As Christmas approaches I am wondering how the van Aken brothers, Arnold, Joseph and Alexander, would have spent the Holy day; what rituals and traditions were typical in the first half of the eighteenth century. I know that the glorious, highly decorated evergreen trees lit by tiny twinkling candles, families gathered around roaring fires and air heavy with the smell mixed spices and plum pudding are all part of a Germanic tradition introduced to Britain by Prince Albert in the nineteenth century. Many of the carols we sing today are standardised Victorian versions of regional variations from earlier centuries.
Early in the eighteenth century[i] the British liked to hang roughly tied boughs of evergreen leaves, holly and bunches of mistletoe in their homes. Mistletoe was a popular pagan symbol to ward off evil spirits and promise fertility in the coming spring. Church decorations tended to be limited to red berry laden holly sprigs and ivy. The carol, The Holly and the Ivy, was a favourite to sing reflecting these decorations. Other carols that the van Aken brothers could have sung might have included Joy to the World, based on Psalm 98 it was written and first published in 1719 by Isaac Watts[ii], and early versions of I saw three ships come sailing and Good King Wenceslas[iii].
The seventeenth century diarist Samuel Pepys noted how he spent one Christmas day ‘….. had a pleasant walk to White Hall, where I intended to have received the Communion with the family, but I came a little too late. By and by down to the chappell again where Bishopp Morley preached upon the song of the Angels, “Glory to God on high, on earth peace, and good will towards men.” Methought he made but a poor sermon,………’[iv] He then walks home and ate ‘……a mess of brave plum-porridge and a roast Pullet for dinner; and I send for a mince-pie abroad, my wife not being well to make any herself yet.’ Pepys then went to his office, ‘…. Practicing arithmetique alone with great content, till 11 at night; and so home to supper and bed.’
A relaxed attitude to the religious aspect of Christmas Day seems to be quite normal. Although religion played a central part for many in Britain during the eighteenth century, not everyone was passionately driven. Life centered on the church calendar seems to have a strong sense of a community for the parishioners rather than fire, brimstone and damnation. Rightly or wrongly, I feel, having come from Antwerp that was a city fought over for decades by royal and religious factions, the van Akens brothers would have had a relaxed view of a God – however I am unable to verify this feeling