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