In modern Britain – in spite of what some of the papers sometimes say – you would have to look quite hard to find anyone who made no concessions at all to Christmas. Many people without christian heritage celebrate it pretty enthusiastically. Christmas has not been replaced by ‘Winterval’, and it doesn’t look likely that it will be. Perhaps Christmas has become secular enough not to be divisive, or perhaps people are just happy to celebrate an extra festival – especially as it now feels like a national holiday as much as a religious ‘holy day’.
But during and after the English Civil Wars – when the nation’s christian identity was not in doubt – Christmas did become divisive, and it really was under attack, by the government itself. Godly protestants – puritans, as they were nicknamed – were an essential part of the parliamentarian war effort which defeated Charles I and eventually led to his execution. Working on the principle that if it wasn’t in the Bible, it wasn’t truly christian, they condemned the practice of celebrating the traditional feasts of the christian calendar, rather than just the sabbath. The feasts were idolatrous and popish – and all too popular – whereas keeping the sabbath was a godly obligation that was all too often neglected. Rather than feasts, the godly preferred to focus on fasts, and parliament sponsored a monthly fast day. In 1647, parliament banned Christmas, Easter, and all other former holy days, which had been ‘superstitiously used and observed’. Recognizing that these days had provided an opportunity for much needed rest and recreation for apprentices and servants – and reminding us that puritans were not always complete killjoys, even if they were deadly serious about religious observances – they put in place a monthly day of recreation on the second Tuesday of the month.
But right from the start the ban on Christmas ran up against the whole weight of popular tradition. People were not going to do without their holiday and the various foodstuffs and festivities which went with it. On 24 December 1647 the House of Commons ordered that the militia committees of the capital city should go into action to make sure that those who obeyed the ban on Christmas were not met with ‘Affronts, Abuses, and Prejudices’ when they tried to open their shops as if it were a normal working day. Who might launch such attacks? ‘Malignants’ – those opposed to the parliamentarian cause – ‘or others’. It was not just royalists who wanted to defend Christmas – which was why the ban tended to fail so dismally – but Christmas did become a test of allegiances, and celebrating it could be an act of defiance.
Perhaps it is not surprising, then, that after Charles I was executed and replaced first by a republic and then by the Protectorate of Oliver Cromwell, Christmas retained its popularity and the authorities tended to be even more suspicious of those celebrating it. In 1650, the Council of State ‘received several Informations, that there was a very wilful and strict Observation of the Day commonly called Christmas Day, throughout the Cities of London and Westminster, by a general Keeping of their Shops shut up: and that there were contemptuous Speeches used by some in favour thereof’. Interpreting this as a sign of ‘Contempt of the present Laws and Government’ they asked that parliament also make sure that images of Charles I were removed from churches and other public places round the capital. Ten days before Christmas in 1654, one Policarpus Rock was writing to the authorities asking for help to seize some suspected Catholic priests: ‘Christmas will bee the best time to looke for them; for then they will be imployed at gentlemen’s houses’. But it wasn’t just Catholics, royalists or enemies of the regime who celebrated Christmas: some MPs did too. In 1656, the ‘third-generation puritan’ MP William Strickland proposed that the House should sit on Christmas day specifically so ‘that it might be known who are absent’. When the sitting commenced on 25 December, it was lamented that ‘the House is thin; much, I believe, occasioned by observation of this day’ and one member proposed to bring in a bill about it – although, as others pointed out, it might have been more constructive to introduce the topic ten days earlier. The hard core of MPs who sat that day – one complaining that he hadn’t been able to sleep for the noise of people preparing ‘this foolish day’s solemnity’ – had serious business to do. They hoped, while more moderate members were absent, to secure support for the decimation tax, which royalists were forced to pay to support the government of the localities by the hated Major Generals. Lambert, speaking in the debate, could hardly conceal his contempt for the (supposedly forgiven) former royalists: ‘They are, haply, now merry over their Christmas pies, drinking the King of Scots’ health, or your confusion.’ (The future Charles II had been declared king by the Scots). It was only right to tax these Christmas-pie-eating traitors.
It was in 1657, though, that the regime came down most heavily on Christmas. The diarist John Evelyn went to London to an Anglican service on Christmas day: ‘Sermon Ended, as he was giving us the holy Sacrament, The Chapell was surrounded with Souldiers: All the Communicants and Assembly surpriz’d & kept Prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away’. Evelyn and the others found themselves questioned by Cromwellian soldiers, who took names and addresses, and wanted to know ‘why contrarie to an Ordinance made that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (so esteem’d by them) I durst offend, & particularly be at Common prayers, which they told me was but the Masse in English, & particularly pray for Charles stuard, for which we had no Scripture’. A few days later, a regime loyalist reporting to John Thurloe, Cromwell’s Secretary of State and spymaster, began his letter, with some irony, ‘You will give me leave so farre to observe Christmas, as to send you this letter for a new-yeare’s gift; and I shall therein give you some account of the Christmas spirit, that I perceive stirring in this and other places.’ Thurloe’s informant had deliberately set out to hear an illegal Christmas sermon, in order to inform himself of what the enemy were up to. What he discovered was that Christmas was just as politically loaded for the regime’s opponents as it was for its most zealous supporters. The preacher told his audience that ‘he doubted not to declare him a schismatick, who did not observe Christmas-day; and further, that he that denyed to keepe that day, deserved not to live another day.’ For this preacher – who went on to make royalist comments – it was those who didn’t celebrate Christmas who were the traitors.
The supporters of Christmas must surely have been a majority. Plenty of those who were prepared to sit in parliament in the 1650s were also, as we’ve seen, keen to be at home with their families on 25 December, celebrating in ways which they presumably didn’t think were ‘popish’ or ‘superstitious’, but which may still have been traditional. Even those who did link Christmas with popery had difficulty in making it sound anything less than enormous fun. In 1646 a pamphlet depicted royalist ‘malignants’ as flocking round Old Father Christmas seeking holy relics in the form of clippings from the old man’s beard or nails. But this tale of the imprisoning of Christmas was said to be ‘Printed by Simon Minc’d Pye, for Cissely Plum-porridge‘, and emphasized the warm welcome Christmas received in every home. The ‘old, old, old, very old, gray bearded Gentleman, called Christmas… was wont to be a verie familiar ghest, and visite all sorts of people both poor and rich… and in every house roast Beefe and Mutton, Pies and Plumporrige, and all manner of delicates round about him, and every one saluting merry Christmas’. Perhaps the pamphlet was even a double-bluff, satirizing the puritans’ horror at the popery of Christmas? Either way, the pamphleteer gave Old Christmas the last laugh: thrown in prison by the authorities, the old man ‘got out at so narrow a passage, between two Iron Bars of a Window, that nothing but onely his old gray beard and hoarie hair of his head stuck there, but nothing else to be seen of him’. Father Christmas could not be imprisoned, and Christmas could not be suppressed.