The Puritans are often accused of banning Christmas, and although the House of Commons did sit on Christmas Day during the English Republic, Dr Stephen Roberts felt the need to do a little myth-busting about the wholesale cancellation of Christmas during the interregnum, by way of the Christmas dinner table…
Two images of the mid-17th century Christmas stick in the mind. The documented one is that of MPs in 1656, sitting in the House on Christmas Day, commenting grumpily and not a little resentfully during their candle-lit sitting on the darkness of the surrounding Westminster shops, closed in defiance of the law that Christmas should not be a holiday. The less well-documented one is the Christmas the Puritans were pitting themselves against, which we take to mean feasting, drinking and general social merriment – The Twelve Days of Christmas and the Dickensian Christmas rolled into one.
The severity of the culture war over Christmas may have been overstated by historians: in general, Puritan rule involved a significant degree of toleration and turning of blind eyes. For the townspeople and villagers away from London and other potential flashpoint urban localities, a quiet household Christmas dinner was surely possible. But by 1660, Parliament had been legislating without the king’s approval for nearly 20 years. If they didn’t abolish Christmas, did the Puritans abolish Christmas dinner?
What was a typical Christmas Day of that period, and in particular what was a typical Christmas dinner? Samuel Pepys’s diary, kept without interruption between 1660 and 1669, is a useful source for insight into Christmas customs and dining. Pepys invariably began his Christmas Day with church-going, in 1662 and 1664 to two services each day. Later in the day he usually went out. Once he saw a wedding; once he tried to go to the theatre, but there was no play on; and often he socialized with his employer or patron. The 1656 Parliament-men might have approved of his choice of activity on Christmas Day 1663, even though Pepys, with his roving eye when around women he fancied, was hardly a Puritan: he went to his office to work. Some Christmases, though, he stayed in all day with his wife, playing or listening to music; reading or being read to. The diverse pattern of the Pepys household Christmas might give us pause for thought about the supposed binary Yuletide cultural divide.
Food consumption was something of a leveller, and Pepys was probably typical of his compatriots across the social spectrum (other than the very poor) in his choice of Christmas grub. The Pepys Christmas dinner (meaning lunch) consisted usually of a familiar-sounding roast beef and/or poultry, accompanied by mince pies and plum pudding, washed down in Pepys’s case by good wine. Turkeys and geese were available, and anyone could keep a chicken, kill it and eat it, but for Christmas the luxury bird for many early modern households was a capon, a castrated cockerel deliberately fattened for the season with what choice foodstuffs were available.
Even more central to the occasion was a mince-pie. One year, when his wife was unwell and didn’t feel up to making one, Pepys sent out for a mince-pie on Christmas Day – so in 1662 the shops were open: another tick-mark for the Puritans. No-one would send for a single takeaway pie if it was a titchy modern one: this must have been an impressive creation, in keeping with the standards of the period. Forget the Century of Revolution – this was the century of the pie. Pie-making was a way of keeping cooked food. It was the pie contents that mattered: the pastry case was often discarded, and pies could reach prodigious proportions. A South Wales customs officer in 1663 sent a pie to a London relative; it consisted of a turkey, 2 ducks, 2 snipe and 17 woodcocks, and was baked with 15 pounds of butter. Melted butter was poured into a filled pie-case to preserve the cooked contents after it solidified. This was probably at the most generous end of the pie-making scale, but pies whatever their size had things in common. A mince-pie usually included real meat (our modern mince-pie filler, mincemeat, is a left-over from that time) as well as sweet dried fruit, though other savoury things, like eggs, could be minced to go into a mince-pie.
Foodstuffs were inevitably a pawn in the long struggle between king and Parliament, in practical as well as the more frequently-discussed cultural ways. Take currants for example, essential to the mince-pie and plum pudding. By 1600, currants were imported into England in such huge quantities that the Italians were speculating that the English must be using currants for industrial dyeing as well as for food. For those with a seriously sweet tooth, the importing of sugar grew enormously during the 1650s and later, so that by 1654 sugar and tobacco from Virginia and the Caribbean, increasingly from Jamaica, made up the bulk of the import trade of Bristol. Add to that the steady trade into West Country ports of Spanish and French wine, and the imports of oranges and lemons from the Mediterranean, in plentiful supply by the mid-1500s, at least in London, and you had the makings of a festive experience -except for taxes.
After 1640 Parliament at one point banned imports of currants, then put a tax on those imported from Greece in order to help its beleaguered garrison city of Gloucester. More impactful still was Parliament’s excise tax, first imposed in 1643 and stealthily and not so stealthily extended over the following decades as a duty not only on the many varieties of alcohol, but also on other foods including meat, fish, salt and tobacco. The excise fell on consumers, so most heavily on the poor. And in 1655 the war against Spain disrupted the wine trade, and the supply of Mediterranean produce like oranges. Without luxury imports for Christmas, there was always native produce. Herefordshire cider rivalled French wines, at least in the eyes of its enthusiasts, including its leading champion, Dr Roger Bosworth, MP for Hereford in the 1659 Parliament. Tobacco was another home-grown stimulant: in 1655, it was cultivated and sold in fourteen English and Welsh counties. But there was no escaping the excise tax on the cider, and a comforting pipe of English tobacco could not be enjoyed legally, as Cromwell’s government clamped down on the trade and insisted that all tobacco should be the duty-heavy variety imported from the colonies.
The particular object of the Puritans’ hostility towards Christmas was against public celebration and unseemly revelling. The governments of the 1640s and 50s by and large refrained from over-zealous intrusion into private lives. Official disapproval of public Christmas celebrations may to some extent have propelled the English people towards the private enjoyment of the season behind closed doors, and almost certainly the Puritans made the Christmas dinner more expensive.
Joan Thirsk, Food in Early Modern England (2007)
Joan Thirsk, The Rural Economy of England (1984)
The Diary of Samuel Pepys ed. R. Latham and W. Matthews (11 vols, 1970-83)
B. Capp, England’s Culture Wars: Puritan Reformation and its Enemies in the Interregnum, 1649-60 (2012)
C. Driver, Pepys at Table: Seventeenth Century Recipes for the Modern Cook (1984)