Writing Portfolio


Of London's Christmas traditions, with references to Samuels Pepys and Johnson

Looking into the stories behind London’s various Christmas traditions has been a fun thing to do for my latest Londonist piece. I must say that my favourite bit is the one about the ‘Boy Bishop’ of St Paul’s, probably because I used to be a chorister myself and am therefore favourably inclined to the idea that, in times past, one of them briefly got to be a mock-bishop. This would seem to be an ecclesiastical variant of the ‘Lord of Misrule’ tradition (whereby the social order was briefly inverted) which was prevalent in the Middle Ages but which dates back to Roman times. Anyway, it is one of several aspects of a London Christmas, modern as well as historic, which made it into my seasonal article which also looks at (among other things) the meat auction at Smithfield, the lack of public transport on Christmas Day (something about which many Londoners are oddly accepting) and the question of which was the first London department store to have a Santa’s Grotto. The result can be found via this link:

My source for the ‘Boy Bishop’ story was a book called London Lore: The Legends and Traditions of the World’s Most Vibrant City by Steve Roud – a really good compendium of London’s folklore, of which there is a lot (including various ghost stories, local customs, etc). Definitely recommended reading for anyone with an interest in London’s rich and varied history.

Sticking with Christmas, though, there are of course some things that don’t change much over the years and even the centuries. For evidence of this, we can look at the experiences of Samuel Pepys on Christmas Day, 1661; he had an argument with a close family member and witnessed someone dealing with a drunken guest, both of which are things that many would readily identify as festive occurrences in our own time. After going to church, Pepys had dinner followed by an argument with his wife (“taking occasion, from some fault in the meat, to complain of my maid’s Sluttery”), causing the diarist to go “up to my Chamber in a discontent”. Later on, Mr and Mrs Pepys popped in on a neighbour, Sir William Penn (the admiral and father of the man who founded Pennsylvania). Unfortunately, another guest, a Captain Cock, “came to us half-drunck and began to talk; but Sir W. Pen, knowing his humour and that there was no end of his talking, drinks four great glasses of wine to him one after another, healths to the King &c., and by that means made him drunk, and so he went away; and so we sat down to supper and were merry; and so after supper home to bed.”

I have also recently been drawn to the writings of Samuel Johnson, in particular his essays which were for the most part published under three short-lived periodicals – The Rambler (1750-52), The Adventurer (1753-54) and The Idler (1758-60). There are some true literary gems to be found here, and it surprised me to learn that a few are dated Christmas Day, meaning (presumably) that the great man could sometimes be found writing over the festive period as opposed to going out and indulging in some seasonal perpotation (a word that is in his Dictionary and means, and I quote, “the act of drinking largely”).

One such essay, from The Adventurer (25th December 1753), concerns the folly of wanting too many things. Taking the ancient Greek philosopher Socrates as his starting-point, Johnson ponders “the great business of life to create wants as fast as they are satisfied”. He observes that “there is no man, who does not … suffer himself to feel pain for the want of that, of which, when it is gained, he can have no enjoyment.” A couple of paragraphs later, he writes: “What we believe ourselves to want, torments us not in proportion to its real value, but according to the estimation by which we have rated it in our own minds.” Some seasonal food for thought there!

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