In the 17th Century, Christmas Day was more than just a religious date – it marked the beginning of the traditional twelve days of celebrating, feasting, and drinking but was also a flashpoint in the political and cultural turmoil of the English Civil Wars. Over the twelve days, we’re going to be exploring some of the Christmas customs and history from the 1640s and 1650s…
Christmas is traditionally a time for children, a connection that stretches back well into the medieval period and informed at least two traditions.
The bloody fate meted out to the children of Bethlehem by King Herod in his pursuit of the infant Jesus is a gruesome tale any child will remember from Sunday School. Chapter two of the Gospel of Matthew claims that the king of Judea was so disturbed by a visit of the three Magi – who asked him “Where is he that is born King of the Jews?” – that when they did not return to tell him where the child was he desperately tried to find and kill the infant Jesus, who he feared would replace him:
Then Herod, when he saw that he was mocked of the wise men, was exceeding wroth, and sent forth, and slew all the children that were in Bethlehem, and in all the coasts thereof, from two years old and under, according to the time which he had diligently inquired of the wise men.
Now dismissed by scholars as an invention, the ‘Massacre of the Innocents’ is nevertheless traditionally marked on ‘Holy Innocents’ or ‘Childermass’ on 28th December, a day dedicated to the victims of this slaughter.
As detailed in Steve Roud’s Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles, ‘the day was a ‘dismal’ (dies male means ‘bad day’ in Latin) day, with muffled peals of bells and, despite falling with the twelve days of Christmas, with a subdued and penitential air’.
The day was considered incredibly unlucky, the most common superstition stating that anything begun on the day would never be finished or would go disastrously wrong – even doing something as innocent as laundry would be certain to result in a death in the family! In keeping with its theme, children would not be chastened on the day and even allowed a degree of license to do as they wished.
The earliest references are from the beginning of the 17th Century, from Cornish translator and antiquary Richard Carew in 1602:
That proves as ominous to the fisherman as beginning a voyage on the day when Childermas day fell doth to the mariner.
To John Melton’s 1620 attack on superstitions in his Astrologaster:
That it is not good to out on a new sute, pare ones nailes, or begin any thing on a Childermass day.
Childermass was also the day that marked the end of the reign of the ‘Boy Bishops’ in many cathedrals and religious institutions around the country – a custom that flourished in the Middle Ages, was firmly stamped on by the Reformation, but has enjoyed something of a revival in the 20th and 21st Century. 
Beginning on the feast of St. Nicholas on 6 December, a day that had also become associated with childhood, this was a period of about three weeks in which a child, usually chosen or elected from the choir by his fellow choristers, became a bishop. The child would be dressed up as a bishop, offering sermons, and parading around town in mock processions, singing at people’s houses, and collecting money for the church or even for themselves. York Minster’s Boy Bishop discharged all the offices of an adult bishop, except the mass, and even had special jewels and vestments for their exclusive use. 
Ronald Hutton traces the roots of the ceremony to the German church and almost all the churches and major religious centres in England had some version of the custom,  and although it was not a license for transgressive behaviour, it nonetheless provided some opportunity for a laugh:
In one of these sermons preached in the Gloucester cathedral by the boy bishop John Stubs in 1558 (written by a church official), the boy lectures his elders on their childishness. “It is a wonder,” he says, “to see among you so many children in years, and so few innocents in manners.” At one point he picks out a young listener in the audience for praise, only to suggest the pitfalls of trusting innocent faces: “Look in his face and you would think that butter would not melt in his mouth; but smooth as he looks, I will not wish you to follow him if you know as much as I do.” Presumably the chorister (choir boy) who was delivering the sermon would have gotten a laugh on this line, since he himself possessed some of the very qualities of the angelic (but still naughty) boy he takes as his example. 
The custom, which probably started in the 12th Century, was restricted in many cathedrals in the later Middle Ages, but the practice was suppressed by Henry VIII in 1541 ‘on the grounds that they dented ecclesiastical dignity’.  The proscription continued under his son, Edward VI, but when the Roman Catholic Queen Mary began her short reign (1556-8), the Boy Bishops were still popular enough to be reinstated – though apparently only really in London.
By 1556 they were ‘abroad the most part in London singing after the old fashion, and received with many good people in their houses, and had such good cheer as every they had’. This repeated in 1557. The parish of St Mary at Hill recorded the purchase of a crucifix, mitre, and book for one. In St. Katherine’s, a woman who refused to admit the little bishop in 1556 was faced by an angry priest backed by a crowd, and had to make excuses for her behaviour. 
However, once her half-sister Elizabeth took the throne and returned England to Protestantism, Boy Bishops were expunged from the ritual calendar, one of the many ceremonies that came to be viewed as too ‘Popish’ and not, despite scriptural inspiration, divinely ordained:
It may have functioned as a pressure valve for a hierarchical social order in which everyone had a role to play among the estates of man. It also had solid scriptural grounding in Matthew 20:26: “the first shall be last and the last shall be first.” 
 Steve Roud – Pocket Guide to Superstitions of the British Isles
 Roud ibid.
 Ronald Hutton – The Rise and Fall of Merry England: The Ritual Year 1400-1700