In the mid-17th century, a wave of religious reform transformed the way in which Christmas was celebrated in England. Oliver Cromwell — a statesman and General responsible for leading the parliamentary army during the English Civil War — took over England in 1645. Supported by his Puritan forces, Cromwell believed it was his mission to cleanse the country of decadence.
In 1644 he enforced an Act of Parliament banning Christmas celebrations. Christmas was regarded by the Puritans as a wasteful festival that threatened core Christian beliefs. Consequently, all activities relating to Christmas, including attending mass, were forbidden. Not surprisingly, the ban was hugely unpopular and many people continued to celebrate Christmas secretly.
The Puritan War on Christmas lasted until 1660. Under the Commonwealth, mince pies, holly and other popular customs fell victim to the spirited Puritan attempt to eradicate every last remnant of merrymaking during the Christmas period.
In the first half of the 17th century Christmas was an important religious festival and a time when the English population would indulge in a variety of traditional pastimes. The 25th December was a public holiday, during which all places of work closed and people attended special church services. The next eleven days included additional masses, with businesses open sporadically and for shorter hours than usual. During the twelve days of Christmas, buildings were dressed with rosemary, holly and ivy and families attended Christmas Day mass. As well as marking the day’s religious elements, there was also non-stop dancing, singing, drinking, exchanging of presents and stage plays. The population indulged in feasts of roast beef, plum porridge, minced pies and special ale. Twelfth Night, the final day of celebration, often saw a fresh bout of feasting and carnivals.
It’s no surprise that the daily celebrations often led to drunkenness, promiscuity, gambling and other forms of excess. Sixteenth and seventeenth century Puritans frowned on what they saw as a frenzy of disorder and disturbance. In the Late 1500’s, Philip Stubbes, a strict protestant expressed the Puritan view in his famed book The Anatomie of Abuses, when he noted:
‘More mischief is that time committed than in all the year besides … What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feasting is then used … to the great dishonour of God and the impoverishing of the realm.’
As well as disliking the waste and debauchery that went along with the celebration of Christmas, the Puritans viewed the festival (Christ’s mass) as an unwanted remnant of the Roman Catholic Church and, therefore, a tool of encouragement for the dissentient community that remained in both England and Wales. They argued that nowhere in the Bible had God called upon his people to celebrate the nativity in this manner. They proposed a stricter observance of Sundays, the Lord’s Day, along with banning the immoral celebration of Christmas — as well as Easter, Whitsun and saints’ days. Preferring to call the period Christ-tide, and thus removing the Catholic ‘mass’ element, the Puritans reasoned that it should remain only as a day of fasting and prayer.
King Charles I had largely supported the existing traditions and festivities but, as control passed to the Long Parliament in the mid 1600’s, Parliament set in motion their idea of completely eradicating the celebration of Christmas.
Shortly before the Civil War had begun in January 1642, Charles I had accorded Parliament’s request to make the last Wednesday in each month a day of fasting.
In January 1645 parliament enlisted the help of a group of ministers to create a Directory of Public Worship establishing a new organisation of the church and new forms of worship that were to be adopted and followed in both England and Wales. According to the Directory, the population was to strictly observe Sundays as holy days and were not to recognise other festival days, including Christmas, since they had no biblical justification.
Parliamentary legislation embraced the Directory of Public Worship as the only legal form of worship allowed in England and Wales. Two years later Parliament reinstated the law by passing an Ordinance affirming the abolition of the feasts of Christmas, Easter and Whitsun.
Oliver Cromwell regarded Charles I as an insurgent secret Catholic who was subverting the Protestant faith. The Stuart King was deposed and executed by Cromwell in 1649 and for the next four years England was run by Parliament. But Cromwell had other plans. He regarded the current system as ineffective and damaging to the country. Supported by the army, on 20 April 1653 he led a body of musketeers to Westminster and forcibly expelled parliament. He then established himself as Lord Protector and moved in to the Palace of Whitehall. The spectacular Banqueting House is the only complete building of Whitehall to remain standing to this day. The Palace was famously taken from Cardinal Wolsey by Henry VIII and acted as the Royal residence until the ascension of James I.
The Puritans believed that you would be welcomed in to heaven as long as you worked hard in your lifetime, thus, enjoyment for enjoyments sake was highly disapproved of. Cromwell ordered for inns and playhouses to be shut down, most sports were banned and those caught swearing would receive a fine. Women caught working on the Sabbath could be put in the stocks. They had to wear a long black dress, a white apron, a white headdress and no makeup. The men had an equally sober appearance, dressed head to toe in black and sporting short hair.
All shops and markets were to stay open throughout the 25th December and anyone caught holding or attending a special Christmas church service would suffer a penalty.
In the city of London things were even stricter as soldiers were ordered to patrol the streets, seizing any food they discovered was being prepared for a Christmas celebration.
Despite imposing such rigid measures on the common people, it appears that Cromwell himself didn’t quite live up to his preaching. He liked music, playing bowls and hunting and, after becoming Lord Protectorate, soon took to the high life. For his daughter’s wedding he even permitted a lavish feast and entertainment fit for royalty.
In 1656 legislation was passed to ensure that Sundays were more stringently observed as the Lord’s Day and, thus, a day of rest. The regular monthly fast day had always been hugely unpopular and impossible to enforce and was subsequently dissolved.
Despite the threat of fines and punishment many people continued to celebrate Christmas clandestinely. The ban had never been popular and many people still held mass on the 25th December to mark Christ’s nativity also marked the day as a secular holiday. In the late 1640s Cromwell tried to put a stop to these public celebrations and force businesses to stay open. As a result, violent encounters took place between supporters and opponents of Christmas in many towns, including London, Canterbury and Norwich.
Cromwell was Lord Protector until his death in 1658, whereby Charles II was enthusiastically welcomed back to England to take the throne as the country’s rightful heir.
With the restoration of the monarchy in 1661, Oliver Cromwell was once more a despised figure. Cromwell was originally buried with great ceremony in Westminster Abbey, a famous gothic church in London that houses the tombs of kings and queens dating back to Edward the Confessor, as well as countless memorials to distinguished English subjects. Upon taking the throne, one of the King’s first orders was to exhume Cromwell’s lifeless body and take it to be hung at Tyburn gallows, at the top of Hyde Park near Marble Arch in London. This was the first permanent gallows to be established in London in 1196 and was the main site for public executions until 1783. This site is also famous because 105 Catholic martyrs were put to their deaths here from 1535 to 1681. A convent — founded in 1901 — now stands on the site, in which around 20 nuns live and work. Visitors are welcome to visit the church, which contains several Catholic relics.
Cromwell’s body was decapitated and his head displayed at Westminster Hall for over 20 years. Finished in 1099 this is the oldest surviving section of the Palace of Westminster. The trials of William Wallace, Sir Thomas Moore, Guy Fawkes and King Charles I all took place here, so it was a fitting site at which to display Cromwell’s treacherous head. After changing hands over the next three centuries, in 1960 Cromwell’s head was finally laid to rest at Sidney Sussex College, Cambridge, which he had attended in 1616 to 1617.
Once Charles II was restored to the throne, all legislation banning Christmas — enforced from 1642 to 1660 — was dropped and the common people were once again allowed to mark the Twelve Days of Christmas. Old traditions were revived with renewed enthusiasm and Christmas was celebrated throughout the country as both a religious and secular festival.