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.