21. Christmas with Samuel Pepys
The famed diarist, chronicling his life from the 1st January 1660 until the end of May 1669, Pepys records in detail eight of his Christmases. These include, in 1660, the first legal celebration of Christmas since 1645; this day like many others is treated with little distinction from others around it. Pepys did attend Church twice that day, the latter containing a particularly boring sermon that put Pepys to sleep. He did see his brother with whom he and his wife (Elizabeth) shared a lunch of mutton and chicken but apparently did little else “Christmas” like, a word he only used in 1667. The following Decembers only vary slightly. Gift giving didn’t become common until the 19th century, while Pepys often went into the office in the afternoon and the servants were also expected to work.
Every single year Pepys attended Church at least once in the day sometimes more than once. In 1662, possibly being delayed by his sick wife who stayed at home or the ‘most brave cold and dry frosty morning’ weather, Pepys arrived at White Hall late and missed communion. He thus hung around the palace until the next service in the chapel. Additionally, in 1665 he found a wedding going on when he arrived at church something he had ‘not see many a day’. It seems to have cheered him though it may just have been schadenfreude: ‘what delight we married people have to see these poor folks decoyed into our condition’.
Most Christmas days included some kind of lunch either with just his wife, or with family and friends. Mince pies appear as early as 1662 and were clearly Mrs Pepys’s responsibility – ‘I sent for a mince-pie abroad, my wife not being well enough to make any herself yet’ which went with their meal of chicken and plum-porridge. Again in 1667, arriving in the early hours after an all night drinking session, Pepys found his wife in bed with ‘Jane and the maids making pyes’ instead. However, in 1666 Pepys recorded that his wife slept in having ‘sat up till four this morning’ making mince pies with the maids. There was also much drinking in some years (though others were apparently sober). That day in 1666 Pepys, his brother, Mrs Pepys, and possibly even the maid indulged in ‘plenty of good wine of my owne’. In 1661 Pepys’s host Sir William Penn used alcohol to get rid of a ‘half drunk’ guest by making him completely drunk through drinking of toasts to the guest and the King ‘and by that means made him drunk, and so he went away’.
Not all Christmases were as amicable. Pepys often has bitter words for his wife. Before heading to Penn’s in 1661 ‘taking occasion from some fault in the meat to complain of my maid’s sluttery, my wife and I fell out, and I up to my chamber in a discontent.’ They soon made up but even on days like this Pepys’s short temper and patriarchal attitudes show themselves. In 1664 he left his wife at home and after lunch visited his colleague Sir William Batten who invited the couple for dinner the next day causing Pepys ‘pain all the day, and the night too after’ thinking how to prevent his wife from having to go. Elizabeth had stayed at home because of her ‘eye being ill still of the blow I did in a passion give her on Monday last’, Pepys having hit her ‘for not commanding her servants as she ought’. His shame at his violence is apparent eventually coming up with a vague excuse of her illness.
Christmas in Pepys’s diary then while featuring mid-week church going was a profoundly unexceptional day and without the date attached one might not even guess what time of year it was.
By Alex Wakelam
Image: Portrait of Samuel Pepys by J. Hayls. Oil on canvas, 1666, 756 mm × 629 mm, National Portrait Gallery, London. (Wikimedia Commons)