Opinion & Features

The greatest story that never happened

Sir Thomas Massey was a zealously anti-Catholic MP of the 19th century. One morning in the Commons he proposed that, as the English had long since ridded their churches of the popish Mass, it was high time that their language followed suit: “Christ-mas” should thus duly be Protestantised to “Christ-tide”.

The Prime Minister, Disraeli, rose instantly to respond. The suggestion was so good, he acknowledged, that perhaps his Right Honourable friend might begin by setting the House an example: would he henceforth, then, be styling himself “Sir Tho-tide Tide-y”? With Parliament engulfed in uproarious laughter, Sir Thomas quietly withdrew the proposal.

This anecdote, which I first heard from my father-in-law a few years ago, is pretty well my favourite story of all time. It has everything: history, wit, concision and the well-deserved comeuppance of a bigot.

Loving it so much, having a Christmas-themed column to write, and being of a scholarly (or maybe procrastinatory) bent, I set about uncovering its original source. You see, like the Little Drummer Boy, I “have no gift to bring (pa rum pa rum pum) that’s fit to give” my dear Catholic Herald readers. Instead, I offer you one of the few bits of my day job I’m actually good at: dates, verbatim quotations and full bibliographic details. (Hey, it’s the thought that counts.)

With such high hopes in mind, then, imagine how much it pains me to break the news to you: the incident never happened. The (second) greatest story ever told is just plain false.

The whole of Hansard knows nothing of the exchange, and all that searches for “Tho-tide” turn up are somewhat hopeful suggestions of select committee reports on the Thames Estuary. Worse, the last Thomas Massey MP I can find died in the 16th century.

Hope was briefly restored by the gloriously named Sir William Thomas Stanley-Massey-Stanley – a name that could forgivably be abbreviated to Thomas Massey in the retelling – an MP of the early 19th century. But it turns out that he was a Catholic (with a cardinal, Thomas Weld, in his immediate family). Had he been our famed Thotide Tidey, his Tablet obituary of 1863 would surely have mentioned the sheer oddness of the fact.

Yet my labours – all for you, remember, dear readers – were not entirely without reward.

For a start, I discovered just how well known and oft-repeated this tall tale really is. It has been turning up regularly in newspapers for well over a century: everywhere from the Financial Times earlier this year, to the Kalispell Bee in 1901 (Kalispell being, as I’m sure you know, a not-quite-bustling township in Montana). I have found it repeated in philosophy monographs and histories of linguistics; there are even, curiously enough, recountings in Vietnamese and Indonesian.

Furthermore, the basic plot comes in several interesting variants. “Massey-Massey” is a popular, and more amusing, substitution for plain “Massey”.

Disraeli himself, though, turns out to be a modern interloper. The earliest versions I have found – the same story appears verbatim in various British and New Zealand papers in 1892 – are unanimous in ascribing the riposte to Daniel O’Connell, the Irish MP of the early 19th century.

In fact, ‘‘O’Connell the Liberator’’, champion of Catholic emancipation, is far better cast in the role than Disraeli; and that is perhaps the key to the legend’s coining and enduring popularity.

With O’Connell as the story’s hero, the likely setting is put back several decades. His Commons tenure ended in 1841; Disraeli’s long parliamentary career only began in 1837, and it was not until 1868 that he was first (and then only briefly) PM.

Certainly, the fictional Massey’s vituperative “No popery” was standard throughout O’Connell’s time in Parliament (a more-or-less random dipping into Hansard finds the phrase “the dark clouds of popish corruption” on the lips of the Attorney General in 1828) – and, indeed, for some time after. O’Connell was, moreover, famous for his quips.

The putative exchange has, then, the ring of historical plausibility about it: it might not actually have happened, but it certainly could have. Add to that long-lingering anti-Catholicism – especially in America, where the story has been a staple of Catholic publications since at least the early 20th century (and where the story of an Irish Catholic folk hero getting one over on a stuffy English Protestant has several added attractions) – and you have a story that has remained relevant and fresh-seeming for many decades.

“A thing isn’t necessarily a lie even if it didn’t necessarily happen” is a line my own father (and himself no stranger to “working up” an anecdote) is fond of quoting from John Steinbeck. As I hope you realise by now, I’m not normally one to go in for rampant demythologising – but perhaps this is one (and only one) Christmas story whose meaning is indeed deepened by historical-critical scrutiny.

Stephen Bullivant is consulting editor of the Catholic Herald and directs the Theology MA at St Mary’s University, Twickenham. He tweets at @ssbullivant