17th Century British Christmas Ban Led to Civil War
An English Christmas without decorations, Christmas cake, mince pies, plum pudding, ale, eggnog, mulled cider, Christmas carols and mass? It’s like something out of a joyless, dystopian fantasy. One of colonialism’s most enduring cultural legacies is the near universality of Christmas festivities. With its history as a colonial nation for almost four centuries and the greatest colonial power for over a century, Great Britain made no small contribution to this. Yet, Christmas celebrations were once frowned upon by the government in that country. And, no, this isn’t about COVID restrictions!
The year was 1647: The Cromwellian parliament passed legislation banning Christmas and Easter celebrations in the kingdoms of England (then including Wales), Scotland and Ireland. The ban remained in effect till 1660, despite its deep unpopularity.
Puritan Disapproval of Traditional Christmas Celebrations
The ban on Christmas signaled the steady advancement of the English parliament over the Royalist camp in the English Civil Wars. Fought mainly over religious freedom, economic measures and the king’s unshakeable belief in the divine right to rule versus the parliament’s desire to curb his powers, the English Civil Wars were a series of battles from 1642 to 1651 between the Royalists, or supporters of King Charles I, and the Roundheads or Parliamentarians.
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The victory of Cromwell led to the Puritan Christmas ban. Troopers of the English Civil War, 1645 (Public Domain)
The Roundheads were largely Puritan and were dissatisfied with the distance traversed by the English Reformation. They wanted to cleanse the Anglican Church of the remnants of Catholicism that still lingered. In fact, long before the legislation banning Christmas was enacted, the Puritans viewed Christmas festivities with a jaundiced eye. They profoundly disapproved of the feasting, drunkenness, and merriment so central to Christmas celebrations. The jollifications were perceived to be associated not just with Catholicism, but also with the pagan Yuletide spirit of Christmas.
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Christmas was banned after Puritans were offended by too much fun. Oil painting ‘The Twelfth Night’ by David Teniers the Younger, circa 1650 (Public Domain)
The Puritans instead wanted Christmas to be a day of fasting and reflection. In December 1643, for example, an ordinance was passed asking people to treat the period “with the more solemn humiliation because it may call to remembrance our sins, and the sins of our forefathers, who have turned this feast, pretending the memory of Christ, into an extreme forgetfulness of him, by giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights”.
This ordinance was one of a series of laws brought between 1642 and 1660, known collectively as the Acts and Ordinances of the Interregnum. In 1645, an ordinance was passed which prohibited the celebration of holy days which were not provided for in the “Word of God”.
By 1647, the king was being held captive and Presbyterianism had replaced Anglicanism as the official religion. Then came the ordinance specifically prohibiting Christmas and Easter celebrations in the kingdoms of England, Scotland and Ireland, a ban that remained in place for 16 years.
Christmas Banned Comprehensively
Christmas was banned entirely, including everything from private feasting and revelry (with copious consumption of alcohol being particularly disapproved of), Christmas mass, festive decorations (with holly and ivy specifically mentioned) to Christmas nativity productions in theaters. Even Thomas Fairfax, former leader of the New Model Army (Parliamentary forces), was fined for attending a Christmas play in London in 1655.
The new legislation made closing businesses for Christmas illegal. Soldiers were authorized to confiscate any food that was being prepared for a Christmas feast. Singing a Christmas carol in public or being caught with a pint and a slice of pudding were offenses that invited fines, punishment in the stocks or, bizarrely, being pelted with cabbages and turnips. All sports and games that usually marked the twelve days of Christmas festivities were prohibited. In other words, anything smacking of holiday cheer was likely to elicit punitive action.
The fines imposed further economic privation on a people already beleaguered by the wars, as did the restrictions, which caused losses to trades and businesses that usually made profits during the holiday season.
The punishment for Christmas cheer under Cromwell could be time spent in the stocks. Men in the village stocks as punishment, 1900 (Public Domain)
The Triumph of the Christmas Spirit
Did the party poopers prevail? Mercifully not. People across England, Scotland, and Ireland showed their defiance by celebrating openly. Even those who didn’t want to court punishment by the authorities had secret gatherings of friends and family, celebrating with whatever they could afford.
Open flouting of rules was pretty widespread and was egged on by the Royalists. In Norwich, the mayor, though officially not sanctioning a petition to allow a traditional Christmas, turned a blind eye to celebrations all over the city. Canterbury held the traditional Christmas football game, and holly bushes stood as usual outside people’s houses. The revelry spread across Kent, and armed forces were called out to restore order.
In Ipswich and Bury St. Edmunds in Suffolk, young men moved around the streets persuading shops to close for Christmas. In London itself, the streets had decorations of holly and ivy and shops remained closed. When the mayor tried to address the situation by tearing down the decorations, he was verbally abused. The churchwardens of St. Margaret’s Church (in Westminster Abbey) didn’t stop the Christmas celebrations and were arrested. Apprentices revolted against the revocation of the traditional holiday.
The breaking of rules was not merely a determination to enjoy the holiday season. It was also an act of rebellion against the stifling restrictions and economic hardship that the Civil Wars and the Presbyterian system had brought. The Royalists were quick to take advantage of the disaffection to organize the rioters and try to turn the tide of the war in their favor.
Pro-Christmas Riots and Second English Civil War
While the Royalists were not destined to succeed, the pro-Christmas riots lead to dramatic consequences. The Norwich mayor was summoned to London in April 1648, but a crowd prevented him from being taken away. Armed forces were called out, and during their efforts to quell the continuing rioting, a magazine exploded, killing 40.
When the grand jury in Kent adjudged that the people who had participated in Christmas revelry needed to answer to the law, open rebellion broke out with Royalist backing. Canterbury’s Plum Pudding Riot eventually segued into the Second English Civil War in February to August 1948. It resulted in another defeat for the Royalist forces and in January 1649, the execution of King Charles I. As serious as these developments were, they never succeeded in stamping out the underground celebrations.
The official ban on festivities, however, continued until King Charles II, in one of his first acts on assuming the throne in 1660, revoked it. It went a long way in building his image as the “Merry Monarch”.
Top image: A sad Santa sat on a chimney, lamenting the banning of Christmas. Source: Olly / Adobe Stock
By Sahir Pandey
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