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…
‘Resolved by the Parliament: That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December commonly called Christmas-Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon the day in respect thereof.’ – Ordinance of 1652
Have you ever been to a pub quiz where the question came up of who banned Christmas during the English Civil War?
Unfortunately for quizmasters everywhere, the answer is not ‘Oliver Cromwell’.
The real answer is that the English Parliament issued multiple instructions over more than a decade in the mid-17th Century that attempted to suppress the celebration of what some saw as an un-Christian festival that promoted licentiousness and debauchery.
However, hating on Christmas was nothing new in the 1640s and certainly wasn’t a consequence of the Civil War – Ronald Hutton’s The Rise and Fall of Merrie England cites the widow of a separatist lay preacher in 1630s Bristol ‘who kept her grocer’s shop open on Christmas Day to signify that the festival was nothing except a Papist survival’, though – as he points put – this was an extreme minority view at the time. Even earlier, pamphleteer Philip Stubbs’ The Anatomie of Abuses in 1583 complained:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
This antipathy towards Christmas stemmed from a broader conflict in England between those who wished to keep the English church as it was, and those who saw it as still too Roman Catholic and wanted to continue the work of the Reformation to create a ‘purer’ church stripped of ceremony and ritual:
‘A simple way to think about the Reformation is that it substituted words for rituals, sermons for sacraments, prayers for pilgrimages, reading and writing for worshipping a picture of a saint or in front of an icon.’– Susan Juster, University of Michigan – “God’s Wounds!” Blasphemy in the Early Modern World
In the 1620s and ‘30s, this war was partly fought over the Book of Sports (which encouraged the playing of sports and social activities on a Sunday after church) but soon broadened out into more fundamental assault by Puritans on the English ritual calendar — Easter, Whitsun, ‘Christ-mass’ and saints’ days. They found no justification in the Bible for these festivals, which they considered distracting and debauched, with rather too much focus on food and drink, music, games, and other forms of merrymaking:
Many English Puritans admired and wished to imitate the strides against ‘Popish’ ceremony already made by their stricter Scottish comrades – the Scottish church had banned the celebration of Christmas in 1583 and, despite the attempt by James VI/I to reintroduce the occasion, the hardline Glasgow Assembly restored the ban in 1638. There were also political reasons why Parliament wished to impress the Scottish with their zeal…
‘These rituals had a more than religious significance — they were moments at which local differences were submerged in a celebration of shared faith, or identity, or in which tensions were released in rituals of misrule and inversion. On the other hand, it was precisely because they had a more than religious significance that Puritans were opposed to them and favoured instead celebrations of national triumph or delivery — such as 5 November.’– Michael Braddick – God’s Fury, England’s Fire
In 1644, when Christmas coincided with a national monthly fast that had been instituted after the beginning of the Irish Rebellion in 1641, Parliament issued an ordinance instructing people to respect the latter and not the former.
Then in January 1645, MPs and Lords issued the Directory for publique worship of God, replacing the much-maligned Book of Common Prayer, which removed holy days and replaced them with fast days on the last Wednesday of every month, effectively ‘banning’ Christmas and any of the other ‘feast days’.
This is the foundation of the well-known ‘banning’ of Christmas.
But while it is true that people were instructed to ignore Christmas, it is clear they were less than willing to obey as there were further admonitions in 1647, 1652 and 1657 ordering markets and shops to remain open and churches to remain closed, which suggests that Parliament felt people needed reminding. The battle even stretched across the Atlantic – in 1659, the Massachusetts Bay Colony followed the example of their brethren in England by issuing an edict outlawing the observance of Christmas:
‘For preventing disorders arising in several places within this jurisdiction, by reason of some still observing such festivals as were superstitiously kept in other countries, to the great dishonor of God and offence of others, it is therefore ordered by this Court and the authority thereof, that whosoever shall be found observing any such day as Christmas or the like, either by forbearing of labor, feasting, or any other way, upon such accountants as aforesaid, every person so offending shall pay of every such offence five shillings, as a fine to the county.’
But how were these bans enforced in England? The answer is that evidence is mixed, especially outside of London.
There were numerous ministers who ignored the change and decided to preach on Christmas Day, only to be swiftly taken into custody. On the other hand, a Puritan minister in Ely was told by his parishioners that if he didn’t preach a sermon they’d get someone else to do the job.
But while it’s easy for authorities to keep a church closed on one day, it’s harder to force businesses to remain open when they don’t wish to. A 1650 report to influential Puritan Sir Henry Mildmay shows that Londoners especially did not hesitate to thumb their noses at the authorities:
‘a very wilfull & strict observation of the day com[m]only called Christmasse day throughout the Cittyes of London & Westm[inster] by a generall keeping of their shops shut up and that there were Contemptuous speeches used by some in favour thereof, which the Councell conceiveing to be upon the old grounds of superstition and malignancy and tending to the avowing of the same and Contempt of the present Lawes and governm[en]t have thought fit that the Parlam[en]t be moved to take the same into Consideration for such further provisions’.
Eventually, anything remotely associated with Christmas was suspect – including mince pies, plum pudding, and church services – and even involved the ridiculous sight of soldiers roaming the streets seizing food by force if they believed it be associated with Christmas celebrations.
Yet despite Puritan preachers continuing to rail against Christmas, taverns remained packed, while shops and markets stayed closed. Attempted enforcement of the ban during the short-lived rule of Cromwell’s Major-Generals from August 1655 to January 1657 did lead to some farcical situations: in December 1657, ardent Royalist John Evelyn recorded how , having been unable to find a Christmas church service the year before, he nonetheless found one at Exeter House Chapel on the Strand in London. But as the sermon ended and the preacher, Mr Gunning, was giving out Holy Communion, the church was surrounded by soldiers:
‘The Chapell was surrounded with Souldiers…These wretched miscreants, held their muskets against us as we came up to receive the Sacred Elements, as if they would have shot us at the Altar, but yet suffering us to finish the Office of Communion, as perhaps not in their Instructions what they should do in case they found us in that Action.” Some communicants were held under house arrest others were taken away. In the afternoon Major-Generals Whaly and Goffe came from Whitehall to examine the prisoners. Evelyn was asked “why contrarie to an Ordinance made that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity….I durst offend, & particularly be at Common prayers, which they told me was but the Masse in English….with much threatening, & finding no colour to detaine me longer, with much pitty of my Ignorance, they dismiss’d me, [having] spake spitefull things of our B[lessed] Lords nativity.’
One reason why the authorities wanted to crack down on Christmas celebrations is that they associated such demonstrations with pro-Royalist sentiments, not helped by people often connecting Royalism with ‘traditional’ values. These fears were born out when, in 1647, Christmas riots sparked months of pro-Royalist demonstrations.
Riots in Ipswich against Parliament’s suppression of Christmas celebrations began on 22 December, while disturbances in London had to be suppressed by the personal intervention of the Lord Mayor. On the 27th, pro-Royalist rioters at Canterbury drove the mayor, several magistrates and clergymen from the city. These so-called ‘Plum Pudding Riots’ began in a particularly English way – with a destructive game of football followed by a mass brawl:
‘The Major and his assistants used their best endeavors to qualify this tumult, but the fire being once kindled, was not easily quenched. The Sheriff laying hold of a fellow, was stoutly resisted; which the Major perceiving, took a Cudgel and struck the man; who, being no puny, pulled up his courage, and knocked down the Major, whereby his Cloak was much torn and dirty, beside the hurt he received. The Major thereupon made strict proclamation for keeping the Peace and that every man depart to his own house. The multitude hollowing thereat, in disorderly manner; the Alderman and Constables caught two or three of the rout, and sent them to Jail, but they soon broke loose, and jeered Master Alderman.
‘Soon after issued forth the Commanders of the Rabble, with an addition of Soldiers, into the high street, and brought with them two Foot-balls, whereby their company increased. Which the Major and Aldermen perceiving, took what prisoners they had got, and would have carried them to the Jail. But the multitude following after to the King’s Bench, were opposed by Captain Bridge, who was straight knocked down, and had his head broke in two places, not being able to withstand the multitude, who, getting betwixt him and the Jail, rescued their fellows, and beat the Major and Aldermen into their houses, and then cried Conquest.’
The Kent County Committee was forced to call out the militiamen of the Trained Bands to restore order, but it was just the beginning of growing discontent. In May the following year, a grand jury dismissed charges against those arrested for taking part in the disturbances and petition was drawn up, similar to those already presented to Parliament from Essex and Surrey, calling for the restoration of the King. More riots broke out in Bury St. Edmunds and London, and on 21st May a full-scale rebellion against Parliament broke out in Kent, with insurgents seizing Rochester, Sittingbourne, Faversham and Sandwich in the King’s name. The second Civil War had begun…
The Puritan battle against Christmas was never about banning mince pies – it was a cultural, religious, and political war that had its roots in the English Reformation a century before. Whether we understand it or not, aspects of this war have continued to affect us and the way we view ourselves up until the present day.
‘Arguably, there was nothing inherently Puritan or Protestant about the attack on Christmas. The demand that Christians of any theological hue should spend the day of their saviour’s nativity in quiet contemplation was hardly contentious … Christmas Day was really a focal point for conflict between royalists and parliamentarians; between tradition and innovation; between opposing views of society.’History of Parliament blog