The Great Fire: defence and disaster, but the end is nigh

The Great Fire of London began in the early hours of a Sunday morning. By Tuesday you’d expect the fire would have been extinguished or simply died down. You’d be wrong.

In fact dawn on Tuesday heralds the day of greatest destruction. The fire spreads faster. More houses than ever are consumed. And buildings burn to the ground which no-one thought could even go on fire.


Primarily because a major fire in the 17th century was very different from a major fire now.

Our modern assumption is that, with time, a fire will be beaten. We have fire brigades staffed by fully trained firefighters. They have excellent equipment, such as high pressure hoses, extending ladders, protective suits, breathing apparatus, and even drones. And fire hydrants provide near-endless water supplies. Also, many buildings don’t burn easily because they’re constructed with fire-retardant materials, fitted with early warning smoke alarms, and sprinkler systems are installed in their ceilings.

The realities of September 1666 were nothing like those. Citizen firefighters threw buckets of water on fires, and used hooks to tear down walls. At the height of the Great Fire neither of those methods were possible because the heat was so intense no-one could get nearer than 100 yards (91 metres).[1] London’s houses were the exact opposite of fire-retardant – after a warm, dry summer the thatch-covered wooden homes were perfect fuel; they caught fire easily and burned quickly. What made every challenge much worse was the exceptionally powerful east to west wind, fanning the flames and spreading embers to neighbouring streets.[2]

So, in 1666, as long as there were houses not yet ablaze, the fire could spread. And on that Tuesday the fire did.

Here’s one example. One of the rivers flowing through London is the Fleet. The river is how Fleet Street – the one time centre of the newspaper industry – gets its name, but today the river is almost entirely underground. In the 17th century, the Fleet was a sizeable river, and therefore a natural firebreak. It flowed about a mile west of Pudding Lane where the fire started.

Early that Tuesday morning, the Duke of York (James, the brother of King Charles II) stations his ‘firemen’ beside the river, determined to stop the fire’s progress. It will not pass this point. But the fire has a different plan. Driven by the gale, sparks fly high in the air, cross the river, and start new fires to the side and behind the soldiers. Now their lives are in great danger. All hope of halting the fire is abandoned and the Duke and his troops run to save their lives.

The soldiers are not the only ones trying frantically to escape the fire. The mass of London’s ordinary citizens, and the wealthy, upper classes, become very aware a fast-moving inferno is raging while they are imprisoned with it behind solid stone walls. Those ancient Roman-built city walls surround them on three sides with the River Thames on the fourth. The fire is spreading fast. It is clearly beyond anyone’s control. They must get outside the city walls. Citizens pack whatever they can carry on their backs and head for the city gates. The affluent are desperate not only for their lives but also for their valuable possessions. For those they need carts or wagons, and that generates opportunistic commerce. Prices for hiring a cart soar. A charge of a couple of shillings before the fire now becomes £40, equal to more than £133,000/$161,000 in today’s money. And the desperate demand to transport possessions creates new employment as the poor of the city hire out their labour as porters. Some load themselves with wealthy goods and are never seen again.

The mood now is panic. Throngs of people along with many horses and carts push towards each of the city gates. Those gates are narrow since part of their purpose is to protect the city from invading armies.[3] Narrow gates cause no problem for casual traffic in and out, but they soon block when huge numbers try to flee at once.

Then a difficult, dangerous situation gets worse. The crowds at the gates are frightened, and their fear quickly turns to anger. Some push even harder. There is a serious danger that people will be trampled under feet, hooves or cart wheels. That concerns the city magistrates. But those officials are also worried about something else. They need people to stay and fight the fire, not flee to safety in nearby fields. So they take the remarkable step of ordering the city gates shut. No-one is to leave. They must turn back and tackle the flames, “that, (with) no hopes of saving any things left, they might have more desperately endeavoured the quenching of the fire”.[4]

The magistrates’ reasoning is delusional. The hordes at the city gates will never go back. The city is an inferno. They have nothing with which to fight the fire. They cannot save a single building, but could lose their lives, their children’s lives, and what remains of their possessions. No-one turns back. There is near rioting at every gate. Before long the magistrates see sense, and order the gates reopened so people can escape the burning city.

As the Great Fire rages on two major buildings are threatened: the Tower of London and St Paul’s Cathedral. One is successfully defended; the other burns to the ground.


Fires burn strongly through Tuesday morning. The Duke of York’s firefighters are ruthless in tearing down properties to create firebreaks. With the King’s authority, they’re permitted to destroy private property, and now they do it on a larger scale. On the north edge of the fire, they create a massive firebreak, one they know the fire cannot jump. But they’re wrong. Still fed by strong winds, burning embers fly across the gaps, and the Great Fire continues its relentless march.

Then the fire does something wholly unexpected, something seemingly impossible, something deadly dangerous – it moves east. The gale has blown for more than two days east to west, and therefore pushed the fire westward across the heart of the old city. But now, with no change in the wind, from the fire’s origins in Pudding Lane flames spread in the other direction from one house to another.

The Tower of London as it is today.
[Duncan] from Nottingham, UK, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

That is critically dangerous for one of London’s most prominent buildings, the Tower of London. The Tower is a military establishment, part of the city’s defences against invaders. Inside are barrels of gunpowder weighing some 600,000 lbs (272,155 kg). It’s the largest stockpile of gunpowder anywhere in the country. Massive heat alone could cause that gunpowder to ignite without the fire even getting close. The blast will destroy the Tower and nearby London Bridge. And, writes John Evelyn later, the detonation would have “sunk and torn all the vessels in the river and rendered the demolition beyond all expression for several miles about the country”.

Until now no-one at the Tower of London has been alarmed. Many times fires have started but quickly died down. Besides, the Tower is a major stone stronghold. No fire could harm the buildings or its occupants. But, as the fire raged through the city during Sunday and Monday, and now into Tuesday, the Tower’s garrison recognises this fire is very different. Despite the wind, the flames are coming their way. And they are very afraid.

The Tower of London is in fact a castle. The word ‘tower’ in the name comes from the White Tower, one of its oldest and most prominent buildings. (There are more details on the Tower of London in the footnote below.[5])

In the 13th century the initial castle walls were supplemented by outer walls, known as curtain walls. They were built behind a wide moat and a short distance further out than the walls around main buildings. Together the moat and curtain walls would be a near insurmountable barrier halting invaders getting near to the castle. So surely they would stop any fire threatening the Tower of London.

For many centuries, the landward side of the Tower of London has been protected by its curtain walls – the outer walls shown here are set apart from the inner walls.
Joy, CC BY 2.0 <;, via Wikimedia Commons

Except perhaps not this fire. Steadily it moves east, ever nearer to the Tower. The garrison inside know that other stone buildings – even the massive Baynard’s Castle – have been ruined by the fire. And their situation is much more perilous because of those massive stocks of gunpowder. They are almost literally sitting on a massive explosion.

Desperate requests for help are sent to James II. His men are needed today – right now – to save the Tower of London. But the firefighters never come. Every one of them has been sent west. All the assumptions are that new blazes will start where the wind blows the flames. No-one thought the flames could move east. But they do. And a catastrophe at the Tower of London is imminent.

The commanders wait and wait for firefighters until they dare wait no longer. Finally orders are given for gunpowder to be taken from the stores, planted in houses between the castle and the fire, and ignited. Those homes are privately owned, and the Tower’s soldiers have no authority to demolish them, but this is an extreme emergency.

With gunpowder placed inside dozens of houses, the order is given to detonate. The explosion is massive. Homes are blown apart, debris scattered over long distances. Above the noise of the fire, London’s citizens hear the blasts, many thinking the Tower itself is now in smithereens. But it’s safe. In fact a massive firebreak has been created, a gap so wide the fire cannot cross it. The London Gazette later reports that the fire came almost to the very gates of the Tower, by which they likely mean close to the curtain walls. But it came no further. The magazines of gunpowder inside are saved. The spread of the fire to the east is stopped.


But it’s not stopped on the west, not where St Paul’s Cathedral sits on Ludgate Hill. The location is not close to Pudding Lane, where the fire began, but distances are not large in the city, and the wind is still driving the blaze steadily westward. Now it’s near to the cathedral.

An engraving of Old St Paul’s as it looked before the fire of 1561 in which the spire was destroyed. 
Francis Bond (1852-1918)Anton van den Wyngaerde (1525-1571W.H. Prior, Typographic Etching Co, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The cathedral is the fourth church dedicated to St Paul to sit on that hill. Like many cathedrals in medieval times, it was constructed over a long period of time (from 1087 to 1314) and frequently altered later. The old cathedral was a very impressive structure, close to being the longest church in the world, and with one of the tallest spires. The beauty of its stained glass windows earned them a mention in Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. The length and beauty of its nave was particularly remarkable. It soon became known as ‘Paul’s walk’.

Pilgrims came from far and near to visit a shrine inside the cathedral, admiring its decoration with gold, silver and precious stones. Monarchs held occasional court sessions in the cathedral. There was at least one riot, but also royal weddings. Kings lay in state before their funerals. Bishops and nobles were entombed there.

Old St Paul’s, however, seemed to lose its spiritual focus. Paul’s Walk became a gathering place and even a marketplace in the late 1300s. The bishop had to circulate an open letter denouncing the selling of goods, firing stones and arrows at nesting birds, and those guilty of ‘playing at ball’ and breaking expensive painted windows. From then on, such perpetrators would be excommunicated.

The nave of (old) St Paul’s, known as Paul’s Walk.
Wenceslas Hollar – St. Paul’s. The nave (State 1)jpg: Wenceslas Hollar, restored by Bob Castle derivative work: Bob Castle, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

But many London citizens did nothing more stirring than use the ‘Walk’ as a gossip centre. In the pre-printing press age, news was shared verbally and ‘Paul’s walkers’ visited simply to stay up to date with what was happening, mostly sharing information related to commerce and state business. Some historians say that by the 1600s: ‘Infested with beggars and thieves, Paul’s walk was also a place to pick up gossip, topical jokes, and even prostitutes’.[6]

But spiritual fervour was not the only thing to deteriorate at the cathedral. By the 16th century the building’s structure was in a seriously poor condition. Partly that was due to post-Reformation action against religious centres. Partly it was simply because St Paul’s was poorly constructed in the first place.

In 1561 the near record-setting tall spire was gone. It caught fire and crashed right through the roof of the nave, the main central area of the cathedral. Blame was quickly attributed to a lightning strike which set the spire on fire, melting the bells and the spire’s lead covering, which then flowed like lava on to the roof, destroying it. Catholics and Protestants blamed each other for displeasing God.

St Paul’s, set on Ludgate Hill, as it was shortly before the Great Fire. The spire no longer exists.
Claes Van Visscher, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

The spire was not rebuilt, and repair work on the roof was of a very poor standard. Within a few decades the roof was in danger of another collapse. When Charles II became King, he determined to restore the condition of St Paul’s. He had the very man for the job, Sir Christopher Wren. Wren surveyed the building, and, finding its whole structure unsatisfactory, recommended that the building should be completely demolished. That solution was opposed by both clergy and citizens. Wren relented, and instead proposed restructuring walls and creating a dome to replace the existing central tower.

Though debates about repairs still raged, a beginning is made in the early 1660s, and St Paul’s is covered with wooden scaffolding. And now, in 1666 with the Great Fire raging, the stone cathedral which would never burn is packed with the goods of local businesses, including the stocks of printers and booksellers from Paternoster Row. Wealthy citizens have brought in their money, paintings, valuable furniture, fine wines, gold coins. And a miscellany of ordinary, nearby residents have carried inside whatever they consider important. But what they’ve all done is put their possessions inside a building wrapped in highly flammable wood.

The sun sets, but there’s no darkness because the Great Fire has arrived.

Remains of the Cathedral after the fire drawn by Thomas Wyck, c. 1673
Thomas Wyck, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

People hope St Paul’s will be spared because it’s a house of God, and because a wide plaza separates it from nearby homes. Their hopes are dashed. Nothing stops this fire. Around 8.00 pm burning embers settle on the scaffolding. It’s dry, and the heat as the fire approached has made it easily combustible. The wood bursts into flame, first here and then there, fire spreading from spar to spar. Soon the whole exterior of the cathedral is alight. The intensity of the blaze melts the lead remaining on the roof. Thick stones crack and break apart with loud bangs that many think are gunfire. The building is collapsing. If those sheltering inside stay they’ll die. Wisely they abandon their goods and run to save their lives. Within a few hours St Paul’s is no more.

The contemporary writer John Evelyn said that what remained was no more than a ‘sad ruine’ with very little still intact, He adds: ‘It was astonishing to see what immense stones the heate had in a manner calcin’d’[7] That included the stationers’ books which are still burning a week later.

St Paul’s Cathedral is destroyed. Wren’s dome will have to wait.

The end is nigh

Crowds watch St Paul’s burn to the ground. What they don’t know is that St Paul’s is the last major building to become a victim of the Great Fire. During the night between Tuesday and Wednesday, the easterly wind which has driven the flames finally eases.

It is the change everyone has longed for. If the fire is no longer driven from one building to the next, there is a chance it can be beaten, or even that it’ll just burn out. In fact, both those things happen during Wednesday.

No longer do embers soar over gaps and no longer is there fresh fuel for the fire to burn. Certainly, the close proximity of houses might still have allowed a slow spread of the flames, but now, without the strong wind, the creation of firebreaks actually works.

The Duke of York’s exhausted and demoralised teams of firefighters rally. They have a real chance of stopping the fire from spreading. Furiously they tear down houses. Some they blow up. There is a new ruthlessness in creating very wide firebreaks, gaps which would not be bridged by the flames. And it succeeds.

The spread of the Great Fire ends, and on that Wednesday – the fourth day – burning diminishes and by dawn the next morning the fire is practically out. Small fires continue for a while –  coal still burns in cellars for two months – but the battle is won.

Probably some celebrate, but most mourn. The diarist, Samuel Pepys, climbs a church steeple to assess the destruction, and records that it was “the saddest sight of desolation that I ever saw”. Tens of thousands have lost their homes. Some camp in any area of the city the fire has not burned, and many more settle in the fields outside the walls. Their next phase of suffering is just beginning. John Evelyn sees people huddling under makeshift tents, and writes: “Many were without a rag or any necessary utensils, bed or board … reduced to extremest misery and poverty”.

In the final part of the story of the Great Fire, we’ll learn much more about the aftermath of the fire, including the number of casualties, plans to build a new-look London, and what happened to the man convicted of starting the fire even though authorities knew he hadn’t.

My major online resources for this series on the Great Fire are listed at the foot of the first episode. See

[1] Here and in various other places there are details drawn from History in Numbers,

[2] Burnt paper was later found 20 miles away, and scorched silk 30 miles away.

[3] I described the city gates in the previous episode of this series:

[4] Some of the information in this section from Wikipedia:

[5] Work on building the White Tower is thought to have begun in 1078, but the origins of the overall Tower of London are earlier. William the Conqueror was victorious in the Battle of Hastings in 1066, and then pressed further into England, that is into ‘enemy territory’. He ordered many castles to be built, and he particularly wanted to overawe citizens of its largest city, London. Hence he would have a large fortification there, predominantly of stone, on the south-east corner of the ancient Roman walls. The old walls would be part of its defences, and the River Thames immediately to the south would give further protection.

[6] Wikipedia:

[7] He’s referring to ‘calcination’ which, in his day, referred to reducing an object to its base elements.

Christmas shreddings

It was mid-afternoon on Christmas Eve, and I was alone in the large office building where I was General Director. Every staff member had left already, but I’d stayed late to clear my in-tray before the holiday break. And now I was on my knees.

I’d realised some documents had to be shredded. That was straightforward. We had a large capacity shredder which I’d used many times. I switched it on, and dropped a few sheets into the slot. The shredder immediately cut out. I tried again, and again it stopped. I noticed a small light had illuminated – apparently the bag which caught the shreddings was full. Really? That shouldn’t happen, but someone had wanted a quick exit and cleared off without replacing the shredder bag.

But all I had to do was switch the full bag with an empty bag. Easy. Well, easy if you know where the replacement bags are kept. Which I didn’t. I searched every cupboard within any sensible distance from the shredder. No bags. I moved my search further out, and finally, 20 minutes after starting, I found a roll of large black bags. I pulled one from the roll, opened up the shredder, dragged out the vastly over-filled bag, attached the new one, inserted my documents and they were instantly annihilated. All was well.

All was not well because it’s impossible to slide clear an overfull bag of shreddings without spilling some of its contents. Tiny slivers of paper were scattered across the office carpet. If I left them there the cleaners would be unjustly blamed for not doing their job. So a new search began, this time for a vacuum cleaner or brush to sweep up the shreddings. I knew the cupboard where such things were kept, pulled on the door, but those cleaners guarded their equipment carefully. The cupboard was locked. Though I had many keys to the building, no-one had thought I’d ever need one for the brooms and brushes cupboard. Back I went to the shredder. Mary Poppins had not passed through and made all the shreddings disappear. The paper shards were still all over the carpet.

So I got down on my knees, and, with no way to sweep those pieces of paper into a pile, began the laborious, wearying job of picking them up one by one. That took at least 15 minutes. At some point I heard myself say, ‘On Christmas Eve, what other CEO is on his knees picking up pieces of shredded paper?’ Not many. Probably not any.

But that task brought home an important lesson:

Never think yourself too important to do the humblest of tasks

As I’ve thought about Christmas, I realised that down through the years the Christmas season has taught me many simple lessons like that one.

An early childhood memory was that my Dad went to work for half of Christmas Day. His occupation was on the administration side of the Post Office, and with mail being moved around and house deliveries made even on that day, someone had to be at the main office making sure everything went smoothly. That person was my Dad.

To wholly understand why he and many others in Scotland worked on Christmas Day you need some background details:

  • Until the Reformation happened in Scotland – in 1560 – Christmas was a recognised religious feast day of the Roman Catholic Church. But when Presbyterianism became dominant, gradually most Catholic festivals disappeared. That included Christmas, and an Act was passed in the Scottish Parliament in 1640 making any observance of Christmas illegal.
  • The mid-winter celebrations became transferred to New Year’s Eve – known in Scotland as Hogmanay. That change caused no problem for the religious authorities because Hogmanay was a secular event.
  • So, right into the second half of the 20th century Christmas Day was another working day in Scotland. Hence my father went to his office.

Of course, over many years the traditions from down south in England had crept north, and once television had spread and religious fervour diminished, Scots were also celebrating Christmas with trees, lights, presents and parties. Nevertheless, it was only in 1958 that Christmas Day was designated a public holiday in Scotland. (Did that diminish the celebrations of Hogmanay? Absolutely not! Canny Scots just chose to revel at Christmas and New Year, and often to do so with more enthusiasm than wisdom.)

However, remembering that my Dad went off to work on Christmas morning, there is another lesson:

Many people – especially in emergency or caring professions – have to work on Christmas Day, and for that we should be grateful.

Like most small children, my brother Alan and I were always up early on Christmas Day, running through to the room where we’d hung stockings by the fireplace, to see what presents we’d got. There was never much in those long socks – an apple, an orange and perhaps a bar of chocolate and tiny toy car. But we were fortunate because there was more for us. We gazed in awe at the nicely wrapped larger presents laid on the floor.

I never wasted a moment, ripping open the Christmas paper to find the toys or games or clothes inside those boxes. The clothes never excited me, but the games and toys did, and I’d have them all out and be playing with them in very little time.

But my brother Alan had a different temperament, and took great care about opening his presents. He’d examine each parcel, undo the paper neatly, be excited about the contents, and then extract the toy and play with it. All before moving on to his next gift.

His meticulous process meant I was finished and done with my presents when Alan had only just started. I had to watch while he moved through his gifts one at a time. Some years I complained to my Mum that Alan clearly had more presents than I did. She assured me he didn’t. He just enjoyed each one fully before moving to the next.

So, another lesson:

There’s a lot to be said for what is now called ‘delayed (or deferred) gratification’, because many things are better by not being rushed.[1]

I grew up in a home where green vegetables were not a major part of the diet. My Dad grew peas, cabbages and cauliflowers along with root crops and fruit. But we didn’t eat ‘greens’ in any quantity. My Aunt Milla – a nurse who should have maximised health benefits – would put a tiny spoonful of peas alongside meat and potatoes ‘for decoration’.

But, on Christmas Day, we were always given a generous portion of what we called ‘Brussel sprouts’, though the first word probably should be pluralised because of the vegetables’ origin. What are Brussel sprouts? Let me tell you:

  • The Brussels sprout is a member of the Gemmifera cultivar group of cabbages (Brassica oleracea), grown for its edible buds. The leaf vegetables are typically 1.5–4.0 cm (0.6–1.6 in) in diameter and resemble miniature cabbages. The Brussels sprout has long been popular in Brussels, Belgium, from which it gained its name.[2]

I did not enjoy eating those edible buds of a cabbage. I simply didn’t like their taste. Some people don’t like broccoli[3], and I didn’t like Brussel sprouts.

But what was put on my plate had to be eaten. The usual warning was: ‘If you don’t eat your sprouts, you won’t get any dessert’. And since dessert was Christmas pudding, perhaps with cream, the blackmail to swallow those sprouts worked.

I must add that age has improved my taste. My willingness to eat Brussel sprouts gradually moved into the positive column. They are actually very good. But, in my early years, I ate them only because I had to.

So there is another lesson here:

We all have to do things we don’t like or want – that’s life.

Christmas has one form of annoying and unnecessary delayed gratification. It concerns the toy or appliance that won’t work without batteries, but no-one thought to buy them. When I was about seven I got one of those presents – a toy that was exactly what I wanted – but no batteries came with it and there were none in the house. My frustration was expressed loudly. So loudly my Dad set off on foot to find any shop open, but the few doing business didn’t sell batteries. I suffered (but not in silence) for about 24 hours, by which time batteries had been bought.

These days batteries are often packaged with the product, which helps avoid a Christmas crisis. But it’s not good to assume they’ll be included. Nor is it good to buy gloves that fit your hands but not the hands of the person receiving the gift. Or wrong-sized boots. Or a sweater with a dazzling design the recipient will hate. Or a tool they don’t need or want. Or music they’ll never play. Or a ‘Cooking for Beginners’ book for someone who already considers him or herself an expert. Or a dog for someone who likes cats. I even know a case where a few well-off individuals bought a CEO who was retiring a brand new SUV to replace the car he’d driven for years. The gift was amazingly generous, except the retiree whispered to me, ‘The problem is I really, really like my old car. I didn’t want a new car.’

The lesson, then, is this:

When buying presents, do your research and plan ahead.

When we lived in America we adjusted to the custom of eating turkey at Thanksgiving. In the UK turkey is the traditional meal at Christmas. Sometimes we’d travel back to the UK to spend Christmas with family, so we overate with US turkey in late November and overate with UK turkey in late December. Just as well we like turkey.

Many years before, when we lived in north east Scotland, our good friends Malcolm and Tina decided that they would buy us a turkey every Christmas. The only problem was that they never said explicitly that they’d give us a turkey every Christmas. Initially we thought they’d gift us a turkey once or twice, and then move on to give turkeys to other friends. But their turkey-at-Christmas kindness didn’t stop. A few days before each Christmas they’d call round with a turkey.

Then the year came when they didn’t. Not on December 20, or 21, or 22, or 23. By then we’d realised no turkey would be arriving. Alison, happily, had put some turkey in our freezer, so we wouldn’t fail to have our traditional meal. The 24th – Christmas Eve – dawned and Alison and I spent a hectic day preparing food, organising presents, putting final decorations in place, and, as pastor of a large church, I had events to prepare for and attend. In the evening I joined a group singing carols in a local hospital, hurried home and then went out again to lead and preach at our Watchnight Service which started at 11.15 pm and continued into a celebration of Christ’s birth at midnight. Around 12.30 am I headed home. Thankfully the children were all in bed and asleep. Alison was busy preparing various parts of our Christmas Day meal. I hadn’t had a moment to wrap presents, so I settled down to that task. Given my significant lack of expertise, gift wrapping was not a quick process. I finished around 3.00 am. Alison was still occupied in the kitchen, and I had a few more things to do before I could go to bed. At 3.30 am we heard a van arrive in our driveway, our doorbell rang, and it was our friend Malcolm with our turkey. Apparently we were his final delivery and he’d made us last because, as he said: ‘I knew you wouldn’t be in your beds yet!’ No, we weren’t. But it was 3.30 on Christmas morning!! More than a little on the late side to be delivering a turkey for that day’s meal. But we were very grateful, not just for the turkey but for friends like Malcolm and Tina.

So, this time two lessons:

Be generous and kind to all this Christmas.

But, if you can, don’t deliver turkeys at 3.30 in the morning.


This message is posted on Christmas Eve, and comes with my sincere hope that you are able to enjoy a happy Christmas, appreciating the wonderful truth that God sent his Son into this world. And, if possible, I long that you will have good food and friendship to enjoy.

This particular year (2022) the news is filled with stories of severely cold weather across much of the USA and Canada, and of power cuts imposed on the people of Ukraine resulting in much suffering from the cold and shortages throughout this winter. Many others in our world also struggle, so please keep them in your thoughts and prayers, and, if you can, provide support for those in such great need. May 2023 bring many good days for which you can be thankful.

[1] In the UK there is a magazine called Delayed Gratification, which covers news which is moving out of the headlines. Its slogan is ‘last to breaking news’.

[2] From Wikipedia:

[3] Including some US Presidents:

Have a wonderful Christmas!

Before I began writing this blog nearly a year ago, I decided to avoid highlighting special events or seasons of the year. And then, at the beginning of January, my first blog was about ‘Resolutions’. I failed right at the start!

And I’ve failed right at the end of the year because I could not ignore Christmas, writing two blogs on the odd ancestors of Jesus, that strange family list which culminates in the birth of the Son of God in Bethlehem.

The last blogs of this year had to take account of the season. How could I ignore the birth of Jesus?

So, my original decision abandoned, as Christmas Day begins where I am in the UK, let me say HAPPY CHRISTMAS to those who’ve already been celebrating this day in places east of where I am, and the same to those who’ll celebrate in a few hours in places to the west.

The blog has been read this year in 32 countries. As I post this, those already celebrating Christmas include readers in Indonesia, South Korea, China, Australia, India, Pakistan. Those yet to reach Christmas Day may be in the USA, Canada, Ecuador, Chile, Bahamas. Unsurprisingly by far the greatest number of readers are in the UK (and I hope they’re now in bed!)

Wherever this is read, please know I’m grateful for your interest. This Christmas I’m praying that you know God’s peace and God’s goodness in your life, and that 2022 holds many blessings for you.

With warmest appreciation,


My Scottish heritage gifted me with two major winter celebrations – Christmas and New Year.

As a youngster I preferred Christmas. I’d like to believe I was ahead of my time, because even three centuries after the Scottish Parliament banned ‘Yule vacations’, Scotland was slow to do much about Christmas. My father worked on Christmas Day. No church in town held a Christmas Eve ‘Watchnight’ service nor one on Christmas Day. But I was a Christmas enthusiast, not because of any piety but a love of parties, decorations, eating  food, and, of course, getting lots and lots of  presents.

For many, though, the big festival was Hogmanay. New Year’s Eve meant parties, ceilidhs, lots to drink, a countdown to midnight, more clinking of glasses, and then off to ‘first foot’ the neighbours. First footing could last all right. Unsurprisingly the 1st and 2nd of January were public holidays. Scots needed two days to recover.

Our household celebrated new year, though my parents were moderate with alcohol. But my Mum was not at all moderate with two other traditions.

One was cleaning the house because you shouldn’t carry the old year’s dirt into the next year. Unfortunately, Mum extended the tradition to me, so I got a good scrubbing. Maybe that’s why I preferred Christmas.

Mum also required me to write out a list of new year resolutions. All the things I’d do better. I was left in no doubt a long list was required, because there was much to reform in my young life. What I couldn’t think of, Mum could. Well before midnight, my major sins and their remedies were defined.

But those sins never were remedied. My promises rarely lasted through January 1st. Some years I tried really hard and squeezed out a few extra hours of righteousness, but never became a changed character. When I was about twelve, I stopped making the list and felt better for it.

Most admit they’re little better with their resolutions, whether made at new year or any time. We promise changes in our lives. But the promises rarely last.


Among many reasons, here are four.

Wishful thinking    People have often asked me how to make changes in their lives. A common one was ‘how to give up smoking’. As someone who has never smoked, I couldn’t draw on personal experience but I’d read about addiction, and I knew people who’d beaten the habit. So I would give my best advice.

My advice almost never worked. It wasn’t bad advice. I was often quoting what experts said. But it didn’t address a weakness: the change they said they wanted was no more than wishful thinking. Of course they wished they could stop smoking because they’d be healthier and better off financially. But wishful thinking couldn’t break the bondage in which their habit held them. They needed a much deeper resolve, an iron will, and they were simply not that determined to change.

Over ambitious    I could set myself the goal of jumping a river which is ten metres wide. No matter how strong my iron-will or disciplined my training, I’m not going to do that. I can’t jump that far. All I’d achieve by trying is an unpleasant cold bath. Resolutions need to be realistic and reasonable for who I am and what I can do. Perhaps a goal could be achieved sometime but not at this time. Maybe I could walk fifteen miles, but not right away. Not without taking time build up my stamina and strength in my legs. Then, maybe I’d get there. But if I tried on day one of a new resolution, I’d give up in less than five miles.

Ingrained patterns don’t change easily    I watch one of my fellow golfers hit his shot. He slices his ball into the deep rough. From the tee on the next hole, again he hits a spectacular banana-shaped shot. By now a variety of expletives are being uttered, and before long he says: ‘I hit it straight on the driving range. Why can’t I play like that on the course!?’ Likely, there are at least these reasons: a) he was relaxed on the driving range where there was no score to count; b) on the range he didn’t worry about hitting into the rough or out of bounds; c) on the range he could risk doing what his instructor told him to do with his stance, his grip, his alignment, and how he swung the club. And it worked.

So, why can’t he play like that on the course? Because, faced with playing real golf, he can’t risk a new stance, a new grip, and a new swing. It’s awkward and unsafe. Now the result matters. Now he’s being watched. Almost without being able to help it, he reverts to his ingrained bad habits. ‘I can never change,’ he grumbles.

Faced with real life – not the pages of a book or words of a counsellor – we find change very difficult. We don’t need someone to tell us we’re doing wrong. We know that. But, faced with problems and stresses, we revert to our self-protecting old patterns. The new thing is risky, and we opt out. We can’t make what we think, speak and do change just because the calendar has.

No real desire to change    As an adult I concluded that my resolutions usually failed because I didn’t really want to do things differently. My Mum made me write down things like: ‘I’ll get out of bed earlier’; ‘I’ll keep my room tidier’; ‘I’ll start my school homework sooner’. I never wanted to do those! On a cold winter morning, I was staying under the blankets as long as I could. I wasn’t going to tidy my room when I’d better things to do, like going out to play football. And I hated homework. I’d much rather put it off as long as I could.

The resolutions were fine. I just didn’t want to do them. So the list was never more than nice ideas on a piece of paper. My life didn’t change.

Of course that’s not how everyone feels. But some I’ve counselled talked of being better but didn’t convince me they really wanted to be better. For me and for them, the issue was in the will. It was about having a real desire to live differently.

I haven’t made new year resolutions for many years. But I have made other resolutions. I always have ambitions to change. Sometimes they work out; sometimes they don’t.

I’d never discourage anyone from making resolutions. They’re good; not bad. It may be a tough fight, but I hope you win!