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The University of Southampton

No Christmas under Cromwell?

Published: 20 December 2011Origin: History
Professor Mark Stoyle

Professor Mark Stoyle’s account of how the celebration of Christmas was banned by the puritans during the English Civil War is the lead-article in the December edition of BBC History Magazine - the second cover story that Mark has written for this popular publication during the last year.

When the conflict broke out, most Parliamentarians had no thought of attacking Christmas, but, as Mark shows, all this was soon to change. Under the pressure of war, the puritans - zealous Protestants, who saw the traditional Christmas festivities as relics of Catholic ‘superstition’ – became increasingly powerful and in 1644 puritan MPs ordered that Christmas should no longer be observed. Parliament’s order was ignored in those parts of England which continued to be held by the king, but a year later Charles I’s Royalist army was crushed at the battle of Naseby. With the defeat of the king, Christmas had lost its most powerful defender, leading one sorrowful Royalist to lament that ‘Christmas was killed at Naseby fight’

Following Parliament’s victory, the ban on Christmas was rigorously enforced and churches across the kingdom were kept locked on Christmas day. Many tried to resist the directive at first, and groups of young men staged pro-Christmas riots in London and Canterbury, smashing the windows of shopkeepers who continued to trade on Christmas Day. Such riots were soon put down and by the 1650s Christmas had ceased to be celebrated in most English churches.

The puritans had won - on the surface, at least. However, they were almost certainly much less successful in stopping ordinary people from gathering to sing carols and feast on beef, goose, pies, plum pottage and other special dishes. “It’s ironic that the Puritans managed to end church services to mark this religious festival but that most people continued to feast in private” notes Mark. The puritan ban on Christmas was endured, rather than embraced, then, and with the Restoration of Charles II, in 1660, Christmas was restored as well – to great popular joy.

Mark is also intrigued by a seventeenth-century forerunner of Charles Dickens. “We all know Dickens’ famous story about how Scrooge, the miser who hated Christmas, was persuaded to see the error of his ways”, Mark says, ‘but it’s too often forgotten that, during the 1640s, the Royalist John Taylor was also writing in defence of what he saw as the true Christmas spirit, and criticising miserly people who refused to celebrate the festival.”

Christmas celebrations, according to Mark, were simply too deeply-rooted in English culture to be easily swept away. “The Puritans did their best to stamp the festivities out, but, in the end, the popular urge to get together with friends and family and feast at Christmas was too strong for them.”

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