In 2020 we are approaching Christmas with warnings ringing in our ears, as well as encouragement to celebrate – and that’s just from the Prime Minister, whose characteristically mixed messaging tells us to be jolly, but also to ‘be jolly careful’. Across the UK we are digesting Christmas rules which will mean that families have to haggle about which three households can ‘bubble’ across the 5 days of relaxed Covid restrictions. We may be taking more comfort in our Christmas customs than ever – my tree is already up – but there’s no denying it will not be the usual Christmas experience for most of us.
But Christmas isn’t cancelled, and although Covid restrictions have become politicised and divisive, we can hope to avoid the battles over Christmas which were seen in the streets of Canterbury and Ipswich in 1647. Parliament had been victorious in the first civil war against Charles I, and the puritans who had for years been preaching against the ‘superstitious’ practice of celebrating Christ’s birth on a particular day now saw their wishes made law. Christmas was banned. Christmas fell on a Saturday: churches were not to offer services, and shops were to open as usual.
The highly partisan newsbooks (early newspapers) which had sprung up to report on the events and politics of the civil war were keen to put their spin on what happened next. What is certain is that there was a real attempt to suppress the most visible celebrations of Christmas, particularly church services; and that this did not go down well with much of the population – parliamentarian or not – who saw comfort and not harm in the traditional customs. In London, church services were broken up – although the churchwardens of St Margaret’s, Westminster reportedly explained that they had only allowed a sermon in the pragmatic belief that people were not intending to work or open their shops on Christmas day, so catering for them with a sermon would ‘prevent their mis-spending of time in Taverns and Ale-houses’. The Mayor himself went out to pull down the festive greenery of rosemary and bay which decorated the conduit in Cornhill, and was met by a ‘mutiny’ which turned violent. Political divisions exacerbated the tension, and in Canterbury and Ipswich, in particular, events got completely out of hand.
Royalist newspapers reported these disturbances with relish. In Canterbury, pro-Christmas vigilantes apparently trooped door to door, checking that their neighbours were properly supplied with ‘Pies and Plum-pottage’ and violently targeting the ‘nigardly Schismaticks’ (i.e., puritans) who were abstaining. They then seized the weapons in the town hall and declared themselves for ‘God, King Charles, and Kent’. Even a rather less colourful account (in the pamphlet Canterbury Christmas) has them targeting the wares of the dozen or so shops which dared to open on Christmas day, and certain key puritans including the Mayor, before staying in arms until a climbdown on the Tuesday. The ebullient royalist newsbook Mercurius Dogmaticus praised these ‘honest Christians of Canterbury, angry to be prohibited both of their Cheare and devotion at one time’ even while reporting that they had broken the windows of those who failed to answer their doors, and beaten up the Mayor. An anti-royalist newspaper, in contrast, railed at the ‘superstitious sons of Canterbury, who were so incorrigible as to beat their Mayor, and so barbarous as to assault their neighbours in their own houses.’ Rather than any noble motive, according to this parliamentarian, ‘it was the spirit of Ale that wrought these wonders’, as the rioters were ‘well tipled’. Satirical parliamentarian doggerel mocked this attempt to ‘rise/ To right [i.e. restore] Plum-Pottage, and Mince-pies’. Meanwhile, in Ipswich, two were reported killed in disturbances which involved an attempt to free prisoners held for the initial pro-Christmas disorder. An acerbic parliamentarian newsbook reported that the dead included a man with the surname Christmas ‘whose name seemed to blow up his zeal to the observation of the day’.
The authorities took all of this extremely seriously, in the unstable political conditions of 1647-8. The Christmas rioters were subjected to trials which, in the words of Blair Worden, ‘fanned the mood of protest that grew into renewed civil war in the spring and summer of 1648.’ In 1649 the regicide followed, and Christmas continued to be banned throughout the 1650s.
All of this might put our current troubles into some perspective. Christmas may be scaled back this year, but we can look forward to a new year which brings the hope of vaccines and a slow return to a more sociable and lively version of everyday life. Let’s hope for better Christmases to come.
You can find out more about Rachel and her research at the University of Reading at https://www.reading.ac.uk/history/about/staff/r-h-foxley.aspx