One lesser known result of the civil wars in mid-17th century Britain and Ireland was the abolition of Christmas.
At the end of the First Civil War in England (1642-1646) the victorious English and Welsh parliament was dominated by Presbyterian MPs supported by their Scottish allies in the war against King Charles I.
This powerful alliance has allowed for the disestablishment of the Church of England and the creation of a national Presbyterian church (similar to the Scottish Kirk). A Directory of Worship set out the liturgy and order of service to be followed across the country. Although the new church was established in 1645, during the war, it took until the end of the fighting for the impact to be felt across the country. Anglican church festivals, which were felt to be too similar to Roman Catholic ceremonies, were abolished: one of these festivals was, of course, Christmas.
As early as 1645 there was a popular anti-Christmas movement and some shop keepers in the capital opened their shops during the holiday, but the full effect of the prohibition was really only felt in December 1647. Parliament ordered that there should be no holiday and shops should stay open on 25 December. No one was to decorate their houses with evergreens or celebrate in any way. The whole ceremony of Christmas, which still to a great extent was a twelve-day long festival, was anathema to the new religious regime, which invoked God’s blessing through Sunday-observance and regular fasts, rather than great blow-outs of over-eating.
Popular support for the ban ebbed away as the regime itself lost favour and in several towns there were major riots over Christmas 1647. The mayor of Norwich ignored both petitions for and against the Christmas holiday, but he did nothing to prevent unofficial festivities. Canterbury people too placed holly bushes at their doors in direct contravention of parliament’s orders. Puritan ministers were pelted with mud as they went through the town and aldermen driven from their homes. In London, shops closed for the day, evergreens were hung in the doorways of the town and the mayor’s attempt to disrupt the celebrations were resisted violently. In Ipswich and Bury St Edmunds, youths armed with spiked clubs patrolled the streets to keep the shops closed.
The celebration of Christmas in 1647 quickly became political and the defeated but unbowed royalists seized on the unrest and turned some of the celebrations and riots into demonstrations of support for the imprisoned King Charles I. By the spring of 1648 this unrest had turned into renewed fighting and the second civil war.
After the second civil war, Presbyterians in parliament were largely marginalised and the republican regime, established after the execution of King Charles I (30 January 1649), was less hardline on the celebration of Christmas. During the Commonwealth (1649-1653) and Cromwell’s rule (1653-1658) Christmas was neither officially sanctioned nor suppressed: all the shops remained closed on Christmas Day until the 21st Century and holy and the ivy were hung from the rafters until replaced by Christmas Trees and tinsel in the 19th.
By Professor Martyn Bennett
Professor of Early Modern History and one of the UK’s leading Oliver Cromwell experts
To speak to Professor Bennett, call the University Press Office directly on 0115 848 8751 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.