One of the worst insults today thrown at Oliver Cromwell and the Puritans in the mid-17th Century House of Commons is that they ‘cancelled Christmas’ (although I’m sure some of you fighting in the shops or eating yet another mince pie may have some sympathy!) In this post, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the House of Commons 1640-1660 section, puts the record straight about the political conflict over Christmas during the Civil War and Interregnum…
Christmas always brings out tradition. A tradition as hoary as holly and mistletoe is the reminder that it is illegal to eat mince pies on Christmas Day, our most celebrated archaic law. This is in fact mythological as well as recurrent, and seems to be a mix of folk-memory of ‘puritan rule’ during the mid-17th century and the spirit of Charles Dickens’s critique of the law as an ass. And yet the puritans of the Long Parliament and successor assemblies down to 1660 did declare war on Christmas, at least as we would know it. The order of 19 December 1644 by both Houses of Parliament sums up the mind-set of puritan opposition to Christmas. It is based on the premise that the religious observance of the festival had been degraded, and that contemplation of sin and the work and significance of Jesus Christ had been supplanted by ‘carnal and sensual delights’.
The order is in fact a call to remember the religious significance of Christmas. This was followed up in 1645 by the new Directory of Worship, a blueprint for services in England, Wales and Scotland, to be held under the disciplines of Presbyterianism. The Directory announced bluntly and curtly that ‘Festival Days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued’.
They may have left it a bit late in 1644 for their order to have much effect that year. In 1647 they were seemingly better prepared, as the order abolishing holy-days passed the Lords on 8 June. This time, the implications for workers were addressed. Instead of the holy-days (holidays) prescribed anciently by church and state, days of rest were ordered for every second Tuesday in the month. Magistrates were to adjudicate disputes between masters and workers arising from the order.
But Christmas 1647 turned out to be a confrontational one for the proponents of opposing views of how the day should be marked. A minister who had hoped to preach a Christmas Day sermon in St Margaret’s, Westminster was instead sent to the Fleet prison for attempting to preach without a licence from the relevant parliamentary committee. He later published the sermon he would have given, with the title The Still-born Nativity. In Canterbury, the townspeople assembled to demand a sermon on Christmas Day, which the mayor had forbidden. A heavy-handed response towards the crowd produced a riot and a published Declaration of many Thousands of the City of Canterbury, whose exaggeration of numbers was surely pardonable. The authors laid the blame for the Canterbury disorders squarely on the two Houses of Parliament: ‘the remedy of these pretenders to reformation is worse than the disease’.
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. The reference in the 1644 embargo on holy days to the abhorrent ‘carnal and sensual delights’ in conflict with piety was an age-old contrast which was made in art and literature across Christendom: witness ‘The Garden of Earthly Delights’ by Hieronymus Bosch. Christmas Day was really a focal point for conflict between royalists and parliamentarians; between tradition and innovation; between opposing views of society. The Canterbury Christmas rioters went on to denounce Parliament for tyrannical government: ‘the liberty and property of the subject … is wholly theirs, we but vassals and slaves to their will; and their will is now our law’. Canterbury, like Norwich and Bury St Edmunds, two other places where Christmases in 1646 and 1647 saw civil disturbances, went on to play a part in the second civil war of 1648. Only in 1660, when the king was restored and the acts and ordinances of parliaments and governments 1642-1660 made void, did Christmas Day cease to be a contentious symbol of political conflict.