the popular myth that he cancelled Christmas.

I blame The Good King Charles interpretation of history which starts in the children’s fairy tales about the period: Charles I a martyred Christ figure, as painted by Van Dyke, rather than the tyrant and ‘Man of blood’ who broke treaties and perpetuated civil wars that wiped out one in four of the English population (more than both world wars put together). Paint is where the resemblance ends – there is a Miltonic cosmos between Charles’ absolutism and the Sermon on the Mount.

And but for the grace of Cromwell’s victory at Dunbar, Charles’ son, the “Merry Monarch,’ would have handed over Britain to Covenant-bashing Scottish Calvinists – they’d have cancelled a lot more than Christmas. This is forgotten. Instead, children hear about Charles II’s attractively indulgent (and self-centred) lifestyle and the romance of his royal escape to France from ‘Cromwell’s preachies.’

Neither Charles was a Good King Wencelas. All those fun-loving Cavalier Christmases in stately homes were of little use to the poor and homeless Christ inconveniently emphasises.

To me, the real folk song romantics of the English Civil War are not wealthy cavaliers hiding up trees, in drag, or down the priest holes of stately homes but the levelling redcoats who fought for a new England they could believe in. An England challenging the ‘divine right of kings’ to reverse the Reformation by stealth and to rule without Parliament.

Unlike fellow East Anglian people’s champion Robert Kett, Cromwell had the misfortune not to die for the cause – he lived to implement it. How does the romantic reputation of ‘God’s Englishman’ (Cromwell) endure success? How did he use the power he won?

Cromwell believed in oligarchy, not democracy, though for the first time in English history, one not based on class. The Rule of the Saints meant any Protestant man with a stake in the country, not just by owning property in it (Cromwell was himself never a great landowner) but by fighting for it. The Parliamentary army was drawn from a much wider and more democratic franchise than Parliament.

To Cromwell, Protestantism meant the individual conscience guided by God. (‘God not Man is King’ was the epitaph on his tomb.) And God could speak through anybody.

This made him (contrary to propaganda) unusually tolerant as (against the Puritan stereotype) he claimed no special divination over other Protestants. And Catholic historians agree that even Catholics, except (alas) in Ireland, were better treated under his regime than was the norm under the Stuarts and Tudors.

‘Puritans’ did not see themselves through our modern eyes as killjoys but as mainstream Protestants defending the Reformation and the Protestant England of Good Queen Bess. Cromwell is popularly misrepresented as smashing all the stained glass out of the Lady Chapel of Ely Cathedral (that was Thomas Cromwell) and as draining all the colour and cheer out of Christmas.

But Oliver was defending the deep magic of Christ Tide. Of Eternity entering Time. Not just from the heathen paganism of pre-Christian times but from the ‘Roman’ festival the Stuart Church would make of it, the country and Christianity.

The Christmas trail at Oliver Cromwell House in Ely runs until twelfth night. It guides visitors around Cromwell’s house and asks them to identify objects alien to genuine Christmas tradition.

The only gift....There it is, in the Jarrolds' Christmas window.

Gareth Calway has just published ‘Doin different – new ballads from the East of England’ - on sale in bookshops throughout East Anglia or from . 'Doin different' includes ballads on Cromwell, Cavaliers, Roundheads, Robert Kett and the proto-Protestant martyr William Sawtrey of Lynn.

Anto Morra’s new CD ‘Boudicca’s Country’ (12 ballads from ‘Doin different) includes ‘A Lynn Carol’ inspired by Margery Kempe - you can hear it live tomorrow at Fring Church Carol Service or on - and ‘The Ballad of Cromwell’s Head’.

Read Gareth's EDP feature on The Meaning of Christmas: Santa and Saturnalia at the Solstice

For an opposing view see ‘William Winstanley- The Man Who Saved Christmas’ by Alison Barnes (

December 14, 2015

Review of Doin different/Boudicca's Country book/CD launch

Gas and Morra launch Doin Different. 
Pic and review by Baz Allan.

King's Lynn's ancient Hanse House was the venue on Sunday for the launch of Gareth Calway's latest book, "Doin Different. New ballads from the East of England."
After Vanessa Wood-Davies welcomed us into the room, with her harp playing, a selection of ballads from the book were performed by Gareth to an appreciative audience: we did not require much cajolery to join in with the choruses. The subjects of the songs were all folk heroes, heroines or villains of these most eastern counties: Boudicca, Nelson, Edith Cavell, William Sawtrey, the ghost of Anne Boleyn, and a humourously gangsta take on Bad King John, amongst various others. Old stories were given new life - through new music and new words in the traditional ballad form. Songs to share in the folk clubs that grace this region; songs to be shaped, and songs to be enjoyed.

Performance duties were shared with Anto Morra who, along with many other contributors to the book, had put Gareth's words to music. Their on-stage chemistry was effusive, infectious, and rattled the ancient rafters of the room with the raucous "Half God, Half Nelson" . This contrasted most poignantly with Anto's delicate and moving solo rendition of "The Ballad of Edith Cavell," which left this reviewer blinking back incipient tears for that singular tragedy of a hundred years past. Bravo.

Barry Allan

December 12, 2015

Happy 100th Birthday Frank Sinatra - Dec 12 2015

It's Frank's 100th birthday (and you are the 110+ reader of this blogpost).   Steve Knowles and I wish him all the joy he bought us...

Hear The Voice, our tribute here

It's also the 50th anniversary of the last Beatles live concert tour date in Britain. Which I'm also celebrating with a little help from my friends...  See next blog post. Both events are introduced here

Sinatra described 'Something' as the greatest love song of 50 years - and he's sung a few - the best thing Lennon-McCartney her wrote. Except of course it was written and sung by George Harrison, sounding remarkably like John and Paul at once. We luv you Frank!

It Was 50 Years Ago Today - Dec 12 1965

With a little help from my friends Waterline (above) I've put together a commemoration narrative of that moment 50 years ago today when the act you've known for all these years - the ultimate fusion of art and popular culture - played a live concert tour date in Britain for the last time.

Here it is in apple-bite size chunks.

Introduction  (and a happy 100th birthday to Frank Sinatra)

Norwegian Would - But Did She?

Live at The Capitol Cinema, Cardiff, Sunday December 12 1965

We Can Work It Out - Can't We?

A Loaded Warm Revolver 

In December 1965, the Beatles were so loaded with hits, they not only put out a Christmas No 1 single with two A sides, they also put out a Christmas No 1 album of 14 more songs without needing to include either. In that spirit, here's a Christmas bonus for you from Warwick and me from 'Doin different - new ballads from the East of England' (spot the Beatle influence!)

The Ballad of Wells Next the Sea

Finally, for a performance the other Christmas A side (Day Tripper) and the complete fairy story of that Capitol Cinema concert in Cardiff,  here's the second half of 

'Beat Music: It Was 50 Years Ago' 

as broadcast live on Folkspot (now West Norfolk) Radio by guitarist John William and I in 2013 (poster at top of page).

December 07, 2015

Robert Kett, knight of the Commons

Today, a significant day in East Anglian history - the death of Robert Kett, hanged from the walls of Norwich castle on...
Posted by Poppyland Publishing on Monday, 7 December 2015

PS. I performed this at the launch of Doin different on 6 December, as dramatic verse modulating into a melody by Tim Chipping for the chorus. The score of this is also available along with background information about Kett, and the classic ballads The Twa Corbies and The Three Ravens, in the book.

December 04, 2015

The Meaning of Christmas - Solstice, Saturnalia or Santa? (EDP Weekend Dec 21 feature)

There is a live broadcast of this feature done as an entertainment here

Happy Christmas 2019  (a combined-arts card)

  The solstice

My EDP Weekend feature published 21 December 2013

The Meaning of Christmas

So the year turns, the fairy bulbs grow into the gloom and we are once again at the solstice.
Puritans have always demanded that we should ‘put back’ the Christ into Christmas. Pagans counter that ‘Christ Mass’ has much more to do with the winter solstice.
Solstice celebration was certainly there first. Stonehenge, raised at the turn of the Neolithic and Bronze Age, predates the ‘first’ Christmas (in Bethlehem) by thousands of years.
The spooky Scandinavian festival of St Lucy (Dec 21st,) at ‘the year’s deep midnight’ led by girls wearing white robes with red sashes preserves remote memories of how the frozen north celebrated the winter solstice with large bonfires to scare off evil spirits and turn back the course of the sun.
As you look out of your hostelries at the fairy lights, that Christmas cheer-in-the-dark comes from a tradition much nearer Bergen than Bethlehem.
True, the Biblical God comes to earth in a stable surrounded by animals, farm workers, angels and wise men with gifts. But nowhere in the Bible does it tell Christians to celebrate that birth on the 25th December.
In fact the first December Christmas wasn’t until 350 AD when Pope Julius I established it on Mithras’s birthday, the last day of the Roman Saturnalia, a midwinter holiday when work was suspended, the moral and social order was upended, and gifts were exchanged.
There is not a verse in the Bible about holly, ivy, mediaeval geese, Victorian turkeys, German fir trees, mulled wine, mince pies, Christmas Eve ghost stories, robins or Santa.
The word ‘Christmas’ never occurs. Like Christmas puddings, pies and trifles, it is a mediaeval invention. More Saxon ‘Mess’ (feast) than Latin ‘Missa’ (a service).
'Mince' pies are Elizabethan. Their suet, dried fruit and spices ‘minced’ into the meat were regarded as so indulgently ‘pagan’ that Oliver Cromwell passed an Act of Parliament authorising the imprisonment of anyone found guilty of eating a currant pie.
Oh no he didn’t! In 1650, he was away defeating the real killjoys – the Covenant-bashing Scots – at Dunbar, in the service of a Puritan government whose intolerance often exasperated him – ‘what keep wine out of the country lest men be drunk!’ But this is where our folk-memory that the ‘Puritans cancelled Christmas’ comes from.
Let’s talk turkey, a Tudor innovation and one of Henry VIII’s less controversial cuts. But only after Scrooge sent a big one to Bob Cratchit did the turkeys really start voting for Christmas.

Unlike most of our modern Christmas traditions, turkey isn’t German, Nordic or American in origin. Germany tucks in to roast goose and carp served with Gluwein while Icelanders feast on Gammon steak, herring and reindeer. In America, from which it was introduced to Europe by the Spanish in the sixteenth century, a turkey dinner is more associated with November Thanksgiving.
Some believe Goose is a more authentic choice but the old folk rhyme is against them.

At Christmas a capon, at Michaelmas a goose
And somewhat else at New Year’s tide, for feare the lease flies loose.

Geese were released into the stubble fields at Michaelmas to fatten up on the dropped grain. Poor farmers often paid their landlords in geese. So, gentlemen, your authentic Christmas dinner is capon - a castrated cock!

St Boniface cut down an oak in anger – some German pagans were worshipping it - and a fir tree (symbolising Christianity) sprang up from the roots. European tree worship survived in the Scandinavian custom of decorating the Christian house and barn with evergreens at the New Year to scare away the devil. Germans still set up a Paradise Tree in their homes on Dec 24, the feast day of Adam and Eve, hanging it with communion wafers and candles (now cookies) as the symbol of Christ.

But it was not until Prince Albert of the Victoria and Albert Museum, brought it to England in 1840 that it took over the British living room.
Oh no it wasn’t! It was Good Queen Charlotte, German wife of George III, in 1800. Not to mention the ancient British druids who used holly and mistletoe as symbols of eternal life and placed evergreen branches over doors to keep away evil spirits.
Santa wears red instead of the authentic Christmas/solstice green of Gawain and the Green Knight because of coca cola.
Oh no he doesn’t! That change to red precedes coca cola by over a decade.
The holly king fought the oak king for rulership of the year. Its fresh green leaves and bright berries signify the green of growth and fertility – also represented by mistletoe - and the red of blood, a reminder of the springtime to come. Christianity added the blood and crown of thorns of a love that dies for others.
And a spirit of generosity. Let’s raise a glass of mulled wine to the sainted fourth century Bishop of Myra, thanks to whom Christmas really does have its roots in Turkey. Sinterklass. Saint Nicholas. Santa. He believed in giving gifts to children so that they could enjoy their childhood.
An old British folk tale has it that when Jesus was on His way to Calvary, a robin picked a thorn out of his crown, and the blood which issued from the wound falling on the bird dyed its breast red. The robin was originally Thor’s bird – and no real robin ever sang in Palestine - but this legendary bird surely flies higher and sings more sweetly in these Christian versions.
The Christ was definitely an addition to the original pagan ‘Christmas’ – but what a thrill it adds.

Did Cromwell Cancel Christmas? Short Lynn News feature here
The Puritans' Christmas Party (EDP feature, 2015)

December 01, 2015

Not We But One - the first 36 years

 (for Melanie)

Those who say that marriage is safe, they ought to marry you:
So many years of roses’ thorns, and still no getting through.

I hurt you more than any can when seeming not to love
The heart for whom I live and die; believe me, love, I do.

I talk as if I know the score, can sing the words, but still
I love you far too much for me, not near enough for you.

I flirted with your daring once, and called your beauty mine,
Unwarned then of a charge so high, so wild, so overdue.

It takes too long to cleave together, marry all to one,
But if I kiss-you-quick goodbye, I cleave myself in two.

Since love is war, a heart attack, between the good and bad,
I’d offer to surrender: but I’m fighting me not you.

O head and heart if you should wed, don’t boast your Crown of Thorns:
The Rose’ll think you’re ready - that’ll be the end of you.


Not ours, my love, the teen-dream green-screen songs
And films n’ soaps n’ mills n' boons n’ ads
Of 'hunters' living with their mums and dads,
The twenty-something dramas, dinging-dongs,
The sizzling catalogues of straps and thongs,
The Darcys, Juliets and golden lads
In modern strip from tales in which the cads
Are fifty-odd like us and cause all wrongs.

Our story didn't end like these above
In frozen celebrations, wedding dress;
We raised a daughter into Phase and Next,
We're grownups grown together, more or less,
Our romance is a realistic text:
A dangerous, married, grail-quest of true love.