Following the Reformation in England, Protestants viewed anything that was even vaguely ‘Popish’ with extreme suspicion. One such suspicion concerned anything relating to the Catholic Mass, which included Christ’s Mass – Christmas. The Puritans preferred to refer to it as Christ-Tide instead but the whole festival was regarded as an accumulation of Romish superstitions.
|Phillip Stubbes - Anatomie of Abuses - 1583|
As early as 1583, the pamphleteer Phillip Stubbes was railing against the festival in his Anatomie of Abuses. He writes,
“…fpecially in Chriftimas tyme, there is nothing els ufed but cards, dice, tables, mafking, mumming, bowling, and such like fooleries … what mafking and mumming! wherby robberie, whordome, murther, and what no[t] is committed! What dicing and carding, what eating and drinking, what banqueting and feafting is then ufed more than in all the yeere befydes! to the great difhonor of God, and impoverifhing of the realme.”
|Self-indulgent and Wasteful Carousing|
The merry-making was seen as wasteful and self-indulgent, and so obviously sinful, and a redundant remnant of the immoral practices of the Catholic faith. From 1642 on, Ordinances were passed banning the performance of plays and in June 1647, an Ordinance was passed in Parliament that banned the keeping of Holy Days and festivals, including Christmas, Easter and Whitsuntide, replacing them with a day of recreation on the second Tuesday of each month.
“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 it Ordained, by the Lords and Commons in Parliament assembled, That the said Feasts of The Nativity of Christ, Easter, and Whitsuntide, and all other Festival-days commonly called Holy-days, be no longer observed as Festivals or Holidays, within this Kingdom of England and Dominion of Wales.”
|Parliament bans Christmas|
The idea was that Sundays, the Lord’s Sabbath, were to be observed instead and that churches were to close whilst markets were to be held and shops to be opened on the former feast days instead. However, it didn’t quite work out as planned. The shops that did open were attacked and their wares scattered into the streets. There were riots in Ipswich, Oxford and Canterbury, where the mayor was pummelled and his windows broken, and thousands of men declared that if their Christmas was taken away, they would return the King to the throne. But Parliament persisted and when it was felt that the celebration of Christmas was making a surreptitious return, on December 24th 1652, it was resolved
“… that the Markets be kept To-morrow, being the 25th Day of December: And that the Lord Mayor, and Sheriffs of London and Middlesex, and the Justices of Peace for the City of Westminster, and Liberties thereof, do take care, that all such Persons as shall open their Shops on that Day, be protected from Wrong or Violence, and the Offenders punished … That no Observation shall be had on the 25th Day of December, commonly called Christmas Day, nor any Solemnity used or exercised in Churches, upon that Day, in respect thereof.”
|Christmas Banned Again|
Soldiers broke into churches on Christmas Days and arrested people at musket-point; John Evelyn, the diarist, reports his own arrest for attending a church service in 1657.
The traditional Christmas foods were also banned, with plum pudding and mincemeat being especially targeted. Mince pies, it was rumoured, were supposed to be representations of the Christ Child in his manger and thus irredeemably Popish. The ‘Water Poet’, John Taylor, complained
“ … to roast a sirloin of beef, to touch a collar of brawn, to take a pie, to put a plum in the pottage pot, to burn a great candle, or to lay one block the more in the lire for your sake, Master Christmas, is enough to make a man to be suspected and taken for a Christian, for which he shall be apprehended for committing high Parliament Treason and mighty malignancy.”
This didn’t stop some confusion – in 1652, a Puritan preacher, Hugh Peters, was accused by church authorities of preaching against the celebration of Christmas from his pulpit and then going home and having two mince pies for his supper. The Puritans, it has to be admitted, had the best of motives – they were seeking to ‘purify’ the abuses of the Christian faith by eradicating superstitious practices but I tend to agree with H L Mencken, who defined Puritanism as
“… the haunting fear that someone, somehow, may be happy.”
|A Suspicious Puritan|
With the Restoration of the monarchy in 1660, Christmas returned to being openly celebrated, although it had changed. The masques and the revelry of the Lords of Misrule had gone and it was left to the Victorians to reinvent Christmas in the form that we now recognise it. I’ll come to that on another day.