A Very Merry Puritan Christmas

It’s a commonly known factoid that ‘puritans’ banned Christmas in England after the Civil War. It sits proudly along with other apocryphal yuletide tales such as Luther inventing the Christmas tree, Coca-Cola inventing Santa Clause and the birth of Jesus Christ (wasn’t actually born on 25 December). The image of miserabilist puritans bah-humbugging their way around late 1640s and 1650s London is an enduring one and while it is based on historical foundations it does not tell the whole story.

In June 1647 Parliament did indeed pass a law banning all former church feasts, including Christmas:

Ordinance for Days of Recreation, in Lieu of Holidays.

“Forasmuch as the Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other Festivals, commonly called Holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed: Be it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival-days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holidays, within this Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales;

Commons Journal, Volume 9, 11 June 1647. (British History Online)

However, this was not a sudden decision taken and enforced by Parliament in a wave of popular anti-Christmas fervor. The ban was the result of a long period of introspection over a number of issues; the legitimacy of ‘Holy Days’, continuing the reformation’s drive against superstition and the desire to see a more godly and sober way of life. Christmas had faced a pincer movement of concerns over its religious foundations (essentially celebrating a Catholic mass) and the consequences of its traditional feasting elements. Slow steps were taken toward the elimination of Christmas from 1642 up until the law was passed, including attempts to close churches on Christmas day and  keep shops open, both of which were only partially successful and caused civil disturbances.

That it took five years from the start of the civil war to institute a ban says something in itself. Until the law was passed there seems to have been an element of hand wringing uncertainty amongst the godly about what to do with this enduring tradition. A good example of this is the author of the Sottish Dove who in this extract from 1643 sets out his arguments against the festival, puts forward  a hope that the state will act on the issue but holds back from prescribing anything other than private action:

…confider that when by obferving any fuch day, God is either by fuperftition, or prophaneneffe difhonoured (although the day in it felf be lawfull to be obferved) it is not expedient to be kept; except fuch abufes be taken away, but neceffary to be fupreffed and forbidden: Therefore as the church, and Magiftrate, have authority to appoint dayes; fo they have power to fuppreffe, and forbid them, when they are either inftituted to a fuperftitious ufe, or ufed prophanely; An fo though the Nativitie of Chrift, and other Feaftivalls may be celebrated; yet as they were inftituted to a fuperftitious ufe, and are frequently abufed to a carnall libertie, and prophaneneffe, it is neceffary they fhould be fuppreffed, or altered; in name, end, and ufe; for no day dedicated to an idol is lawfull to be obferved; But Chriftmas day is dedicated to an idol of the maffe, as all other dayes dedicated to Saints: Therefore, &c. every thing dedicated to an idol, ought to be abominable to us…

Nor let any be fo turbulent in the ftate, as to ufurp the office of the Magiftrate (being but private men) to be their own judges, (except to judge themfelves for their own fin) to alter cuftomes, or reform publike evils, which is not in their power nor place, efpecially we having, as at this day (through gods mercy) fuch a Magiftracie, and miniftry, as do carefully look after all fuch things, and will wifely order, and redreffe thofe evils, in due time? let private me privately reform their own families, pray for the King, and parliament: and waite with patience till God work by them, his own will…

‘Scottish Dove’22-29 December 1643 (Thomason / 14:E.79[25], 11)

The popular idea of the puritan ban also ignores the level of resistance to even the early, tentative moves against the holy days. In London the apprentices (I’m unsure if Alan Sugar was involved) regularly rioted against any attempts to keep shops open throughout the years leading up to and beyond the ban. The ban itself came at a time in which popular dissent against the regime was growing, it preceded the fighting known as the second civil war in 1648, and the feast day became a rallying point for civil and religious resistance, as two extracts from a newsbook from December 1647 report:

Frisday December 24.

Upon a Petition prefented by divers in the cityes of London and Weftminfter it was ordered that the Committee of the Militia of London and Weftminfter fhall take care in a ftrict manner that no injury be offered to any who fhall open their Shops on Chriftmas day or any other Holiday. And that s ftrict courfe be also taken for turning all Delinquent Minifters out of the Line of Communication according to the Ordinance.

Saturday, December 25.

Complaints were made that divers Minifters did preach on this day, because it was Chriftmas day, and divers were prevented who had an intent to preach and to that pupose had affembled their Congregations; whereupon it was ordered that the Committee for […] Minifters fhall have powers given them to examine and punifh Churchwardens, and others, who doe countenance Delinquents Minifters, and fome were this day taken into cuftody for fo doing.

The kingdomes vveekly intelligencer, 1643-1649 (Thomason / 66:E.421[13])

The ban lived on into the Commonwealth and Protectorate period, but so to did the resistance. Services still continued, though they could be hard to find and were usually behind closed doors or simply performed in the family home. Throughout the 1650s the diarist John Evelyn sought out churches that were holding Christmas Day services but was rarely successful. However, on Christmas Day in 1656:

I went to Lond., to receive the B: Communion this holy Festival, at Dr. Wildes lodging, where I rejoiced to find so full an assembly of devout & sober Christians… I received the blessed Sacrament, the Lord make me Thankful…

The Diary of John Evelyn, ed. E. S. de Beer (Everymans Library), p340

Another example of pro-Christmas sentiment in the 1650s can be seen in the pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas, or His twelve yeares observations upon the times (London, 1652) as discussed in this post at Mercurius Politicus. Ronald Hutton, in his study of  ritual in Early Modern England (“The rise and Fall of Merry England”), puts forward the case that the religious aspect of Christmas was more successfully put down than the communal or festival aspects of the day. The sources would seem to bear this out, though clearly Evelyn and other like minded worshipers still craved the religious significance of the day.

On his restoration to the throne in 1660 Charles II removed the law concerning feast days and Christmas was openly celebrated again, but while it was a dramatic symbolic change it should not be thought of as the dramatic revival of a tradition lost under the weight of Puritanism, as the common factoid would have it. The outlaw Christmas survived in the wild long enough to receive its pardon and return to the people.

For more information about the Christmas ritual, and indeed other ritual traditions, in Early Modern England I would recommend seeking out The rise and Fall of Merry England by Ronald Hutton.

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One thought on “A Very Merry Puritan Christmas

  1. Julie McNeill

    I’m enjoying learning about the origins of Christmas and Yule customs – though its a pity so many books like the one recommended is too expensive. It makes absolute sense that Santa was a Green Man. I think he should be restored in this new climate of perma frost and polar ices melting…

    Reply

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