The Puritan War on Christmas

'Trappings of popery and rags of the beast'. Mince-pies, mummers, holly and church services all fell victim to a determined Puritan attempt to stamp out the celebration of Christmas under the Commonwealth.

The Westminster Assembly, which met from 1643-49, in a Victorian history painting by John Rogers HerbertDuring the seventeenth century, as now, Christmas was one of the most important dates in the calendar, both as a religious festival and as an important holiday period during which English men and women indulged in a range of traditional pastimes. During the twelve days of a seventeenth-century Christmas, churches and other buildings were decorated with rosemary and bays, holly and ivy; Christmas Day church services were widely attended, gifts were exchanged at New Year, and Christmas boxes were distributed to servants, tradesmen and the poor; great quantities of brawn, roast beef, 'plum-pottage', minced pies and special Christmas ale were consumed, and the populace indulged themselves in dancing, singing, card games and stage-plays.

Such long-cherished activities necessarily often led to drunkenness, promiscuity and other forms of excess. In fact the concept of 'misrule', or a ritualised reversal of traditional social norms, was an important element of Christmas, and has been viewed by historians as a useful safety-valve for the tensions within English society. It was precisely this face of Christmas, however, that the Puritans of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England found so objectionable. In the 1580s, Philip Stubbes, the author of The Anatomie of Abuses, complained:

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