Article by Marie Stirling. Edited by Cathy Humphreys. Additional Research by Ellie Veryard.
I have been adamantly told, on numerous occasions, that Oliver Cromwell committed the heinous crime of banning mince pies. A rather unimportant and unfortunately false titbit, he merely banned mince pies in the shape of cribs, yet such action seems representative of the prevailing stereotype of Oliver Cromwell, and more importantly of the wider group of extreme Protestants, known as Puritans, as early modern “kill joys”. This article will attempt to show that this stereotype has some foundation by considering the Puritan attempt to ban the celebration of Christmas, which took place during the 1640s and 1650s under a Puritan influenced parliament and continued under Oliver Cromwell. This attack was due to the contradiction that Christmas celebrations imposed on Puritan ideals, with the Christmas festive period of merriment and festivity contradicting Puritan ideals of sobriety and fasting.
Christmas in the seventeenth century had many similar elements to today. The twelve days of Christmas began on the twenty-fifth of December and was a time for great celebration and feasting, intended to lighten people’s spirits in the cold winter months. Twelfth Night in particular was a day for carnivals and “misrule”; a tradition immortalised in Shakespeare’s play of the same name. Christmas Day was celebrated as a public holiday, enjoyed by all social classes across the country. Houses were decorated in holly and ivy and exchanging gifts and feasting were the norm. Traditional Christmas food was already established, with plum pudding and mince pies eaten in excess.
However by the seventeenth century it was a festival under attack. Extreme Protestants lobbied by both distributing pamphlets and petitioning to end the celebrations associated with Christmas. In particular, they disliked the excess of food, drink and “merrymaking” associated with the holiday. Furthermore they associated such customs with Catholicism, a religion equivalent to the anti-Christ in Puritan ideology, believing Christmas Day to be ‘dedicated to the idol of the masse’. Instead Puritans wished to impose a day of fasting. Their attempts were successful during the Civil War, when in late 1644 Parliament extended the existing legislation on days of fasting for a fast day every month to include Christmas Day. New legislation was then passed in 1645 and 1647 specifically abolishing the celebration of Christmas in its traditional form:
‘Forasmuch as the Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, Whitsuntide, and other Festivals, commonly called Holy-days, have been heretofore superstitiously used and observed… be no longer observed as Festivals or Holidays’.
This was the situation before Oliver Cromwell’s reign from 1653 to 1658. As a devout Puritan, Cromwell continued with the same line against Christmas, issuing penalties for its celebration and to those who attended festivals. This trend can be seen as part of the wider Puritan policy for a ‘reformation of manners’. In 1655, Oliver Cromwell used the Major Generals to drive forward reforms in public morals, ending both feasting and drunken behaviour. Worsley in Cheshire was responsible for closing down around two hundred ale houses. Christmas; a period of extreme excess and feasting, would therefore have been a key target for change under this policy.
Despite such political and religious attempts to ban the festivities of the holiday, it should not be assumed that such legislation was widely followed. There were numerous protests and complaints from Puritans that the legislation was being popularly ignored during the ban. Furthermore the level of enthusiasm when the legislation was overturned under King Charles II supports the idea that popular support was weak. The Puritan attempt to limit the excesses of the tradition of Christmas therefore had failed, due to its failure to capture public support. It is however possible that this attack on the celebrations of Christmas led to the stereotype of a “kill joy” associated with Puritans and Oliver Cromwell. Certainly it can be concluded that the Puritans did themselves and their cause no favours by attacking the extremely popular celebration of Christmas.
By the seventeenth century Christmas had become a lavish festival revolving around eating, drinking, dancing, sporting and for the more privileged, masquerades and pageants. Gift giving was popular.
Impact of Reformation
Carol singing declined after the Reformation despite influential people such as Martin Luther encouraging their use in worship. The nineteenth century revival of folklore and folk music enabled those that had survived in rural communities to once again become popular.
Gift giving remained but underwent a transformation; Luther emphasized the importance of Christ’s birth within the Christmas celebration and argued to exchange gifts on the 6th of December, St. Nicholas Day, would undermine this focus. He also discouraged the association of gifts with good behaviour, claiming they were a symbol for the gift of God’s grace. Many Protestants began to view the Christkind, or Christ child, as the predominant bringer of gifts, and presents were increasing exchanged on Christmas Eve.
Puritan opposition to Christmas focused not just on excess but also its association with Catholicism and popery. Anxiety over Catholic pollution of the reformed Church pushed them to do away with all remaining elements of popery. In response the Catholic Church promoted the more religious elements of Christmas.
After the ban, pro-Christmas riots broke out in many cities; Canterbury rioters held the city for several weeks, coming out in support of Royalist advocate’s of Christmas. Pamphlets were circulated in support of Christmas. In 1652 The Vindication of Christmas argued for its survival based on its deep rooted tradition within English life.