IT IS exactly 300 years since Father Christmas was tried, and cleared by a jury, of "encouraging His Majesty's subjects in idleness, gluttony, drunkeness, gaming, swearing, rioting and all manner of extravagance and debauchery".
The Examination and Tryal of Old Father Christmas, published at The Gun "at the West End of St Paul's", was one of many pamphlets produced around the time the Puritans attempted the suppression of Christmas. Examples can be seen at The Spirit of Christmas exhibition at the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood (daily except Fridays until January 18; admission free). In the 17th century the controversial Father Christmas was not so much St Nicholas as the Christmas spirit which became elusive in the 1650s after Cromwell had outlawed mince pies and other pleasures.
There is a paper dated 1645 (printed by Simon Minc'd Pye) detailing "the Arraignment, conviction and imprisonment of Christmas—on St—Thomas=Day last". In 1653 we read of Father Christmas already depicted bearded, attempting a come back with the words "in imitation of my great and glorious Lord and Master Jesus
Christ . I come . .. just as my Master did not know how cruelly he would be treated".
But this year the annual exhibition's main theme is the evolving secular revels. It is suggested that Christmas was recreated by the Victorians. There are written descriptions of prenineteenth century celebrations and hardly any pictures. Victorian artists had to use their imagination liberally when illustrating earlier Christmas scenes. The picture of a bishop wearing his mitre whilst preparing to tackle a huge round pudding is captioned "unconvincing".
One of the best historical artists was Joseph Nash who took great care with his research and was able to at least check architectural detail when drawing such scenes as The Yule Log Being Brought Into Penshurs1 Palace. George Cruikshank's slightly more humorous series of drawings for The Yule Log capture the last of the non commercial Christmas.
Even in secular circles, Victorian Christmas still started at the end of Advent with Twelfth Night being observed widely and with fervour. In January crowds would press against shop windows to see not sale bargains but the huge Epiphany cakes containing the lucky bean just as the pudding had the sixpence. Whoever found the bean was King and ruled over the party as the master of ceremonies.
Often everyone.had a role to play. On arrival party guests would select a card which decided the character one was to play. Sheets of such cards were sold showing numerous cartoon figures such as Mr Cut-a-Dash, Lady Pompus or Sir David Dash-a-Long. Often there would be a conundrum on the back with which to tease everyone What county in Ireland reminds )ut_of nearly y-irrit out? (Wicklow).
Later the seasonal cartoons were to be found in profusion in the comics which always had snow coverred mastheads. The museum has a mint condition copy of The Rainbow dated January 2 1926 which carries a front page report of Porky Boy's Christmas Day tricks.
In an early annual Denis The Menace is already felling the decorated tree. The strangest illustrations are those by Margaret Tempest for Little Grey Rabbit's Christmas. The figures standing in the snow admiring the tree look like Easter bunnies.
What these artists did for the rest of year can be reviewed at the British Library's Sing A Song for Sixpence exhibition in the British Museum (daily until January 25; admission free). Opposite the main gates is a blue plaque honouring Randolf Caldecott who illustrated 16 great picture books and, in this centenary year of his death, Caldecott is used as a vantage point to survey three centuries of narrative illustration starting with a picture printed by Caxton in Westminster Abbey.
Brian Alderson who arranged the show and wrote the accompanying book (Cambridge, £9.95) recalls that as a bank clerk Caldecott used to surreptitiously draw caricatures of customers in Manchester.