Did Oliver Cromwell ban Christmas?

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[00.00] Mike Gibbs Stephen, let me begin by asking the big but simple question, did Oliver Cromwell ban Christmas, true or false.
Stephen Roberts Well, Mike, the easy answer is to say no, but as we’ll probably discover in this podcast, there is a slight element of truth in it, as there is with all these hoary myths that we read about.
[00.29] Mike Gibbs But Protestants were very suspicious of Christmas and other festivals including Easter, why was that?
Stephen Roberts Well, Puritans derived their ideas from a very literal and close interpretation of the Bible. A Puritan was one who did nothing without the authority of the Bible and they could find no evidence in the Bible for the popular festivals. So without ‘scriptural warrant’, as they would have said, the festivals inherently were suspicious and that is the main reason why Puritans didn’t like festivals. They were also against disordered kinds of behaviour, because they were very disciplined people, so perhaps instinctively they disliked any sense of disorder in any realm of human activity really.
[01.21] Mike Gibbs Before the Civil Wars actually started there were suspicions being voiced by extreme Protestants, and one man, William Prynne, became the loudest voice and he sort of led an onslaught against the whole idea of Christmas, and I believe in one pamphlet term edit the ‘pagan Saturnalia.’ Can you tell us about him?
Stephen Roberts Yes, William Prynne was a Somerset man who early on discovered the value of print. He was an indefatigable writer and he understood the necessity of getting his words into print. He was called Marginal Prynne because of all the marginalia in his books. He was an astonishingly prolific author who pulled no punches at all and in 1632 wrote a book called Histrio Mastix, in which he denounced Christmas among other things. This is what Prynne has to say:
[02.23] Mike Gibbs When this was published in 1632, it was seen as a direct attack on the Royal Court and I guess the King, but Prynne paid a heavy price.
Stephen Roberts Yes indeed, it wasn’t so much what Prynne had had to say about Christmas that offended the King, it was the fact that he’d mentioned the theatre and stage plays in his pamphlet, and Henrietta Maria, Charles’s wife, was a fan of the stage herself and did a bit of, what we could call, amateur dramatics at Court. So it was taken as a personal attack on the King and Prynne was punished very severely. He was put in the stocks, he had his ears mutilated, his tongue bored, and was from then, from that point on, regarded as a Puritanmartyr and capitalised on that later in his career.
[03.25] Mike Gibbs What was the public response to his mutilation?
Stephen Roberts Well, from the public at large, probably rather indifference, would be the best word, but for the Puritans, it hardened their opposition to Charles I and Prynne really became a Puritan martyr, a symbol of suffering. And his sufferings during the 1630s were taken as symbolic really of the suffering of Puritans in lesser ways, throughout the decade.
[03.58] Mike Gibbs And looking at Parliament’s reaction to all of this and to Christmas as a festival, how did that evolve after the Civil Wars started?
Stephen Roberts Well, of course after the Civil Wars started, Parliament’s rule was restricted. It wasn’t able to command authority throughout the country, so Christmas, as with all other Puritan bug-bears, was really on their wish list rather than a thing they could immediately implement. So by 1644 Parliament was in a position to introduce some legislation about Christmas, and the order of the 19 December 1644, by both Houses of Parliament, sums up the mindset of Puritan opposition to Christmas, because it is based on the premise that the religious observance of the festival had been degraded and that contemplation of sin and the work and significance of Jesus Christ had been supplanted by what they called, ‘carnal and sensual delights.’
[05.08] Mike Gibbs I guess that sort of response would be voiced by some people today. And was this the majority view amongst members of Parliament?
Stephen Roberts By this time probably yes, because by the late part of 1644, the Royalists as such had peeled off to join Charles I, so what we’ve got in Parliament is a diminishing number of people with much more in common than they had at the start of the Civil War in Parliament. It did represent Puritan opinion and that’s another reason why this legislation could be passed, because the opposition had disappeared.
[05.51] Mike Gibbs And Parliament itself at one stage was meeting at Christmas. Was that altered?
Stephen Roberts Parliament did continue to meet throughout the 1640s and ‘50s on these days like Easter and Christmas, and in fact there is a particular case in 1656 when Parliament met on Christmas Day, and by that time of course, Christmas was certainly subject to Puritanlegislation. And the MPs on Christmas Day in 1656 were disgusted to see the shops closed, because they thought it should be a normal working day. And some MPs on their way to Parliament on Christmas morning noticed that the shops were closed, which went down very badly with them. And one MP wanted to bring in that very day a short bill to back-up the anti-Christmas legislation, but fortunately perhaps it got side-lined and nothing more came of it, so they just sat on their indignation for the whole day and went home.
[06.58] Mike Gibbs In 1645, Parliament legislated a new Directory of Public Worship as a replacement for the Book of Common Prayer. How did that affect Christmas?
Stephen Roberts The new Directory of Public Worship was what we would call today a Presbyterian document and it did embody all the Puritan notions of plainness and simplicity and so forth. It didn’t say anything specifically and explicitly about Christmas, but what it did say was this, that the festival days vulgarly called holy days, having no warrant in the word of God are not to be continued, and that was as far as it went for the Directory. But the Directory wasn’t really an actual replacement for the Book of Common Prayer in that the contents of the Directory weren’t to be read out in the way that the Prayer Book contents were. The Directory was really a kind of handbook for ministers of religion on how they should do things, but it was explicitly ruling out the possibility of Christmas as it had been conceived before.
[08.05] Mike Gibbs What was the public reaction and did that vary as one got further away geographically from London?
Stephen Roberts We don’t really know much about the opposition to The Directory; in fact we don’t really know how well The Directory was implemented. It’s one thing to produce a document like that, it’s much harder for historians to know how these things go down as it were, at an interval of 400 years or whatever it is later. I doubt whether there was any great delight in the appearance of The Directory in 1645.
[08.39] Mike Gibbs Was there a particular group within Parliament who were driving that legislation through?
Stephen Roberts Yes, by this time Parliament is divided even on the Puritan side into the Presbyterian group, who are very much in favour of The Directory of Public Worship and they had support from the Scots who at this time were still just about in an alliance with Parliament. And then on the other hand, people who weren’t so keen on The Directory, the Independents as we call them, whose idea of religion was based on congregationalism, not on the idea of a national church, so much as independent congregations. And interestingly Oliver Cromwell is one of these Independents, or Congregationalists.
[09.25] Mike Gibbs Was he actively in favour? Did he vote for the new ordinance?
Stephen Roberts In 1645 Cromwell was not a particular fan of The Directory of Public Worship, so in that sense he wouldn’t necessarily have been delighted at The Directory. He was one of those who was critical and suspicious of it, because he was not a Presbyterian really.
[09.46] Mike Gibbs Did he actually speak against it, or was he just silent?
Stephen Roberts Silent and lukewarm I think you could best describe Cromwell’s attitude to all this at this time. He’s very suspicious of the Scots and everything associated with them in terms of their military exploits as well.
[10.03] Mike Gibbs So at this time we can’t quite accuse him of banning Christmas.
Stephen Roberts No, in 1645 Cromwell isn’t really one of those who can be said to be dead opposed to Christmas.
[10.17] Mike Gibbs Then in Parliament in June 1647, they passed an Ordinance which really did ban Christmas, is that correct?
Stephen Roberts That is the legislation that really comes closest to this ban on Christmas, but it was never conceived even then as a ban of Christmas, it was something more positive. It was replacing Christmas with holidays as we would know them today. Masters were encouraged to give apprentices days off and the legislation said that a master should give his servant recreation time every second Tuesday in the month, and the legislation talks about giving the servants and apprentices ‘relaxation from their constant and ordinary labours.’ So in getting rid of Christmas and Easter and Whitsuntide and other festivals which the legislation calls ‘commonly called holy days’, instead they’ve been supplanted by what we would call holidays, and presumably that means paid holidays.
[11.30] Mike Gibbs I guess given the reputation of the London apprentices, they weren’t going to church, they would have been celebrating.
Stephen Roberts Well, we don’t really know about that. I mean, you can see how servants who were used to making merry on Christmas day would have not welcomed this legislation, but on the other hand, it did give them a kind of – or it was supposed to have given them a kind of security of holidays that they never had before, so this legislation in my view, should be seen as the first holidays, rather than the last Christmas.
[12.10] Mike Gibbs Okay! What steps if any did Parliament take to actually enforce this legislation?
Stephen Roberts Well we don’t know much about the enforcement, but what we do know is Cromwell was actually involved in this legislation. He was on a committee in April 1647 for this legislation. We only know about five things that Cromwell was doing in Parliament at this particular juncture and this was one of them. So those who think Cromwell banned Christmas at this point, do have a bit of support for that thesis really.
[12.54] Mike Gibbs Can we just compare Christmas before the Civil Wars and during the Protectorate. How would a family have marked it beforehand and then during the Protectorate?
Stephen Roberts Well even before the Civil Wars, the church certainly had things to say about Christmas. So a typical family on Christmas Day before the Civil War might well have gone to church; it wasn’t that the church had nothing to say about Christmas before the Civil War. The view of the Anglican Church before the disasters of the 1640s and 50s was that people should celebrate Christmas in a contained kind of way, it should be church service and then the kind of Christmas I suppose that lots of people have today, meals, modest consumption of alcohol. The church didn’t countenance before the Civil War the kind of total orgies of drinking and so forth, it was by modern standards probably even before the Civil War, it was quite a modest Christmas. But after the Civil War and during the 1650s, for the most Puritan families, it would simply have been another day. Some of them might have had bible readings in their families. The servants would have had to attend to listen to the bible being read, but generally it was either a question of modest celebration at home, because nobody can peer into everyone’s living room, even in the 1650s, or total carrying on as normal. I am not sure that really you’ve got the situation where you’ve got unbridled revelry on the one hand and total abstinence on the other. I think there is more continuity in these things, than a lot of historians have suggested.
[14.59] Mike Gibbs And what was the reaction to the ban in the country itself?
Stephen Roberts Well, we do know that there was a reaction to this. There was for example, in St Margaret’s Church in Westminster, a minister tried to give a Christmas sermon in 1647 and was prevented from doing so, and then someone wrote a pamphlet about that called The Stillborn Nativity, because it was a failed Christmas sermon. And more dramatically in Canterbury in Christmas, on Christmas Day 1647, the towns people assembled to demand a sermon which the mayor had forbidden, and then there was a heavy-handed response toward the crowd in Canterbury which produced a riot, so that was a particularly noteworthy case of active opposition to the Ordinance of 1647.
[16.09] Mike Gibbs And was that reaction a contributing factor to the start of the second Civil Wars?
Stephen Roberts I think it could be seen in that light, because it is the case that in Kent, Canterbury, BurySt Edmunds in Suffolk and in Norwich, these were all places of Christmas protests in 1646, 1647, around that time, and they are places where there is activity in the Second Civil War, so there may be a link there. I don’t think historians have been able to trace it exactly, but it could well be an element.
[16.48] Mike Gibbs What was the local reaction to those Christmas disturbances in places like Norwich?
Stephen Roberts Well, just a reaction by the local authorities to disperse disorder really. These were regarded as public order difficulties rather than anything ideological really.
[17.09] Mike Gibbs Holidays that were legislated for apprentices and servants, were they maintained after the Restoration?
Stephen Roberts No, all the legislation that the Long Parliament had brought in after 1642 was made null and void at the Restoration, so that died with a lot of other things, including of course the 1644 order against Christmas, all of that was swept aside. So, the positives as well as the negatives of the Long Parliament and 1650s legislation, simply were wiped out of the statute book.
[17.53] Mike Gibbs Against this chronology and this background, can you summarise the evidence that Cromwell wanted to ban Christmas?
Stephen Roberts Well, Cromwell in his early career politically is quite a shadowy figure, and it is always hard to associate an individual like Cromwell with a particular bug-bear like opposition to Christmas. It is only in 1647 really that we can say that he certainly is involved in legislation to ban Christmas as we know it, but again it is not quite fair to Cromwell to see him as anti-Christmas. It is more of a focus on a regularisation really of time off by apprentices and servants, and I prefer to see it in rather more positive terms, than simply the dour Puritans suppressing fun. I think there is something progressive I think you might say about some of this, it isn’t all just negativity.
[19.00] Mike Gibbs And in his voluminous correspondence, is there any evidence of how he and his family celebrated Christmas, or not?
Stephen Roberts Not that I am aware of. I think what we can probably conclude is that Cromwell would have ‘celebrated’ Christmas quietly at home, as it were. I think it would have been a day of sermon attendance and a certain amount of business as usual. I don’t think Cromwell would have been somebody who would have had revels and so forth, in secret on Christmas Day. What we do know of course is that other people during the 1650s, the Protectorate, were allowed to use the Book of Common Prayer, which was officially banned. We don’t have any direct evidence as far as I am aware, or at least I can’t summon to mind any celebrations of Christmas that we know of, but if they were allowed discreetly to use the Book of Common Prayer, then discreetly they may well have celebrated Christmas in a low-key way.
[20.13] Mike Gibbs How and when did the myth that Cromwell banned Christmas gather acceptance?
Stephen Roberts I think the first thing we have to say about that is Cromwell is made to do duty and to stand in for the whole Puritan ideal in these discussions. He is probably the only Puritan that most people have heard of by our own days, as it were. So he becomes a symbol of this whole idea, I think, that one person could have been involved in banning Christmas. It is Puritanism that’s really the motive for these restrictions on Christmas and I think one of the things that strikes me about this is that we shouldn’t be so much looking at the banning of Christmas in terms of chronology and the myth of the banning of Christmas, but the invention of Christmas in the Victorian period, because as we know Charles Dickens and others in the Victorian period have invented the kind of Christmas that we enjoy today. And if you look at the work of Thomas Babington Macauley, he published five volumes on the History of England in 1848, tremendously influential volumes, he has this to say on the unpopularity of Christmas as it was banned by the Puritans:
[21.42] Mike Gibbs But how has this fixation contributed to the way in which Cromwell has been memorialised?
Stephen Roberts Well, I think Cromwell’s memory generally in popular culture, the public view of Cromwell, is of somebody who is negative and destructive. So when people think of Cromwell they think of his power, they think of his capacity to command armies, and he is often accredited for example with smashing up things in churches; people say Oliver Cromwell did this damage and so forth. Again, he is made the stand-in for destructiveness. The route of it is probably the fact that Cromwell was ultimately the loser in this country politically. Had the Cromwellian regime persisted, I think our public memory of Cromwell would have been very different. So I think it is all to do with the way that history tends to favour the victors, in the end.
[22.43] Mike Gibbs How has this helped the folkloric memory of Cromwell as a destroyer, do you think? Is it a strong piece of evidence?
Stephen Roberts Well, he’s associated with the destruction of Christmas, he is associated with the destruction of churches, as I said. Most of the folkloric evidence is of that negativity, and there are stories about people in the 19th century threatening their naughty children with a visitation from Oliver Cromwell, you know, that kind of thing. It’s all fed into the bogeyman image of Cromwell, I think.
[23.22] Mike Gibbs And finally in 1660 at the Restoration, was Christmas restored to its old pre-Civil War celebrations?
Stephen Roberts Well, in 1660 what was obviously restored was the Church of England as it had existed before the Civil War and also of course the Prayer Book came back. So it did mean that in terms of religious services, that Christmas Day is back on again. The general culture of the Restoration was one of celebration, was one of relaxation and the sense that something grim had been put to bed. And so with all this attempt, rather unconvincing attempt in some way, to plaster over the differences that had been so important and so divisive during the Civil War, in that attempt came back Christmas. So yes, I think it is probably true to say that the Christmas revels, the ‘Saturnalia’ as Prynne would have called them, did come back.
[24.33] Mike Gibbs So I for one will be enjoying the ‘Saturnalia’ of Christmas this year, and I hope that you and your families, Stephen, have a really merry Christmas.
Stephen Roberts Thank you very much, Mike, and merry Christmas to you.