Pu­ri­tans Ban Christ­mas

Ali­son Weir and Siob­han Clarke ex­plore the dark pe­riod of his­tory where Pu­ri­tans reigned and Christ­mas was can­celled . . .

This England - - Contents - Ali­son Weir and Siob­han Clarke

IN 1632, the Pu­ri­tan lawyer Wil­liam Prynne won­dered why peo­ple could not ob­serve Christ­mas with­out “drink­ing, roar­ing, health­ing, dic­ing, card­ing, masques and stag­ing plays, which bet­ter be­come the sac­ri­fices of Bac­chus than the in­car­na­tion of our most blessed Saviour”.

In­creas­ingly in the late six­teenth and early sev­en­teenth cen­turies, Pu­ri­tans – strict “pure” Protes­tants – came to frown upon the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ­mas as an un­wel­come sur­vival of the Ro­man Catholic faith.

Christ­mas at court, how­ever, con­tin­ued to be ob­served with all the cus­tom­ary mag­nif­i­cence and ever more fan­tas­tic and colour­ful en­ter­tain­ments.

James I, who suc­ceeded El­iz­a­beth I in 1603 and es­tab­lished the Stu­art dy­nasty in Eng­land, had de­cided views on how the sea­son should be cel­e­brated. His own book, Basi­likon Do­ran, sug­gested that holy days such as Christ­mas ought to be marked by “hon­est games” and mer­ri­ment.

It is a com­mon myth that Oliver Cromwell him­self “banned” Christ­mas; it was Par­lia­ment that took the ini­tia­tive, in 1644-7, with his ap­proval, in pass­ing a series of Acts crim­i­nal­is­ing the cel­e­bra­tion.

It was de­creed that “The ob­ser­va­tion of Christ­mas hav­ing been deemed a sac­ri­lege, the ex­change of gifts and greetings, dress­ing in fine cloth­ings, feast­ing and sim­i­lar sa­tan­i­cal prac­tices, are hereby FOR­BID­DEN, with the of­fender li­able to a fine of five shillings.”

Par­lia­ment also or­dered that shops and mar­kets were to stay open for busi­ness on 25 De­cem­ber. Any­one caught break­ing the law was li­able to a fine or im­pris­on­ment.

So strong was the pop­u­lar at­tach­ment to the old fes­tiv­i­ties that many proChrist­mas ri­ots oc­curred, threat­en­ing lo­cal trades­men who had dared to open their shops on Christ­mas Day.

In Lon­don, a crowd of ap­pren­tices as­sem­bled at Corn­hill on 25 De­cem­ber, and there, “in de­spite of author­ity, they set up Holly and Ivy” on the pin­na­cles of the pub­lic wa­ter con­duit.

When the Lord Mayor dis­patched of­fi­cers “to pull down these gawds”, the ap­pren­tices re­sisted them, forc­ing the mayor to break up the demon­stra­tion by force.

The worst dis­tur­bances took place at Can­ter­bury, where a crowd of protestors first smashed up the shops that had been opened on Christ­mas Day and then went on to seize con­trol of the en­tire city.

This riot helped to pave the way for a ma­jor in­sur­rec­tion in Kent in 1648 that it­self formed part of the “Sec­ond Civil War” – a scat­tered series of ris­ings against Par­lia­ment and in favour of the King, which Gen­er­als Fair­fax and Cromwell only man­aged to sup­press with great dif­fi­culty.

Par­lia­men­tary sol­diers re­moved ev­er­green dec­o­ra­tions from St Mar­garet’s Church at West­min­ster and other churches in Lon­don. They de­stroyed the fa­mous Glas­ton­bury Thorn, a tree be­lieved to have sprung on Christ­mas Day from the staff of Joseph of Ari­mathea, the un­cle of Je­sus Christ and leg­endary founder of Glas­ton­bury Abbey.

The Thorn tra­di­tion­ally flow­ered twice a year, at Easter and Christ­mas, and peo­ple flocked to watch these mirac­u­lous events. Cromwell’s men de­plored this an­cient su­per­sti­tion, and burnt the tree.

By Christ­mas 1648, King Charles I was a pris­oner of the English par­lia­men­tary army. He was ex­e­cuted in Jan­uary 1649 and his body laid to rest at St Ge­orge’s Chapel, Wind­sor Cas­tle. For or­di­nary peo­ple, cel­e­brat­ing Christ­mas would now be­come even harder.

Spe­cific penal­ties were im­posed on any­one found hold­ing or at­tend­ing a Christ­mas church ser­vice.

Clan­des­tine re­li­gious ser­vices mark­ing Christ’s Na­tiv­ity con­tin­ued to be held, and the sec­u­lar plea­sures of the sea­son were covertly en­joyed, as far as peo­ple were able to do so.

Fol­low­ing Cromwell’s in­stal­la­tion as Lord Pro­tec­tor in 1653, the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ­mas con­tin­ued to be pro­scribed.

The di­arist John Eve­lyn searched in vain for Christ­mas Day ser­vices in the 1650s and had to cel­e­brate at home. In 1657, though he man­aged to at­tend a ser­vice in Lon­don, sol­diers sur­rounded the chapel and ar­rested ev­ery­one in­side.

One Wil­liam Slater tried to re­place the old car­ols with Cer­tain of David’s Psalms in­tended for Christ­mas Car­ols, which featured ‘the most solemn tunes’.

The Pu­ri­tans com­plained that their leg­is­la­tion was be­ing pop­u­larly ig­nored, but to no avail: the peo­ple’s de­light in Christ­mas tra­di­tions sim­ply could not be ex­tin­guished.

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