Christmas-Day in the Commons, 1656

For those of you still working in Christmas week, Dr Stephen Roberts, editor of the Commons 1640-60 section, discusses the Commons’ debates on Christmas day, 1656: still sitting, of course, and rather disappointed that the rest of the country seemed to have taken the day off…

On Christmas day 1656, the second parliament of Oliver Cromwell’s protectorate met as usual to transact business. Some years earlier, the legislation of the Long Parliament (1640-53) had outlawed the observance of the festival, but it had evidently failed. On 25 December 1656, the MPs began the parliamentary day by giving a second reading to an obscure bill for holding sheriff’s courts in Wiltshire, heard amendments to a bill for altering the forest laws relating to the Forest of Dean in Gloucestershire; during the short debate, Luke Robinson spoke bravely against plans to re-forest the area, fearing for the rights of ordinary people: ‘We promised Englishmen freedom, equal freedom… Did we not make the people believe that we fought for their liberty? Let us not deceive them of their expectation.’ A government spokesman denied that the bill would restrain commoners’ rights, instead asserting that ‘it gives the people more liberty than they have had these hundred years’. The bill was passed, and then in what we might consider the true spirit of Christmas, a member was given leave to visit his sick child.

But the elephant in the chamber could be ignored no longer, and Colonel Joachim Matthews, Member for Maldon in Essex, noted how thin the attendance was, attributing it to Christmas observance, and produced ‘a short bill’ to reinforce the earlier legislation of abolition. Luke Robinson, the republican opponent of re-afforestation, complained that Christmas preparations outside his London lodgings had kept him awake all night, and made the inevitable link between Christmas festivity and Catholicism: ‘We are, I don’t doubt, returning to popery’. The bill produced a range of responses. Some said it was needed, as the people were keener on Christmas than on Sunday observance; others said that important parliamentary business should take priority over this measure, since it was too late to prevent this Christmas taking place, and so there was a year in hand to pass it. Yet others noted with regret the complete closure of businesses: ‘One may pass from the Tower to Westminster, and not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’. Lambarde Godfrey, MP for Kent, said that now the bill was being debated, everyone should support it, in case the public came to the conclusion that Parliament was in favour of superstitious festivals.

Then in a masterly display of tactical shrewdness, Sir Christopher Packe, one of the money-men of the City of London, expressed admiration for the bill but pointed out that it included Easter and Pentecost in its targets, as well as Christmas. Those days fell on Sundays: ‘I would not have us, under the notion of taking away festivals, take away the Lord’s Day’. As the House sat pondering the implications of this, Major-general John Disbrowe, who had a short time earlier that morning spoken in support of the Forest of Dean bill, rose to present what he modestly described as another ‘short bill’. It was a bill to continue the existing regime of the major-generals, and the special ‘decimation tax’ on royalists. It raised very tricky questions on what Lord Protector Cromwell had called ‘healing and settling’: in other words, whether the security of the nation, at home or abroad, demanded measures that would compromise the impulse towards drawing a veil over the divisions of the recent civil wars. The debate over that raged for the rest of the day; suddenly the activity on the London streets on Christmas Eve and the silence on the streets on Christmas Day seemed unimportant. The candles in the House continued to burn as night fell on the short afternoon.


Merry Christmas to you all!

2 thoughts on “Christmas-Day in the Commons, 1656

  1. A fascinating episode, underlining the absurdities of fanaticism. A true fanatic is a truly dangerous person.

  2. Cromwell’s Parliament was absolutely correct to try to ban Christmas. Christians didn’t celebrate it until the 4th century when it was adopted by the Roman bishops in an attempt to convince the newly converting empire that Christianity was OK by recreating Christianity as a syncretic religion blending the apostolic Christianity of the early Church with mediterranean paganism. Its a shame that England’s second Reformation, like its republic failed.

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