Wednesday, 23 December 2009

A Puritan Christmas

In the first half of the 17th century, the 25th December was an important religious festival, and a public holiday when all places of work closed and everyone attended special church services. During the twelve days of Christmas, families attended masses, and buildings were dressed with rosemary, holly and ivy and. There was non-stop dancing, singing, drinking, exchanging of Christmas favours' to give to family members-gifts of special herbs tied up with ribbon which protected them from harm and illness. Stage plays were popular and everyone indulged in feasts of roast beef, plum porridge, minced pies and special ale. Twelfth Night, the final day of celebration, often saw a fresh bout of feasting and carnivals.

When Christmas was Made Illegal

The Puritans viewed Christ's mass as an unwanted remnant of the Roman Catholic Church, arguing that it and other holidays had no biblical justification. In 1642, they issued ordinances to suppress the performance of plays. Some shops in London were opened on Christmas-day 1643, and in 1647 some parish officers were committed for permitting ministers to preach on Christmas-day, and for adorning the Church.

On the 3rd of June 1647, Parliament ordained that Christmas should be no longer observed, and instead, scholars, apprentices, and other servants, with the leave and approbation of their masters, should have such relaxation from labour on the second Tuesday in every month. An order dated the 24th of December 1652, directed, "That no observation shall be had of the five and twentieth day of December, commonly called Christmas Day; nor any solemnity used or exercised in churches upon that day in respect thereof."

The problem the Puritans faced, was that the reasons for celebrating Christmas were not Satanic; more an attachment to having fun during the darkest, most miserable time of the year. All work was seasonal; and occupations from farming, fishing and trading stopped in midwinter. Christmas was the poor's one sustained "holiday", offering rare access to large quantities of rich food, especially meat, and strong drink - paid for by someone else. Traditionally, the poor entertained the rich with singing, dancing and plays: the rich, in turn, would reward them with food, wine and money.

The formal abolishment of Christmas came on 8 June 1647 with the announcement: "Be it ordained, by the Lords and Commons in parliament assembled, that the Feast of the Nativity of Christ, and all other festival days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed within this kingdom of England."

John Greene, a London lawyer, recorded in his diary: "This Christmas Day we had but few sermons anywhere, many of them that intended to have preached being interrupted by some from the parliament . . . the Lord Mayor was very zealous in pulling down holly and ivy, and received divers affronts in doing it."

In September 1649, the Rump Parliament passed an act banning "hawkers and ballad-singers" - any who persisted were to "be conveyed to the House of Correction, there to be whipped as common rogues". But this couldn't stop the flow of anti-Puritan propaganda:

"To conclude, I'll tell you news that's right,
Christmas was killed at Naseby fight:
Likewise then did die
Roast beef and shred pie."

A popular device of protest against the banning of Christmas, was an ignored and dejected figure dressed as Father Christmas would walk the streets of English towns in which no one dared to welcome him. John Taylor, a popular poet, scorned the regime by writing: "Their madness hath extended itself to the very vegetables, the senseless trees . . . holly, ivy, mistletoe, rosemary, bays, are accounted ungodly branches of superstition."

Cromwell ordered inns and playhouses shut down, sports were banned and anyone caught swearing fined. Women caught working on the Sabbath could be put in the stocks. They had to wear a long black dress, a white apron, a white headdress and no makeup. The men also dressed head to toe in black and sporting short hair.

All shops and markets were to stay open throughout the 25th December and anyone caught holding or attending a special Christmas church service would suffer a penalty. In London, soldiers patrolled the streets, seizing any food they discovered being prepared for a Christmas celebration.

Despite imposing these rigid measures on the common people, Cromwell himself liked music, playing bowls and hunting and, after becoming Lord Protectorate, soon took to the high life. For his daughter's wedding he permitted a lavish feast and entertainment fit for royalty.

Yet ten years later in the late 1650’s, the authorities were still instructing Justices of the Peace to stop the festivities, a clear admission that ban on Christmas hadn't worked.

John Evelyn’s diary shows that he was unable to find a service to go to until 1656. Then on 25 December 1657, he was with his wife in the private chapel of Exeter House, on the north side of the Strand, when he was arrested. The sermon had ended, and the priest was distributing communion, when soldiers burst in. “These wretched miscreants”, he later wrote, “held their muskets against us as we came up to receive the Sacred Elements, as if they would have shot us at the Altar.” Evelyn was held for 24 hours, lectured on his "ignorance", and then released.

After the Restoration of King Charles II in May 1660, Christmas Day that year witnessed open, well-decorated, and well-attended churches. John Evelyn went to Westminster Abbey, where he was thrilled to find that “The Service was also in the old Cathedrall Musique.”

Christmas traditions condemned by the Puritans, were now seen as signs of loyalty to the restored monarchy and the re-established Church of England. The “good ribs of beef roasted and mince pies . . . and plenty of good wine” with which Samuel Pepys typically marked the festival were symbols not only of Christmas, but also of the return to right order of the nation as a whole. Not everyone approved, however, for John Evelyn recorded on 25 December 1662, that the curate had preached on “how to behave ourselves in festival rejoicing”.