Christmas abolished!

Why did Cromwell abolish Christmas?

It is a common myth that Cromwell personally ‘banned’ Christmas during the mid seventeenth century. Instead, it was the broader Godly or parliamentary party, working through and within the elected parliament, which in the 1640s clamped down on the celebration of Christmas and other saints’ and holy days, a prohibition which remained in force on paper and more fitfully in practice until the Restoration of 1660. There is no sign that Cromwell personally played a particularly large or prominent role in formulating or advancing the various pieces of legislation and other documents which restricted the celebration of Christmas, though from what we know of his faith and beliefs it is likely that he was sympathetic towards and supported such measures, and as Lord Protector from December 1653 until his death in September 1658 he supported the enforcement of the existing measures.

The celebration of Christmas in seventeenth century England had many similarities with our own celebrations. Christmas Day itself, 25 December, was marked as a holy day, celebrating and commemorating the birth of Christ, but it also formed the first day of an extended period of celebration and merriment, lasting until early January – the Twelve Days of Christmas. Although the English calendar was not formally brought into line with the Continental calendar until the mid eighteenth century, in the seventeenth century many people in this country already saw 1 January (rather than 25 March) as marking the turning point at which the old year gave way to the new, and New Year’s day formed another high point of the Twelve Days of Christmas. Twelfth Night, which closed the period of celebration, was often marked by a renewed bout of feasting and carnivals.

Christmas Day itself was a public holiday, with shops, offices and other places of work all closed, and people went to church to attend special services; over the following eleven days there were further special church services, with shops and businesses open only intermittently or for shorter hours than normal. The celebration of all Twelve Days of Christmas contained other familiar elements, though the degree to which individuals and families participated probably varied, depending upon whether they were living in London, a large provincial town or deep in the countryside, upon whether they were rich or poor and thus upon how much time and money they could afford to expend on celebrations. Churches, public buildings and private houses were often decorated with holly and ivy, rosemary and bays. People visited family, friends and colleagues, eating and drinking and exchanging presents, and the more affluent distributed ‘boxes’ containing money to servants, tradesmen and the poor. Special food and drink was available and was consumed in larger quantities than normal, including turkey and beef, mince pies, plum porridge and specially-brewed Christmas ale; taverns and taphouses did a roaring trade. Occasionally there were fireworks (though then as now they were more associated with the celebration of the failure of the Gunpowder Treason plot on 5 November), and there was also the concept of a ‘Father Christmas’, more as a figure that oversaw the community celebrations than as someone who gave presents to children. More generally, it was a period of leisure, of eating and drinking to excess, of dancing and singing, gambling, gaming and stage plays (though modern-style pantomimes did not emerge until the eighteenth century), of drunkenness and sexual immorality, a period when normal rules and self-control did not apply, a period of deliberate inversion and ‘misrule’.

Increasingly in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries, many people, especially the more Godly, came to frown upon this celebration of Christmas, for two reasons. Firstly, they disliked all the waste, extravagance, disorder, sin and immorality of the Christmas celebrations. Secondly, they saw Christmas (that is, Christ’s mass) as an unwelcome survival of the Roman Catholic faith, as a ceremony particularly encouraged by the Catholic church and by the recusant community in England and Wales, a popish festival with no biblical justification – nowhere had God called upon mankind to celebrate Christ’s nativity in this way, they said. What this group wanted was a much stricter observance of the Lord’s day (Sundays), but the abolition of the popish and often sinful celebration of Christmas, as well as of Easter, Whitsun and assorted other festivals and saints’ days.

In the early 1640s, as power passed from Charles I (who largely supported the existing rituals and festivals) to the Long Parliament, parliament began the process of clamping down on the celebration of Christmas, pressing that ‘Christ-tide’ (as they preferred it called, thus doing away with the ‘mass’ element and its Catholic echoes) should be kept, if at all, merely as a day of fasting and seeking the Lord. In January 1642, shortly before civil war began, Charles I had agreed to parliament’s request to order that the last Wednesday in each month should be kept as a fast day; many hoped that Christ-tide, 25 December, would come to be seen and kept as just an addition to these regular fast days. The Long Parliament, in fact, met and worked as usual on 25 December 1643. In late 1644 it was noted that 25 December would fall on the last Wednesday of the month, the day of the regular monthly fast, and parliament stressed that 25 December was strictly to be kept as a time of fasting and humiliation, for remembering the sins of those who in the past had turned the day into a feast, sinfully and wrongfully ‘giving liberty to carnal and sensual delights’. Both Houses of Parliament attended intense fast sermons on 25 December 1644.

In January 1645 a group of ministers appointed by parliament produced a new Directory of Public Worship, which set out a new church organisation and new forms of worship to be adopted and followed in England and Wales. The Directory made clear that Sundays were to be strictly observed as holy days, for the worship of God, but that there were to be no other holy days – ‘festival days, vulgarly called Holy Days, having no warrant in the Word of God, are not to be continued’. Parliamentary legislation adopting the Directory of Public Worship, initially as one of several forms which could be followed in England and Wales, but then as the only form which was legal and was to be allowed, abolishing and making illegal any other forms of worship and church services, therefore prohibited (on paper at least) the religious celebration of all other holy days, including Christmas. In June 1647 the Long Parliament reiterated this by passing an Ordinance confirming the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun, though at the same time parliament said that the second Tuesday in each month was to be kept as a non-religious, secular holiday, providing a break for servants, apprentices and other employees.

During the 1650s parliamentary legislation was passed to reinforce the structure that had been put in place by the end of the 1640s. Specific penalties were to be imposed on anyone found holding or attending a special Christmas church service, it was ordered that shops and markets were to stay open on 25 December, the Lord Mayor was repeatedly ordered to ensure that London stayed open for business on 25 December, and when it met on 25 December 1656 the second Protectorate Parliament discussed the virtues of passing further legislation clamping down on the celebration of Christmas (though no Bill was, in fact, produced). Legislation was passed to ensure that Sundays were even more strictly observed as the Lord’s Day, but the holding of a regular monthly fast on the last Wednesday of the month, which had never proved popular or been widely followed, was quietly dropped.

Although in theory and on paper the celebration of Christmas had been abolished, in practice it seems that many people continued to mark 25 December as a day of religious significance and as a secular holiday. Semi-clandestine religious services marking Christ’s nativity continued to be held on 25 December, and the secular elements of the day also continued to occur – on 25 December 1656 MPs were unhappy because they had got little sleep the previous night through the noise of their neighbours’ ‘preparations for this foolish day’s solemnity’ and because as they walked in that morning they had seen ‘not a shop open, nor a creature stirring’ in London. During the late 1640s attempts to prevent public celebrations and to force shops and businesses to stay open had led to violent confrontations between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, including London, Canterbury, Bury St Edmunds and Norwich. Many writers continued to argue in print (usually anonymously) that it was proper to mark Christ’s birth on 25 December and that the secular government had no right to interfere, and it is likely that in practice many people in mid seventeenth century England and Wales continued to mark both the religious and the secular aspects of the Christmas holiday. At the Restoration not only the Directory of Public Worship but also all the other legislation of the period 1642-60 was declared null and void and swept away, and both the religious and the secular elements of the full Twelve Days of Christmas could once again be celebrated openly, in public and with renewed exuberance and wide popular support. The attack on Christmas had failed.