Probably the one thing that most people could tell you about Oliver Cromwell (other that that he had warts) was that he banned Christmas. It is a ‘fact’ that is often referenced today, with comparisons being made to modern restrictions on festivities due to Covid-19. Is it true though? Stuart Orme, curator of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, is the perfect person to settle the question once and for all.
In many ways Christmas celebrations in the 17th century would seem quite familiar to us today. It was regarded as a time for family and festivities, with presents being given, games played and lots of food and drink being consumed. Many people would decorate their homes with holly, ivy, and mistletoe.
However Christmas celebrations went on for much longer than now, lasting from 25 December until 6 January – the 12 days of Christmas – and, in a deeply religious age, attendance at church services was central to the celebrations.
Many Protestants throughout Europe had become suspicious of Christmas celebrations, including many amongst the ‘Godly’ or Puritan movement in England. They thought such festivities were too closely associated with Roman Catholicism at a time when Catholics were, at best, regarded with suspicion, and at worst hated and persecuted.
Some Puritans objected to the celebrations as they could find no mention of such festivities in the Bible and that therefore they could not be justified as they were not rooted in scripture. Puritan pamphleteers decried many entertainments as being Pagan in origin, whilst many felt that Christmas had become too drunken and debauched.
Presbyterians in Scotland had already taken the first step by outlawing Christmas in 1640, a legal ban that remained in place until 1712, becoming so ingrained culturally that Christmas Day only became a public holiday for Scots in 1958.
In January 1642, a Bill was passed legislating for a monthly day of prayer, repentance and fasting. Such days were not unusual in the Early Modern world; when times were hard, communities, even nations, were often asked to spend such days abstaining from food and in prayer in the hope of divine intervention to bring an end to their troubles. Under the 1642 law in England and Wales the last Wednesday of every month was to be set aside for such a purpose.
Puritans in Parliament had their first opportunity to introduce a Christmas ban in 1644, as it coincided with the monthly day of prayer & fasting. A specific ordinance was passed to ban Christmas services due to the day of fasting. Given that the ordinance was issued only a few days before Christmas, the Civil War was at its height and Parliament did not control much of the country, it was questionable how many people carried this out.
In 1645 Parliament introduced a new ‘Directory of Public Worship‘, designed as a replacement for the Book of Common Prayer, setting out a new form of worship for the Anglican church. It said that Christmas, Easter, and other such festivals were no longer to be observed with special services or celebrations.
An outright ban came in June 1647, when Parliament passed an ordinance banning Christmas, Easter and Whitsun festivities, services, and celebrations, including festivities in the home, with fines for non-compliance – although a monthly secular public holiday (like a modern bank holiday) was introduced. The Christmas ban was unpopular – there were riots in Kent and elsewhere in 1647, although some of these may have been an excuse for pro-Royalist rebels to cause trouble. A popular ballad, The World Turn’d Upside Down, was published decrying the ban.
In 1652 Parliament reinforced the Christmas ban, reminding people about fines for staging or attending Christmas services, and that shops were to remain open on Christmas day. The pamphlet The Vindication of Christmas, published that year, argued against these laws, illustrated with one of the earliest depiction of Father Christmas.
There was an attempt to enforce the ban rigorously in some parts of the country during the Christmas of 1655 as England and Wales were under military rule, the so-called Rule of the Major Generals. Some of these attempted to crack down with variable success.
By 1656 Parliament was complaining that many people were simply ignoring the ban, that even in London shops remained shut and festivities continued, with MPs being kept awake by the sound of Christmas parties next to their lodgings.
An attempt at further legislation got no further than the first reading. Whilst there were reminders about the ban in London in 1657, there was no further attempt to systematically impose it nationally. As with most Commonwealth/Protectorate legislation, the ban was removed in 1660 with the Restoration.
Like many ‘moral’ bans, the ban on Christmas was difficult to enforce. Whilst the proscription on special church services was easy to implement, what took place in the home was less easy to impose, particularly when one bears in mind the difficulties there have been ensuring that Covid-19 restrictions are obeyed by everyone today. Without a police force, the machinery of a modern state and a largely rural society in the 1600s it must have been impossible.
What was Cromwell’s involvement with this? He had little or no part in the initial legislation that instituted the ban, being more concerned with the debates over the Self-Denying Ordinance for reform of the army.
Crucially he was absent from Parliament when the ban was passed in 1647; indeed at that time he was under threat of arrest by the House of Commons for supporting the army in their protests over pay.
Cromwell may have approved of the laws as he was a member of the Godly party and a Puritan, and took no action whilst Lord Protector from 1653 to repeal the ban. However, as he never expressed an opinion on it in his letters or speeches, we simply do not know for sure what he thought about it.
Because Cromwell is the most famous figure from Parliamentary party from this period the Christmas ban has become associated with him personally in the popular imagination… even though he had little to do with it.
Stuart Orme is curator of the Cromwell Museum in Huntingdon, “home to the best collection of items relating to the life and times of Oliver Cromwell on public display anywhere in the world”.
It’s housed in the former Huntingdon Grammar School building, which lets them display a good selection of the 800 items in their care. They show more in temporary exhibitions and run events for children – Covid permitting, of course.
The museum says that “our role is not to praise or condemn Cromwell. He is a controversial figure to many; our role is simply to present the facts and various interpretations of his life, telling his story ‘warts and all’ and allow visitors to make their own minds up about him.”
You can find Stuart tweeting most unpuritanically on the museum’s Twitter account.
If you’re interested in the events of the Wars of the Three Kingdoms, also known as the British Civil Wars, you may enjoy some other Historia posts about those times:
Killing a king: the execution of Charles I by Charles’s biographer, Leanda de Lisle. Her book, White King, won the HWA Non-fiction Crown in 2018
Henrietta Maria: queen, warrior, politician, woman also by Leanda de Lisle
Henrietta Maria, a forgotten queen? by Frances Quinn
Oliver Cromwell’s daughter Frances, the ‘puritan princess’ by Miranda Malins
Good Boye or devil dog? Prince Rupert’s poodle by Frances Owen
Escaping the Tudors by Linda Porter
Are the Stuarts the New Tudors? by Elizabeth Fremantle
The fight for our battlefields by Tim Lynch
Q&A with Jemahl Evans, author of the Blandford Candy novels, which are set during the Wars of the Three Kingdoms.
The Vindication of Christmas and both portraits of Oliver Cromwell: supplied by the author
The World Turn’d Upside Down: © The British Library Board, via Wikimedia