Katherine Clements, author of The Silvered Heart and The Crimson Ribbon, writes about the man who supposedly cancelled Christmas.
Ask people what they know about Oliver Cromwell and you get the same answer time and again: He’s the one who cancelled Christmas.
It’s an enduring story and one that fits the caricature of Cromwell as a Puritan killjoy who didn’t believe in having any fun. It’s easy to imagine Old Nol turning up his famous warty nose at the plum pottage or snuffing the candles and bolting the doors of Whitehall at the approach of reveling wasaillers but it’s just not true.
By the seventeenth century, Christmas had been an important date in the church calendar for hundreds of years, with traditional celebrations similar to today. Church services were attended on 25th December, followed by twelve days set aside for rest and relaxation, feasting and festivities. Special foods were eaten, including plum pottage and mince pies, gifts were exchanged and, in wealthy households, lavish entertainment was laid on.
But by the 1640s and the early years of the English Civil Wars, Protestant doctrine, now prevalent in Parliament, associated Christmas revels with sinful, licentious behavior. Christ’s Mass also had a dangerous whiff of Catholicism – they preferred the term Christ’s Tide.
So when, in 1643, a Parliamentary Committee was established to reform the church, such superstitious relics faced abolition in favour of more godly practices – strict observance of the Lord’s Day (Sunday) and regular fast days.
The crunch came the following year when 25th December happened to coincide with one of these regular fast days and Parliament issued an ordinance reminding the population to keep the fast…
‘with the more solemne humiliation, because it may call to remembrance our sinnes, and the sinnes of our forefathers, who have turned this Feast, pretending the memory of Christ into an extreame forgetfulnesse of him, by giving liberty to carnall and sensuall delights.’
In 1645 the Directory of Public Worship reinforced these rules and, in 1647, Easter and Whitsuntide were abolished too. Traditional Holy Days were replaced by a regular day off for apprentices and servants – the second Tuesday of every month.
All this didn’t go down too well. The Directive was ignored in some parts of the country and, in extreme cases, demonstrations led to riots and violence. In Canterbury a rebellious mob demanded church services and managed to gain control of the town for several weeks until they were forced to surrender. A war of pamphlets and propaganda ensued with opinions ranging from lofty theological essays to satirical bawdy ballads. Within the recusant Catholic community the religious aspects of the ceremony would have remained crucial. It’s tempting to assume that, away from the centres of Parliamentarian influence, people probably continued to mark the day, though perhaps in a more subdued or private way.
In my first novel, The Crimson Ribbon, set during the Civil Wars, my heroine, Ruth, visits a back-street twelfth night celebration in one of London’s less salubrious areas. I thought hard about whether to include this scene, wondering if such illicit gatherings would have taken place among supporters of the Parliamentarian cause. I decided, based on human nature and a little bit of artistic license, that they probably would.
The fact is that all this took place before Oliver Cromwell came to power. While the Parliamentary Committee was discussing the reform of the church calendar, Cromwell was probably more concerned with winning victories at Marston Moor (1644) and Naseby (1645). By the time his became the prominent political voice, the policy was already firmly in place. To quote a popular ballad: ‘Christmas was killed at Naseby Fight’.
So what would Cromwell have thought?
As a committed Puritan he certainly would have agreed that over-indulgence and revelry had no place in religious practice. He would have been keen to uphold the various ordinances and proclamations aimed at suppressing sinful behavior and encouraging godly obedience, believing that he was looking after the spiritual welfare of the people.
But, during his stint as Lord Protector, (1653-58) his court was not the dour, joyless place we might imagine. He was a keen supporter of the arts, a music lover, and patron of musicians, writers and artists. He hosted weekly dinners and musical entertainments at Whitehall and tolerated, though perhaps did not participate in, dancing. He enjoyed good food and was fond of the company of intelligent, attractive young women. But all these things were to be appreciated in a domestic, secular context and had no place in religion. The image we have of him as a mirthless killjoy is largely a creation of propaganda; the truth remains as complex as the man himself.
It’s easier to guess the attitude of the general population who, with the restoration of Charles II in 1660, embraced the return of Christmas with particular gusto. All legislation passed during the Commonwealth and Protectorate was repealed and the country was, once again, free to celebrate Christmas as they had done before the wars. Historians have suggested that if Cromwell’s rule had continued, the nature of Christmas might have changed irrevocably, but that wasn’t to be. For all Parliament’s best intentions, within a few years traditional holidays had been restored too, the war over Christmas relegated to history as a reflection of the larger wars fought between opposing ideologies.
Cromwell Our Chief of Men, Antonia Fraser
The English Civil War: A People’s History, Diane Purkiss
Katherine has a passion for history and a degree in the subject. Until recently she worked for a national examination board, where she led the development and launch of the UK's first A level in Creative Writing. She has enjoyed success with her short stories and won a Historical Short Story Competition sponsored by Jerwood in 2012.
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