The Upside DownHow the Puritans Created Christmas Without Meaning To
John Mitchinson explains how increasing intolerance around festivities in the 17th Century helped promote a reactionary backlash
As we approach the end of a strange and difficult 12 months, with the twin shadows of COVID-19 and Brexit casting a pall over our attempts at Yuletide cheer, we would do well to remember that there have been worse Christmases.
Take 1647, the year the English Parliament finally succeeded in passing an ordinance banning the celebration altogether. Amusing as it is to laugh at the fun-fearing Puritans, there’s a more interesting story lurking in the details, one which shows how a reforming government can lose touch with popular sentiment and push through laws which defy common sense.
Despite their zealous reputation, very few English Puritans were overtly hostile to seasonal festivals like Christmas before 1640. The easily mocked views of pamphleteers like John Stubbes in his famous Anatomie of Abuses (1583) tend to be the ones that get the attention (“what masking and mumming, robberie, whoredom, murther, and what not, is committed: what dicing & carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used more than in all the year besides, to the great dishonor of God, and impoverishing of the realme”). Calmer souls winced at the heathenish excess of the celebrations and regretted that the Bible nowhere commanded the observation of Christ’s birthday, but almost none advocated an outright ban.
What changed things was the war. By 1645, the Puritan leadership in Parliament, buoyed by their decisive victory at Naseby in June and urged on by the Scots (who had effectively banned Christmas in 1583), decided to push their advantage home and reform the ecclesiastical calendar so that it conformed with scripture. This meant making Sunday the “only standing holy day”, thereby wiping out all the other sacred festivals, including Lent, Easter, Whitsun and Christmas.
At first, not much changed. But, in 1647, the fateful ordinance was passed which meant that anyone found celebrating such festivals was committing an offence. It was the attempt to enforce this legislation that would provoke open rebellion.
On the day that should have been Christmas in 1647, many London shops stayed closed in defiance of Parliament and those that opened were attacked. The Lord Mayor received “divers affronts” as he tried to pull down holly and ivy that had been used to decorate city buildings.
In Norwich, there were clashes between zealous preachers and apprentices. A “great mutiny” in Ipswich led to the death of man called Christmas, “whose name seemed to blow up the coals of his zeal to the observation of the day”. The most serious riot, however, took place in Canterbury, where a large crowd gathered to demand a church service and forced shops to close, throwing “up and down” the wares of any that dared open. In true English style, a massive street football match broke out and free drinks were distributed.
This unruliness lasted for several weeks and eventually spread across Kent, escalating into the Second Civil War the following Summer. The New Model Army’s crushing of these popular rebellions might have ended the open defiance of the ban on Christmas, but it also politicised the feast like never before. A country still reeling from the brutalities and privations of war was not ready for its most popular festival to be taken from it at musket point.
The war of words raged on during the 1650s, with the symbols of Christmas being deployed by both sides.
Puritan pamphleteers ratcheted up anti-Papist sentiment by calling roast beef “anti-Christian”, mince pies “relics of the whore of Babylon”, plum pottage “mere popery” and geese and turkey “marks of the beast”.
The Royalist satirists scored easy political points by dramatically exaggerating the sad decline of Christmas celebrations. In John Taylor’s The Vindication of Christmas of 1652, Father Christmas complains about the weak beer in London and is told that “our high and mighty ale that would formerly knock down Hercules and trip up the heels of a Giant is lately struck in a deep consumption, the strength of it being quite gone with a blow from Westminster”. Disgusted, he retreats to Devon where he finds to his delight the country folk still welcome him with songs, good food and dancing.
The attack on the secular rituals of Christmas was to prove a massive tactical mistake for the Commonwealth. Instead of reinforcing the reforms to the calendar, it gifted the Royalist cause with a huge propaganda weapon, preparing the ground for the Restoration in 1660. Throughout the 1650s, churches stayed closed at Christmas but so did most shops. As Ronald Hutton, the great historian of the English ritual calendar concludes, “the impact of the Puritan Revolution had been only to strip the festival of its public aspect and (ironically) much of its Christian content”.
By demonising mince pies and good ale, the Puritans had inadvertently created the thing that they most feared: the secular Christmas we still enjoy.
John Mitchinson is a writer and publisher and co-founder of Unbound, the world’s leading crowdfunding platform for books. He was one of the founders of BBC’s QI
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