Cromwell and Christ­mas

Con­trary to Roy­al­ist pro­pa­ganda, the Lord Pro­tec­tor was not a Pu­ri­tan­i­cal kill-joy


Oliver (not to be con­fused with Thomas, his dis­tant an­ces­tor) Cromwell died more than 360 years ago, yet his fame, and es­pe­cially his in­famy, is still re­called ev­ery Christ­mas.

It seems that not the end of a year is al­lowed to pass be­fore some­one writes that Oliver Cromwell, that sev­en­teenth-cen­tury scrooge, “abol­ished” Christ­mas, or Christ­mas pud­dings or Christ­mas carols – the list is end­less, but en­tirely fic­ti­tious.

Like so many sto­ries about the Lord Pro­tec­tor, par­tic­u­larly those still cir­cu­lat­ing amongst the Catholic Ir­ish, they are no bet­ter than black pro­pa­ganda, or as some­one might say to­day, “fake news”.

Ever since the Chris­tian church chose 25 De­cem­ber as the birth­day of Je­sus of Nazareth (about 400AD), it has been cel­e­brated by most of his fol­low­ers in feast­ing. How­ever, af­ter the Re­for­ma­tion, English Protes­tant pu­ri­tans ob­jected strongly to the term Christ­mas, be­cause of its as­so­ci­a­tion with the Catholic Mass; they pre­ferred “Christ-tide”. The more ex­treme of them, such as Lady Mar­garet Hoby at Hack­ness, made no dis­tinc­tion be­tween 25 De­cem­ber and any other day in the cal­en­dar. For in­stance, though Tues­day, 25 De­cem­ber 1599 was “Chirstes Day”, ac­cord­ing to her di­ary, she spent the day in pri­vate prayer, Bi­ble read­ing and church at­ten­dance, her cus­tom­ary oc­cu­pa­tions. She re­garded Christ­mas revelry as lit­tle bet­ter that a pre-Chris­tian pa­gan prac­tice.

Yet it was a bold re­former who chose to deprive his fel­low coun­try­men and women of their rare plea­sures dur­ing the rigour of mid-win­ter.

It was not un­til Christ­mas day 1643 that some Lon­don­ers kept their shops open and their churches closed and that on this day Par­lia­ment met as usual.

At the end of the 1644, at the height of the Civil War, Par­lia­ment passed a res­o­lu­tion con­demn­ing the cel­e­bra­tion of Christ’s birth­day “with car­nal and sen­sual de­lights” and in­stead rec­om­mended a day of fast­ing and prayers. Sun­days only were to be holy days, when nei­ther work nor recre­ation should be per­mit­ted.

Need­less to note, these or­di­nances had noth­ing to do with Gen­eral Oliver Cromwell, who was busy fight­ing Roy­al­ists, though doubt­less he sup­ported them.

Con­trary to Roy­al­ist pro­pa­ganda then and tra­di­tional slan­ders since, Cromwell was not a Pu­ri­tan­i­cal kill-joy. He en­joyed mu­sic and danc­ing, smoked to­bacco, drank port (which he was the first to in­tro­duce to Eng­land), played bowls, hawked and hunted.

His op­po­si­tion to bear­bait­ing, cock and dog­fight­ing was be­cause they en­cour­aged gam­bling, vi­o­lence and dis­or­der.

At his Cam­bridge col­lege he ex­celled at foot­ball and his friends and fam­ily noted that he had a weak­ness for prac­ti­cal jokes.

In our sec­u­lar and ir­re­li­gious time, it now seems al­most im­pos­si­ble to com­pre­hend such a for­eign and ap­par­ently con­tra­dic­tory out­look as Oliver Cromwell’s; but there is still a small mi­nor­ity able to feast and pray on Christ’s birth­day.

Oliver Cromwell; right, an im­age from Roy­al­ist poet John Tay­lor’s 1652 pam­phlet ‘The Vin­di­ca­tion of Christ­mas’ ap­peared on the streets of Lon­don sup­port­ing the con­tin­u­a­tion of Christ­mas.

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