Christmas under the Puritans

Celebration of Christmas was curtailed by England’s Puritan republic but the methods and results varied considerably.

An English Puritan family by William Dobson, c. 1645. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Collection. Public Domain.

There has been no stranger episode in the long history of the English Christmas than the attempt to suppress both the religious and the secular celebrations during the period between 1644 and 1659. Why was it made, and how far did it succeed?

John Knox was alone among the great Reformers in condemning all Church festivals and, at any rate until the Civil Wars, few English Puritans seem to have wished to do away with Christmas as such. To others than their sympathizers it must sometimes have been a distinction without much of a difference. The Puritans objected to the Popish associations of Christmas and to the excesses such as play-acting, gambling and dancing with which as the great national holiday it was associated more than any other season. But neither of the chief Puritan critics of Christmas before 1640 went so far as to advocate abolition.

Philip Stubbes’ complaint in the Anatomie of Abuses (1583), which dealt with the celebrations as part of a broad attack on the theatre and other follies of the nation, was that Christmas was the time of the year when the abuses were most flagrant. ‘Who is ignorant,’ he asked, that at Christmas time ‘more mischief is committed than in all the year besides? What masking and mumming? Whereby robberies, whoredom, murder, and whatnot, is committed? What dicing and carding, what banqueting and feasting, is then used more than in all the year besides!’

In Histriomastix in 1632, William Prynne took Christmas as the worst example of the festivals that were devoted to the theatre and spent in ‘amorous, mixed, voluptuous, un-Christian, that I say not, pagan dancing.’ Why, he asked, could not the English nation observe festivals and especially Christmas ‘without drinking, roaring, healthing, dicing, carding, masques and stage-plays? Which better become the sacrifices of Bacchus, than the resurrection, the incarnation of our most blessed Saviour.’ If Turks and infidels were to behold the Bacchanalian Christmas extravagances would they not think our Saviour to be a ‘glutton, an epicure, a wine-bibber, a devil, a friend of publicans and sinners?’ The celebrations, he claimed, were derived from the Saturnalia and the Bacchanalia. Christmas, as it was kept, could be more truly termed Devil’s mass or Saturn’s mass.

Exaggerated though they were, there was much force in these criticisms of the contemporary celebrations – particularly in high society. Moderate opinion agreed that there were excesses that needed to be curbed, and if the critics had stopped there, they would have had a large measure of support. They forfeited sympathy – and foreshadowed the extravagances of the forties and fifties – when they extended their objections to customs that were harmless arid pleasant, and the pedantry in which some of them indulged made them easy targets for ridicule. 

It was one thing to carry their convictions into practice themselves like, for example, the eccentric Lady Margaret Hoby, who in the latter years of Elizabeth's reign devoted Christmas Day to prayer, Bible reading and self-examination. It was another to inveigh against New Year gifts and evergreens; or, like a. Puritan caricatured by Sir Thomas Overbury, to attack the Pope by refusing to eat plum broth, or to condemn those who ate mince pies as Papists and idolaters. As Thomas Warmstry pointed out, the remedy for anybody who objected to receiving New Year gifts was to make this known and not to trouble further the consciences of possible donors. There was also the objection to the word ‘Christmas’ because it incorporated the Popish ‘mass.’ ‘Christ-tide, I pray you,’ said the Puritan Ananias in Jonson's The Alchemist (1610).

Sir Toby Belch gave the unanswerable reply to pedantry run mad: ‘Dost thou think,’ he asked Malvolio, ‘that because thou art virtuous, there shall be no more cakes and ale?’ Serious exponents of the case for Christmas wisely did not contend that the celebrations were in all respects worthy of the Nativity feast, but they made essentially the same point as Sir Toby. A custom was not necessarily to be condemned because it was heathen, said Warmstry. ‘It is a Custome with Heathens to kneele at prayer, yet this is no Heathenish custome.‘ 

Nobody put the case into better perspective than George Herbert: 

‘The country parson is a lover of old customs, if they be good and harmless; and the rather because country people are much addicted to them, so that to favour them therein is to win their hearts, and to oppose them therein is to deject them. If there be any ill in the customs, that may be. severed from the good, he pares the apple, and gives them the clean to feed on.’

The Puritan leaders must have been aware of the risks that they took, not perhaps so much in proscribing the religious celebrations - this, after all, was inseparable from their general policy towards the Church of England - as in trying to stop the majority of English people from keeping the most popular of all holidays in ways that were hallowed by tradition and sentiment. But they were impelled by the logic of their own policies and the pressure of their more extreme supporters, and their position was made more difficult by the skill with which Royalist propagandists identified the celebration of Christmas with the good old days and the cause of King and Church.

The ban on the performance of plays, which was imposed in 1642, inhibited the keeping of Christmas, particularly in London: Christmas had been the peak of the theatrical season. In 1643, to the dismay of some of the Scots, the Assembly of Divines decided to adjourn over Christmas Day, the majority resolving (said the Scottish Presbyterian, Robert Baillie) that they would preach "that day, till Parliament should reform it in an orderly way," but none the less the minority had the satisfaction of being able to persuade both Houses of Parliament to sit. 

It was not, however, until 1644 that Parliament took any positive action against the general observance of Christmas. Its hands were forced by an accident of the calendar and pressure from the Scots. In Scotland, the Presbyterians had secured a ban on Christmas celebrations as long ago as 1583, though they had not found it easy to put down snowballing, football, guising, carol-singing and other profane pastimes. In 1618 they had been compelled to accept an order of the King that Christmas and certain other festivals should be kept, but the General Assembly had set this aside in 1638. They came to England with rigid views which in the circumstances of 1644 they were in a position to press. 

For some time the Parliamentary leaders were able to resist demands that Christmas should be abolished in England, but it happened that in 1644 Christmas Day fell upon a Wednesday, and the last Wednesday in each month was by law to be kept as a day of solemn fast and penance. The question was whether December 25th should be an exception to the general rule. In deference to the Scots, Parliament decided with evident unwillingness that it should not.

This decision does not seem to have been of much importance in practice. It was widely disregarded, and according to one account, all the London shops closed as usual: in the previous year: some are said to have opened, presumably because of the convictions of their owners. In 1645 the religious but not the secular celebrations were outlawed as a result of another general measure – the substitution of the Presbyterian Directory of Public Prayer for the Book of Common Prayer. ‘O blessed Reformation!’ commented a friend to Sir John Oglander, ‘the church doors all shut, and the tavern doors all open!’ 

Parliament met as usual, and the Commons sat in Committee of Privileges. At least one enthusiast, General Browne, who was a Presbyterian, took it upon himself to proclaim the abolition of Christmas. This was at Abingdon, and he ‘sent out his warrants for men to work on that day especially.’

The first big test of the determination of the regime and of popular affection for Christmas was delayed until 1647, when the authorities tried to enforce general legislation, passed in the summer, under which all festivals or holidays ‘heretofore superstitiously used’ were no longer to be kept. The effect was that for the first time Christmas Day could lawfully be observed neither as a religious nor a secular holiday. The timing was unpropitious. That winter there was a wave of popular sympathy for the King. When Christmas came there was both passive and active resistance. Some London shops closed in defiance of Parliament and some that opened were attacked. 

In one incident the Lord Mayor was met with jeers, and made an undignified departure when his horse bolted. Officers had to be sent to remove the evergreens from a number of London churches, including St. Margaret’s in the shadow of Parliament itself; In the proceedings that followed, the churchwardens and clerk of St. Margaret’s advanced a provocative defence. The parishioners, they said, thought that so few people would be at work on Christmas Day that it would be better to draw people to a sermon than that they should misspend their time in taverns.

Lives were lost in riots at Ipswich, skulls were broken in Oxford, there were disturbances in Ealing, and ten thousand men of Kent and Canterbury passed an ominous resolution: ‘If they could not have their Christmas day, they would have the King back on his throne.’ This came after disorderly scenes in Canterbury, where crowds defiantly played football in the streets and frustrated the attempts of the Mayor to enforce the opening of the market. Twelve shops at most opened, but the mob threw their wares ‘up and down’ and forced them to shut. They also knocked down the Mayor and rescued some prisoners from gaol. The sequel to these events suggests that the central government was more prudent than the local authorities and is evidence of the sympathy that was felt for the rioters in the county. Parliament refused to agree to a proposal of the County Committee for Kent that the ringleaders should be dealt with summarily under martial law, but insisted that they should be tried by jury in the normal courts. But the grand jury twice refused a true bill, and in the end, the prisoners had to be discharged.

It is difficult to say who won this trial of strength. There was to be no repetition of the outbreaks of 1647, and if some Royalist writers are to be believed, the suppression of Christmas was effective. On the other hand, to judge from some of the opponents of Christmas, the law was widely disregarded; and if aggressive disobedience was uncommon, there is much evidence of non-compliance.

The authorities were in a dilemma. The issue was not simply - as Royalist propaganda liked to suggest - whether harmless old customs should be permitted. The religious observances were flatly inconsistent with the proscription of the Book of Common Prayer, and secular celebrations might be a demonstration of sympathy with King and Church. Yet it was a mistake to alienate support by rigid insistence upon the letter of the law, and moderate opinion among the Puritan leaders was not opposed to some of the Christmas customs, including even dancing and the theatre within limits. There is some evidence that Cromwell actually went out of his way to celebrate the New Year, notwithstanding that it fell within the Twelve Days and the objections that some fanatics had to New Year gifts: in 1656 drummers and trumpeters were sent to play for foreign embassies on New Year’s Day, and the Protector sent handsome gifts to the ambassadors and ministers.

Yet the leadership could not disregard the constant pressure from extremists or ignore the political implications of ill-judged tolerance. The extreme point of view was expressed in the ‘terrible Remonstrance against Christmas day, grounded upon divine Scriptures,’ which was presented to Parliament in 1652. This spoke of ‘Anti-Christ's Masse, and those Masse-Mongers and Papists who observe it.’ It led Parliament to enact that December 25th should not be solemnized in churches or observed in any other way, and that town criers should each year remind the people that Christmas Day and other superstitious festivals must not be kept and that the markets and shops should remain open on December 25th.

In practice, a middle course seems to have been pursued. Bishop Duppa, who was responsible to Charles II for the maintenance of the Church of England, wrote just before Christmas in 1655 that Church people were ‘yet suffered to offer up the public prayers and sacrifices of the Church, though it be under private roofs, nor do I hear of any for the present either disturbed or troubled for doing it.’ But policy fluctuated according to the circumstances, and it is likely that for understandable reasons the authorities were stricter in London than elsewhere. In 1659 Duppa drew a distinction between Richmond, where he was living, and London, where the worship of God had been prohibited with such severity on ‘those days’ that some had begun to doubt whether ‘they shall be suffered to be Christians any longer or no.’

John Evelyn's experience supports this view. Each year from 1652 to 1655, he noted the absence of Christmas Day services in London, though in 1652 he found an ‘honest’ divine who preached at Lewis ham on Boxing Day. In 1656, however, he went especially to London to receive the sacrament at ‘Dr. Wild’s lodgings, where I rejoiced to find so full an assembly of devout and sober Christians.’ In 1657 his friends were bolder. The sacrament was actually being administered in Exeter Chapel when soldiers placed the congregation under arrest. When Evelyn was examined, he was asked why ‘contrary to the ordinance made, that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity ... I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the mass in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart.’

Too much should not be read into this episode. The assembly was obviously provocative. Like others which were similarly raided, it was held in direct defiance of an express order by the Protector and the Council, and the stress that was laid on the prayers for the King will be noted. Clearly, however, public services could not be held without serious risk, and it may be assumed that for all practical purposes Christmas, like other church holidays, ceased to be observed as a religious festival except in the privacy of the home. It might be supposed from some Royalist writings that Christmas was also virtually dead as a popular holiday. ‘Old Christmas now is come to town,’ said the broadsheet Mercurius Democritus in 1652, ‘though few him do regard.’ The theme of a pamphlet called The Vindication of Christmas in 1653 was the rejection of old Father Christmas and his failure to find anyone to welcome him until he reached a remote farm in Devonshire. Here Christmas was being kept in the old style and in pursuits that could give offence to nobody. It is probably true, too, that many people were easily reconciled to the abolition of Christmas. As early as 1646 Ralph Josselin noted that many London families were ’weaned‘ from the old ‘sports and pastimes’.

The evidence to the contrary seems, on the other hand, to be conclusive. Too much importance need not be attached to the fulminations of the extremists, but, judging from the most visible sign of passive resistance, the closing of shops, the majority of people never acquiesced. In 1650 the Council of State complained of the ‘very wilful and strict observation of the day’ in London and Middlesex by ‘a general keeping of their shops shut up.’ In the same areas, the ordinance of 1652 was ostentatiously disobeyed. According to the Weekly Intelligencer, almost all the shops in the City of London were shut, ‘and so were the churchdoors.’ 

It was as rare, said the Flying Eagle, to see a shop open, ‘as to see a Phenix, or Birds of Paradice.’ And of two shops that did open it was said that one shopkeeper had better have given fifty pounds, ‘his wares were so dirtied." In 1656 it was suggested that there were even defaulters in Parliament itself. It was observed that the House was thin, ‘much, I believe, occasioned by observation of this day,’ and a Bill was read ‘for the abolishing and taking away of festival days, commonly called holy days.’ One speaker in the debate said that he could not rest all night ‘for the preparation of this foolish day’s solemnity,’ and another that in many places the day was kept more strictly than the Sabbath and that it was possible to go from the Tower to Westminster without a shop being open or a creature stirring. ‘We are, I doubt, returning to popery,’ he concluded. In 1657 the Council ordered the authorities of London and Westminster to enforce the law, but once again it was reported that all the shops were shut.

What happened behind the closed shutters? Ralph Josselin, who himself conformed, but retained his old sympathies, heard in 1652 that Londoners bought ‘bay, holly and ivy wonderfully for Christmas, being eagerly set on the feast.’ A botanical work published in 1656 referred to mistletoe being transported long distances for sale at Christmas-time. Of one thing it is possible to be reasonably certain. The English Christmas was not complete without the roast beef or the goose or the turkey, the plum broth and the mince pie. According to the Vindication of Christmas, the Puritans assumed ‘power and authority to plunder pottage-pots, to ransack ovens, and to strip spits stark naked.’ That this was not entirely fanciful is shown by the case of the minister in Scotland who in 1659 searched houses that they might not have a Christmas goose.

The likelihood is that the analysis made by the Flying Eagle in 1652 was substantially sound. The citizens made the belly their God, it said. ‘For its sake they disobeyed Parliament’ and the Ten Commandments. ‘Yea, the Theefe will steale and rob his own father against Christmas, and the poore will pawn all to the Cloaths of their back to provide Christmas pies for their bellies, and the broath of Abominable things in their Vessels.’ There was no telling who would yield to this most insidious temptation of the Devil. None other than Hugh Peters was charged in 1652 with preaching against Christmas Day and then eating two mince pies for his dinner.

It was indeed ironical if, as Bishop Duppa said in 1655:

‘Though the religious part of this holy time is laid aside, yet the eating part is observed by the holiest of the brethren.’ 

It is certainly plausible.


J.A.R. Pimlott is the author of Recreations: A Visual History of Modern Britain (1968), The Englishman’s Holiday: A Social History (1976), and The Englishman’s Christmas (1978).