No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell

Hello and welcome to a special Christmas Blog Hop post, and I would like to thank Helen Hollick for including me! My contribution is, of course, about the 17th-century.

unnamedAnyone who loves Early Music and Early Modern history, as I do, can probably talk about the beautiful Christmas verses which were composed during the Elizabethan and Early Stuart times. Music and dancing were very much a part of Christmas celebrations before the horrors of the Civil War left the country in the hands of the Parliamentarians. Clement A. Miles states that, “the extremer (sic) Puritans were completely out of touch with the sensuous poetry of Christmas, a festival which…they actually suppressed when they came to power.[1] Miles also states that, “a certain orgiastic licence crept in, an unbridling of the physical appetites, which has ever been a source of sorrow and anger to the most earnest Christians and even led the Puritans of the seventeenth century to condemn all festivals as diabolical.”

As the Puritans gained power in England during the early Seventeenth century, so did their distaste and abhorrence for the practice of celebrating Christ’s birth with drunkenness and gluttony, and doing so on a pagan feast/festival day.

Indeed, one of the most notoriously party-poopery things that the Puritans (who were known for banning a lot of fun things) was the banning of the celebration of Christmas. No Christmas for you under Cromwell! Nay, thou unwashed varmint! But we can’t blame Cromwell personally for this, as Christmas was banned by the Parliament. [By the way, according to Festivals in World Religions, “Christmas” comes from the Old English word, Cristes masse, which means “Christ’s mass”.]

Let’s see what Calvinist Philip Stubbes wrote in his Anatomie of Abuses, 1583:

“In Christmas time there is nothing else used by cards, dice, tables, masking, mumming, bowling, and such like fooleries; and the reason is, that they think  the have a commission and prerogative that time to do what they like, and to follow what vanity they will…Who knoweth not that more mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides?”

From 1644 to 1656, the Puritanical Parliamentarians were so against the idea of Christmas that they were in session every Christmas day! Mark Stoyle wrote, “Worse was to follow in 1647 – despite the fact that, on 10 June that year, parliament has passed an ordinance which declared the celebration of Christmas to be a punishable offence. On 25 December 1647, there was further trouble at Bury, while pro-Christmas riots also took place at Norwich and Ipswich.”

According to Godfrey Davies’ The Early Stuarts, 1603-1660: “The traditional method of celebrating Christmas was thought by Parliament to give ‘liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Accordingly, in 1644, 25 December was ordered to be kept as a fast day” (307). If Christmas decorations (usually made from evergreens such as holly, ivy, and mistletoe) were found, they were burned (Miles, 184-5). But, of course, some people rebelled. Members of Parliament “walked down to Westminster on Christmas Day in 1656 to attend Parliament, (and they) could not but observe that the tradesmen had shut up shop and were keeping the day as a holiday” (Davies, 307).

Most people didn’t like being prohibited from celebrating Christmas, but most did not resort to rioting. Some preferred to celebrate in the privacy of their own home, and as an example of this we have some entries of John Evelyn’s excellent Diary, wherein he wrote about Christmas during the Interregnum (the time in between kings, aka during Cromwell’s Republic).

25 December, 1652:

“Christmas day [no sermon anywhere, so observ’d it at home], the next day we went to Lewsham, where was an honest divine preach’d on 21. Matt: 9. celebrating the Incarnation, for on the day before, no Churches were permitted to meete.”

25 December, 1653:

“Christmas-day, no Churches (or) publique Assembly, I was faine to passe the devotions of that blessed day with my family at home.”

25 December, 1654:

“Christmas-day, were no public offices in Churches, but penalties to the observers: so as I was constrain’d to celebrate it at home.”

If you were really naughty and were preparing a feast for your family in order to celebrate Christmas, woe betide you! “Thus, on Christmas morning, a little before dinner-time, soldiers were sent round London to search kitchens and ovens and to carry away any meat they found being cooked” (Davies, 308).

In Charles Kightly’s The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain, “In Lowland Scotland, indeed, the Calvinist Kirk suppressed all public celebrations of Christmas so long and determinedly that secular New Year celebrations have largely taken their place. And though a brief Puritan abolition after the Civil War had less effect on English jollification, these undoubtedly declined in fervour during the Georgian era” (73).

But things did not always stay the same. When Charles II (and therefore, the monarchy) was welcomed back home during the Restoration, Christmas was once again celebrated without fear. People could once again attend Church services legally, play traditional festive games, and cook and enjoy lovely foods. Naval administrator Samuel Pepys (a man who fiercely enjoyed his food) wrote, in 1660:

“25. Christmas day. In the morning to church; where Mr. Mills made a very good sermon. After that home to dinner, where my wife and I and my brother Tom – to a good shoulder of Mutton and a chicken. After dinner to church again, my wife and I where we have a dull sermon of a stranger which made me sleep; and so home; and I, before and after supper, to my Lute and Fullers History, at which I stayed all alone in my Chamber till 12 at night; and so to bed.”

According to Elizabeth Craig in Jeremy Archer’s A Royal Christmas: “It was not until the days of William and Mary that the original Plum Broth, which was served as soup in the days of Charles the First, and was composed of mutton stock, currants, prunes, raisins, sack, and sherry, and later on was stiffened with brown bread, became known as Plum Pudding.” I don’t know about you, but that’s just made me hungry.

So, ultimately, the banning of Christmas backfired. Yes, it’s hyper-commercialised now, but we still celebrate it And I certainly don’t have Cromwell on my Christmas tree…I have Charles II. 😉

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Bibliography:

  • Archer, Jeremy. A Royal Christmas. Elliott and Thomson Limited, London, 2012.
  • Brown, Alan, ed. Festivals in World Religions. Longmont, London, 1986.
  • Davies, Godfrey. The Early Stuarts: 1604-1660. Clarendon Press, Oxford, 1959.
  • Evelyn, John. Diary. Everyman’s Library, 2006.
  • Kightly, Charles. The Customs and Ceremonies of Britain: An Encyclopaedia of Living Traditions. Thames and Hudson, Ltd. London, 1986.
  • Miles, Clement A. Christmas Customs and Traditions: Their History and Significance. Dover Publications, New York, 1976.
  • Stoyle, Mark. No Christmas under Cromwell? The Puritan assault on Christmas during the 1640s and 1650s”. History Extra.

I hope you enjoyed my post. There are loads of fascinating posts for you to enjoy today from other Blog Hoppers, and the links are provided below. I hope you all have a very Merry Christmas and a Happy and Healthy 2015!

Love to all, Andrea xx

‘At Christmas I no more desire a rose/Than wish a snow in May’s new-fangled shows’ – William Shakespeare

We are celebrating the Christmas Season! So come and join some wonderful authors (and their characters) is the time for merry-making and parties…for an Online Virtual Party! Browse through a variety of Blogs (hopping forward to the next one on the list) for a veritable feast of entertainment! (And just as with any good party, you’ll find a few giveaway prizes along the way!)

Follow on to the next enjoyable entertainment…

  1. Helen Hollick : You are Cordially Invited to a Ball (plus a giveaway prize) –  Go thither!
  2. Alison Morton : Saturnalia surprise – a winter party tale (plus a giveaway prize) – Go thither!
  3. Andrea Zuvich – you’ve just read it! :p
  4. Ann Swinfen : Christmas 1586 – Burbage’s Company of Players Celebrates – Go thither!
  5. Anna Belfrage : All I want for Christmas – Go thither!
  6. Carol Cooper : How To Be A Party Animal – Go thither!
  7. Clare Flynn : A German American Christmas – Go thither!
  8. Debbie Young : Good Christmas Housekeeping (plus a giveaway prize)Go thither!
  9. Derek Birks : The Lord of Misrule – A Medieval Christmas Recipe for Trouble – Go thither! 
  10. Edward James : An Accidental Virgin and An Uninvited Guest – Go to the former! and – Go to the latter!
  11. Fenella J. Miller : Christmas on the Home front (plus a giveaway prize) – Go thither!
  12. J. L. Oakley : Christmas Time in the Mountains 1907 (plus a giveaway prize) – Go thither!
  13. Jude Knight : Christmas at Avery Hall in the Year of Our Lord 1804 – Go thither!
  14. Julian Stockwin : Join the Party – Go thither!
  15. Juliet Greenwood : Christmas 1914 on the Home Front (plus a giveaway prize)Go thither!
  16. Lauren Johnson : Farewell Advent, Christmas is come – Early Tudor Festive Feasts – Go thither!
  17. Lucienne Boyce : A Victory Celebration – Go thither!
  18. Lindsay Downs : O Christmas Tree, O Christmas Tree (plus a giveaway prize) Go thither!
  19. Nancy Bilyeau : Christmas After the Prior(plus a giveaway prize) – Go thither!
  20. Nicola Moxey : The Feast of the Epiphany, 1182 – Go thither!
  21. Peter St John : Dummy’s Birthday – Go thither!
  22. Regina Jeffers : Celebrating a Regency Christmas (plus a giveaway prize) – Go thither!
  23. Richard Abbott : The Hunt – Feasting at Ugarit – Go thither!
  24. Saralee Etter : Christmas Pudding — Part of the Christmas Feast – Go thither!
  25. Stephen Oram : Living in your dystopia: you need a festival of enhancement… (plus a giveaway prizeGo thither!
  26. Suzanne Adair : The British Legion Parties Down for Yule 1780 (plus a giveaway prize) – Go thither!

Thank you for joining us! 

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Hear ye! 30 thoughts — so far — on “No Christmas For You! The Holiday Under Cromwell”:

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  5. moxeyns

    I am so glad my Suffolk countrymen protested! John Winthrop’s father, Adam, had his estates near Bury St Edmunds, and was definitely pro-Christmas.
    Thank you for an interesting read!

    Reply
  6. Janet Oakley

    Really enjoyed this. And I kept thinking of my English ancestor who came to New England in 1638. Wondering what he left behind and what came over with him. I don’t Christmas was celebrated in Newburyport and other early towns in Massachusetts for a while.

    Reply
  7. annswinfen

    Very interesting, Andrea! Not all Parliamentarians were tarred with the same brush. My husband’s ancestor, John Swinfen, was a member of Parliament. He supported constitutional monarchy, but strongly opposed the execution of the king. Before it took place he, along with all the other Moderates, was driven away from Parliament by Cromwell’s armed supporters, in Pryde’s Purge, and imprisoned. He was kept out of Parliament until the end of the Cromwellian period, by which time the House had been trimmed down to the Rump, consisting of just Cromwell’s strongest supporters. John was a founder of the party which became the Whigs or Liberals. Interesting about John Knox’s effect on Scotland too. When I was a student I came to spend Christmas in Scotland with the English and Welsh family of my then fiance (now husband). I was horrified that his father had to work on Christmas day! And ours was the only Christmas tree in the village. It soon changed as businesses spotted the commercial opportunities!

    Reply
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