Everyone knows that Cromwell and the puritans of the English Revolution banned Christmas…
Perhaps less well-known is the opposition and resistance the ban aroused. In London, as elsewhere, the repression of popular culture was not imposed without rioting and disorder…
During the seventeenth century, as now, Christmas was one of the most important dates in the calendar, both as a religious festival and as a holiday. Over the twelve days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; pretty much everyone went to Christmas Day church services, presents were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Large quantities of food were obviously also eaten – this period of winter following on from the annual slaughtering of livestock, and a couple of months after the harvest, it was one time in the year when food was in relatively plentiful supply (in contrast summertime was comparatively lean); so great quantities of brawn, roast beef, ‘plum-pottage’, minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed. Dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays filled the days.
Also associated with this time of year were drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess (so some things have TOTALLY changed then…!) Most of the festivals dotted through the year had an element of disorder and licence to go a bit wild. The idea of ‘misrule’, and of a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas (generally associated with Holy Innocents Day, 28th December), a time of limited licenced reversal and breakdown of hierarchies, a useful safety-valve for the simmering class and other tensions within society.
The disorderly pleasures of Christmas, however, enraged the Puritans of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes, the author of The Anatomie of Abuses, complained:
“That more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides, what masking and mumming, whereby robbery whoredom, murder and what not is committed? What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used, more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonour of God and impoverishing of the realm.”
The celebration of Christmas emerged as one focus of a kind of culture war, a religious division within early seventeenth-century society. This was a contributing factor to the tensions that lead to the breakdown of government, civil war and revolution in the 1640s. When the Puritans took control of government in the mid-1640s they made a concerted effort to abolish the Christian festival of Christmas and to outlaw the customs associated with it.
Pressure had been building before the civil war, from zealous Protestants, outraged by the unruly and immoral nature of Christmas festivities (and other festivals) and suspicious of feast’s link to Catholicism and the old saints’ days. The 1637 Scots Presbyterian Rebellion jacked up the pressure – the Scots had already banned Xmas before, and did so again in 1640. As both England and Scotland slid into Civil War, the alliance of English parliamentarians with the Scots church led to a spreading of the idea of doing away with the celebrations south of the border.
The controversy over how Christmas should be celebrated in London and the other Parliamentary centres surfaced in the early stages of the Civil War. In December 1642 Thomas Fuller remarked, in a fast sermon delivered on Holy Innocents Day, that ‘on this day a fast and feast do both justle together, and the question is which should take place in our affections’. While admitting that the young might be ‘so addicted to their toys and Christmas sports that they will not be weaned from them’, he advised the older generation among his listeners not to be ‘transported with their follies, but mourn while they are in mirth’.
There were three angles to the repression – the phasing out of traditional Xmas church services, the closing down on the more festive celebrations, and the enforcing of 25th December as a normal day not a feast day.
In 1643, some Puritan tradesmen in London opened up their shops for business on 25 December in order to show that they regarded this day as no different from any other, while several London ministers kept their church doors firmly shut. Puritan MPs also turned up to sit in the parliament on Xmas Day.
But the cancellation of Christmas aroused huge popular resentment – not just in the royalist camp, but in the districts controlled by parliament, too. In 1643, the apprentice boys of London rose up in violent protest against the shop-keepers in Cheapside who had opened on Christmas Day, and, in the words of a delighted royalist, “forced these money-changers to shut up their shops again”. In reporting the incident Mercurius Civicus sympathised with the shopkeepers but argued that to avoid ‘disturbance and uproars in the City’ they should have waited ’till such time as a course shall be taken by lawful authority with matters of that nature’.
The following year Christmas Day happened to on the last Wednesday in the month, the day set aside for a regular monthly fast, upon which parliament’s supporters were enjoined to pray for the success of their cause. On December 19th an ordinance was passed directing that the fast day should be observed in the normal way, but:
“With the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights…”
Both Houses of Parliament attended fast sermons delivered by Presbyterian ministers on December 25th, 1644, the Commons hearing from Thomas Thorowgood that:
“The providence of heaven is here become a Moderator appointing the highest festival of all the year to meet with our monthly fast and be subdued by it.”
But again there was resentment and resistance. Many therefore simply defied the government, and despite the pressures and intimidation, refused to abandon their traditional practices. On 24 December 1644, the editor of a pro-parliamentarian news-pamphlet expressed his support for the MPs’ decision to favour the monthly fast over the traditional feast, but admitted that “the parliament is cried out on” by the common people as a result, with incredulous shouts of “What, not keep Christmas? Here’s a Reformation indeed!”
Immediately following this (in January 1645) parliament issued its new Directory for the Public Worship of God, aimed at replacing the Book of Common Prayer, which made no reference to Christmas at all. At Christmas-time 1645 it was said, you could walk right through the parliamentary quarters, and “perceive no sign or token of any holy day”. Over the following year and a half, the king was beaten in the civil war, and the puritans strengthened their hand over the country.
MPs suspected those celebrating Xmas of harbouring sympathies for the king. In some cases this might have been true (though the London apprentices who rioted in favour of keeping this and other festivals had also formed part of the shock troops of the early struggles against the king a couple of years earlier). But its also apparent that such social repression drove previously sympathetic or neutral folk into a more pro-royal position.
But most Englishmen and women continued to cling to their traditional Christmas customs. So strong was the popular attachment to the old festivities, indeed, that during the postwar period a number of pro-Christmas riots occurred. Most notably, in December 1646 threats by a crowd of young men at Bury St Edmunds against local tradesmen who had opened their shops on Christmas Day led to a riot.
In June 1647, parliament passed an ordinance which abolished the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, and substituted as a regular holiday for students, servants and apprentices, the second Tuesday of every month; it also declared the celebration of Christmas to be a punishable offence. But again there were pro-Christmas riots, on 25 December 1647, at Bury St Edmunds again, and at Norwich and Ipswich. During the course of the Ipswich riot, a protestor named ‘Christmas’ was reported to have been slain – a fatality which could be regarded as richly symbolic, of course, of the way that parliament had ‘killed’ Christmas itself.
In London, a crowd of apprentices assembled at Cornhill on Christmas Day, and there “in despite of authority, they set up Holly and Ivy” on the pinnacles of the public water conduit. The lord mayor sent militia “to pull down these gawds,” but the apprentices fought them off, until the mayor and a party of soldiers arrived to break up the demonstration by force. During the Christmas of 1647, a number of ministers were taken into custody by the authorities for attempting to preach on Christmas Day, and one of them subsequently published his intended sermon under the title The Stillborn Nativity.
The worst disturbances of all took place at Canterbury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops which had been opened on Christmas Day and then went on to seize control of the entire city. This riot helped to pave the way for a major insurrection in Kent in 1648 that itself formed part of the ‘Second Civil War’ – a scattered series of risings against the parliament and in favour of the king, which Fairfax and Cromwell only managed to suppress with great difficulty.
The least successful prong of the attack on Xmas was Parliament’s attempt to abolish the traditional holiday over the Christmas period. With the churches and shops closed, the populace resorted to its traditional pastimes. In 1652 The Flying Eagle informed its readers that the ‘taverns and taphouses’ were full on Christmas Day, ‘Bacchus bearing the bell amongst the people as if neither custom or excise were any burden to them’, and claimed that ‘the poor will pawn all to the clothes of their back to provide Christmas pies for their bellies and the broth of abominable things in their vessels, though they starve or pine for it all the year after’.
On December 27th, 1650, Sir Henry Mildmay reported to the House of Commons that on the 25th there had been:
“…very wilful and strict observation of the day commonly called Christmas Day throughout the cities of London and Westminster, by a general keeping of their shops shut up and that there were contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof.”
Several newsbooks reported a similar complete closure in London in 1652, and on Christmas Day 1656 one MP remarked that ‘one may pass from the Tower to Westminster and not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’.
However, as time went by, and puritan culture achieved ascendancy through the 1650s, Christmas effectively ceased to be celebrated in the great majority of churches. The Anglican diarist John Evelyn could find no Christmas services to attend in 1652 or 1655, but in 1657 he joined a ‘grand assembly’ which celebrated the birth of Christ in Exeter House chapel in the Strand. Along with others in the congregation, he was afterwards arrested and held for questioning for some time by the army. Other services took place the same day in Fleet Street and at Garlick Hill where, according to an army report, those involved included ‘some old choristers and new taught singing boys’ and where ‘all the people bowed and cringed as if there had been mass’.
Despite this government pressure, however, Christmas festivities remained popular, and successive regimes throughout the 1650s felt obliged to reiterate their objection to any observance of the feast.
In February 1656 Ezekial Woodward had to admit that ‘the people go on holding fast to their heathenish customs and abominable idolatries, and think they do well’. The same fact was also obvious to those few MPs who attended the Commons on Christmas Day 1656. One complained that he had been disturbed the whole of the previous night by the preparations for ‘this foolish day’s solemnity’, and John Lambert warned them that, as he spoke, the Royalists would be ‘merry over their Christmas pies, drinking the King of Scots health, or your confusion’.
Traditional Christmas festivities duly returned to England with Charles II in 1660, and while the Restoration’s association with maypoles and ‘Merry England’ may have been overstated in the past, there is no doubt that most English people were very glad that their Christmas celebrations were once more acceptable. According to The Kingdom’s Intelligencer, at Maidstone in Kent, where there had been no Christmas Day services for seventeen years, on December 25th, 1660, several sermons were preached and communion administered, ‘to the joy of many hundred Christians’. On the Sunday before Christmas, Samuel Pepys’ church in London was decorated with rosemary and bays; on the 25th Pepys attended morning service and returned home to a Christmas dinner of shoulder of mutton and chicken. Predictably, he slept through the afternoon sermon, but he had revived sufficiently by the evening to read and play his lute. The Buckinghamshire gentry family, the Verneys, resumed their celebrations on a grand scale; in 1664 a family friend wrote that:
… the news at Buckingham is that you will keep the best Christmas in the shire, and to that end have bought more fruit and spice than half the porters in London can weigh out in a day.
An entry in the 2016 London Rebel History Calendar – check it out online