Presbyterian & Puritanial Curmudeons and the War Against Christmas

Exerpt from

Christmas: Its Origins and Associations

[Editor’s note: The Puritans came to power with the defeat of Charles I, the son of King James, whom they convicted of treason and beheaded.  Their leader was Oliver Cromwell.  Like the Presbyterians of Scotland, the Puritans were Calvinistic, and believed that certain men are predestinated to salvation, others to damnation.  Their conception of God was therefore of the most tyrannical and arbitrary nature.     

They imagined that God savingly loves some, whom his causes to believe and obey the gospel, but actively hardens the rest for no reason whatever, consigning them to damnation.  The flinty, hard hearted God of the Puritans who distributes his love capriciously in this way is not the God of the scriptures.  Little wonder that Puritanism produced a flinty, hard hearted people who has small love for their fellow creature and seemed to thrive on extinguishing all human joy as somehow rooted in evil.  One writer thus quipped that Puritanism is defined as a “stinking feeling that someone, somewhere is happy.”  Fierce haters of all things “Catholic,” the Puritans set about to outlaw Christmas. But their efforts were was a signal failure.  The birth of the Great King was celebrated by angels and shepherds.  Men and nations cannot but rejoice.] 

The Defeat of the Royalists 

The overthrow of the monarchy, and the changes resulting there from at Christmastide are allude to in “The Complaint of Christmas, written after Twelftide, and printed before Candlemass, 1646,” by old John Taylor, the Water Poet, who says “All the liberty and harmless sports, the merry gambols, dances and friscols, with which the toiling ploughman and labourer once a year were wont to be recreated, and their spirits and hopes revived for a whole twelvemonth, are now extinct and put out of use, in such a fashion as if they never had been.  Thus are the merry lords of bad rule at Westminster; nay, more, their madness hath extended itself to the very vegetables; senseless trees, herbs, and weeds, are in a profane estimation among them – holly, ivy, mistletoe, rosemary, bays, are accounted ungodly branches of superstition for your entertainment. And 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 fire for yoru 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 against the general Council of the Directorian private Presbyterian Conventicle.” 

With the success of the Parliamentarians, certain changes came in the ruling manners of the age; but

The Attempt to Abolish Christmas Day 

was, of course, a signal failure.  The event commemorated  made it impossible for the commemoration to cease. Men may differ as to the mode of celebration, but the Christ must and will be celebrated. 

“In 1642,” says Sandys, “the first ordinances were issued to suppress the performance of play, and hesitation was expressed as to the manner of keeping Christmas. Some shops in London were even opened on Christmas Day, 1643, part of the people being fearful of a Popish observance of the day. The Puritans gradually prevailed, and in 1647 some parish officers were committed for permitting ministers to preach upon Christmas Day, and for adorning the church.  On the 3rd of June in the same year, it was ordained by the Lords and Commons in Parliament that the feat of the Nativity of Christ, with other holidays, should be no longer observed, and that tall 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 as they used to have from such festivals and holy days; and in Canterbury, on the 22nd of December following, the crier went round by direction of the Mayor, and proclaimed that Christmas Day and all other superstitious festivals should be put down, and a market kept upon that day.” 

In describing “The first Christmas under the Puritan Directory,” the Saturday Review (December 27, 1884) says: - “It must have been taken as a piece of good luck by the Parliamentary and Puritanical masters of England, or, as they would have said, as ‘ a providence,’ that the Christmas Day of 1645 fell upon a weekday.  It was the first Christmas Day after the legislative abolition of the Anglican Payer book and the establishment of ‘the Directory’ in its stead; and, if it had fallen upon a Sunday, the Churches must have been opened.  A “Sabbath’ could not be ignored, even though it chanced to be the 25th of December. There can be small doubt that, if the Presbyterian and Independent preachers who held all the English parishes subject to the Parliament had been obliged to go into the pulpits on the 25th of December 1645, they would against have irritated the masses of the people by ferociously ‘improving the occasion.’  The Parliament has not the courage to repeat the brutal experiment of the previous year.  It was easy to abolish the feast by an ordinance; but it was risky to insist by an ordinance that the English people and English families should keep the dearest and most sacred of their festivals as a fast. The rulers knew that such an ordinance would not be obeyed. They resolved simply to ignore the day, or treat it as any ordinary Thursday. Doubtless many members kept up some sort of celebration of the old family festival in their own private houses. But the legislators marched solemnly to the Lower House, and the ‘divines’ marches as solemnly to the Assembly in the Jerusalem Chamber, affecting to take no notice of the unusual aspect of the shops and streets, which everywhere bore witness to the fact that there was a deep and fundamental estrangement between ‘the State’ and ‘the people,’ and that the people were actually keeping the festival which the ‘Synod’ had declared to be profane and superstitious, and which the Parliament to please the Scots, the Nonconformists, and the Sectaries, had abolished by law.  ‘Notwithstanding the Ordinance,’ wrote a Member of the House of Commons, the Erastian Whitelock, in his ‘Memorials,’ ‘yet generally this day, in London, the shops were shut and the day observed.’  The Christmas number of the Mercurius Academicus (December 25-31, 1645), states that General Browne, who was a Presbyterian zealot, ‘proclaimed’ the abolition of Christmas day at Abingdon, and ‘sent out his warrants for men to work on that day especially.’...The Parliamentary newspaper, The Weekly Account, (LIII, week, 1645), has the bald record: ‘Thursday, Decemb. 25, The Commons state in a grand Committee concerning the privileges of members of their House.’  The news of the Tuesday paper, The Kingdome’s Weekly Intelligencer (No. 152), is equally thin: ‘Thursday, Decemb. 25, vulgarly known by the name of Christmas Day, both Houses sate. The House of Commons more especially debated some things in reference to the privileges of that House, and made some orders therein.’...The Presbyterian and Independent divines spent Christmas Day in the ‘Synod’ of Westminster. December the 25th, 1645, was entered in their minutes as “Session 561.’...The City newspaper of that period, Mercurius Civicus, or London’s Intelligencer, in what we may call its Christmas number (No. 135, December 18 to December 24, 1645), printed an article explaining to the citizens of London the absurdity, if not the impiety, of keeping Christmas Day. Every good citizen was expected to open his shop as usual on the coming Thursday, and compel his apprentices to keep behind the counter.  The city newspaper stated, that iw as more probable that the Saviour was born in September than in Decemeber, and quotes, ‘a late reverend minister’s opinion, that God did conceale the time when Christ was borne, upon the same reason that he tooke away the body of Moses, that they might not put an holinesse upon that day.”  If the apprentices want a holiday, ‘let them keep the first of November, and other dayes of that nature, or the late great mercy of God in the taking o Hereford, which deserves an especial day of thanksgiving.’  The mass of the English folk meanwhile protested by all such ways as wee open to them against the outlandish new religion which was being invented for them.  The Mercurius Civicus complained’ Many people in these times are too much addicted to the superstitious obse4rvance of this day, December 25th, and other saints days, as they are called.’  It was asked in a “Hue and Cry after Christmas,’ published anonymously at the end of the year 1645, ‘Where may Christmas be found?’ The answer is, ‘In the corner of a translator’s shop, where the cobbler was wont so merrily to itself to chant his carols.’  The Moderate Intelligencer, which devoted itself to ‘impartially communicating martiall affaires,’ in its forty-third number (December 25, 1645 to January 1, 1646), expressed itself as scandalized at the zeal with which the English people, in spite of Parliament and the Assembly, had kept their Christmas. Social phenomena lay beyond the usual ken of the military chroniclers; but ‘we shall only observe,’ they wrote, ‘the loathnesse of the People to part with it, which certainly agues a greater adoration than should have been.  Hardly forty shots were open within the lines upon that day. The State hath done well to null it out of this respect, as Moses did the Brazen Serpent.’  The Scriptural knowledge of the Puritan military newsmen was curiously at fault; they evidently confounded Moses with Hezekiah, unless the substituted the lawgiver for the king, because they though it unwise to represent the King as the foe of idolatry.  The traditional scorn of the Pharisee for the common people which know not the law comes out in the ironical passage with which the ‘martiall’ organ concludes its reference to the distressing social symptom; ‘Sure if there were an ordinance for recreation and labour upon the Lord’s Day, or Sabbath (like the prelatical Book of Sports), these would want no observers. Unwillingness to obey, in a multitude, argues generally the goodnesse of a law, readinesse the contrary, especially in those laws which have anything of religion in them.’  Hence the puritanical tyrants thought the observation of Christmas Day should be visited in future years with more sever penalties.  A few days after Christmas a pamphlet was issued under the title of ‘The Arraignment, Conviction, and Imprisonment of Christmas.’  A letter from a ‘Malignant scholar’ in Oxford, where Christmas had been observed as usual, to ‘a Malignant lady in London,’ had contained the promise or threat, according to the pamphleteer, that the King would shortly appear in London, and restore to his poor people their old social and religious liberties.  ‘We shall soon be in London, and have all things as they were wont.”  There was small chance, six months after Naseby, of the fulfillment of the prediction. The puritanical pamphleteer, however, owns that it would be welcome to ‘every ‘rentice boy,’ because the return of the King would have meant the return of a free Christmas, which he sorely missed.    ‘All Popish, prelatical, Jesuitical, ignorant, Judaical, and superstitious person,’ said he, ‘ask after the old, old, old, very old grey-bearded gentlemen called Christmas, who was wont to be a very familiar ghest (sic). Whoever finds him against shall be rewarded with a benediction from the Pope, a hundred oaths from Cavaliers, forty kisses from the wanton wenches, and be made pursuivant to the next Archbishop.’  ‘The poor,’ he added, ‘are sorry for it. They go to every door a-begging, as they were wont to do, ‘Good to the alehouse to be drunke, they are fain to work all the holy dayes,’  Again, “The scholars come into the hall, where their hungry stomacks had thought to have found good brawne and Christmas pie, roast-beef and plum-porridge.  But no such matter. Away, ye profane!  These are superstitious meats; your stomacks must be fed with sound doctrine.’”   

In the National Magazine (1857), Dr. Doran, on “The Ups and downs of Christmas,” remarks upon the stout resistance given by the citizens of London to the order of the Puritan Parliament that shops should be opened and churches closed on Christmas Day.  “We may have a sermon on any other day,” said the London apprentices, who did not always to hear it, “why should we be deprived on this day?”  “It is no longer lawful for the day to be kept,” was the reply.  “Nay,” exclaimed the sharp-witted fellows,” you keep it yourselves by thus distinguishing it by desecration.”   “The declared,” say Dr. Doran, “the would go to church; numerous preachers promised to be ready for them with prayer and lecture; and the porters of Cornhill swore they would dress up their conduit with holly, if it were only to prove that in that orthodox and heavily-enduring body there was some respect yet left for Christianity and hard drinking – for the raising of the holly was every accompanied by the lifting of tankards. 

“Nor was the gallant Christmas spirit less lively in the country than in the capital. At Oxford there was a world of skull-breaking; and at Ipswich the festival was celebrated by some loss of life.  Canterbury especially distinguished itself by its violent opposition to the municipal order to be mirthless. There was a combat there, which was most rudely maintained, and in which the mayor got pummeled until he was as senseless as a pocket of hops.  The mob mauled him terribly, broke all his windows, as well as his bones, and, as we are told, ‘burnt the stoupes at the coming in of his door.’ So serious was the riot, that thousands of the never-conquered men of Kent and Kentish men met in Canterbury, and passed a solemn resolution that if they could not have their Christmas Day, they were determined to have the King on this throne again.” 

Of the Canterbury riot an account is given in a rare tract, published in 1647 (preserved in the British Museum), and entitled –  

“The Declaration of many thousand of the city of Canterbury, or county of Kent.  Concerning the late tumult in the city of Canterbury, provokt by the Mayor’s violent proceedings against those who desired to continue the celebration of the Feast of Christ’s Nativity, 1,500 years and upwards maintained in the Church.  Together with their Resolutions for the restitution of His Majestie to his Crown and dignity, whereby Religion may be restored to its ancient splendour, and the known Laws of this Kingdom maintained. As also their desires to all His Majesties loyall subjects within his Dominions, for their concurrence and assistance in this so good and pious a work.” 

The resolutions of the Canterbury citizens were not couched in the choicest terms, for the tract states that the two House of Parliament “have sate above seven years to hatch Cocatrices and Vipers, they have filled the kingdom with Serpents, blood-thirsty souldiers, extorting Committes, Sequestrators, Excisemen; all the Rogues and scumme of the kingdom have they set on work to torment and vex the people, to rob them, and to eat the bread out of their mouthes; they have raised a causelesse and unnaturall Wwarre against their own Sovereigne Lord and King, a most pious Christian Price, contrary to their allegiance and duty, and have shed innocent blood in this Land.  Religion is onely talkt of, nothing done; they have put down what is good,” &c, &c.   And further on the tract says: - “The cause of this so sudden a posture of defence which we have put our selves into was the violent proceedings of the Mayor of this city of Canterbury and his uncivill carriage in pursuance of some petty order of the House of Commons for hindering the celebration of Christ’s Nativity so long continued in the Church of God.  That5 which we so much desire that day was but a Sermon, which any other day of the weeke was tolerable by  the orders and practise of the two Houses and all their adherents, but that day (because it was Christ’s birth day) we must have none; that which is good all the yeer long, yet is this day superstitious.   The Mayor causing some of us to be beaten contrary to his oath and office, who ought to preserve the peace, and to that purpose chiefly is the sword of justice put into his hands, and wrongfully imprisoned divers of us, because we did assemble ourselves to hear the Word of God, which he was pleased to interpret a Ryot; yet we were unarmed, behaved ourselves civilly, intended no such tumult as afterwards we were forc’d unto; but at last, seeing the manifest wrong done to our children, servants, and neighbours, by beating, wounding, and imprisoing them, and to release them that were imprisoned, and did call unto our assistance our brethren of the county of Kent, who very readily came in to us, as have associated themselves to us in this our just and lawfull defence, and do concurre with us in this our Remonstrance concerning the King Majestie, and the settlement of the peace in this Kingdome.”   And the tract afterwards expresses the desire that “all his Majesties loyall subjects within his Dominions” will “readily and cheerfully concurre and assist in this so good and pious a work.” 

Among the single sheets in the British Museum is an order of Parliament, dated the 24th of December, 1652, directing  

“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.” 

Referring to the celebration of Christmas Day in 1657, Evelyn says: -

“I went to London with my wife to celebrate Christmas Day, Mr. Gunning preaching in Exeter Chapel, on Micah vii. 2. Sermon ended; as he was giving us the Holy Sacrament the chapel was surrounded with soldiers, and all the communicants and assembly surprised and kept prisoners by them, some in the house, others carried away.  It fell to my share to be confined to a room in the house, where yet I was permitted to dine with the master of it, the Countess of Dorset, Lady Hatton, and some other of quality who invited me.  In the afternoon came Colonel Whalley, Goffe, and others from Whitehall to examine us one by one; some they committed to the Marshal, some to prison. When I came before them they took my name and abode, examined me why, contrary to the ordinance made that none should any longer observe the superstitious time of the Nativity (as esteemed by them), I durst offend, and particularly be at Common Prayers, which they told me was but the mass in English, and particularly pray for Charles Stuart, for which we had no Scripture.  I told him we did not pray for Charles Stuart, but for all Christian kings, princes, and governors.  They replied, in so doing we prayed for the King of Spain too, who was their enemy and a Papist; with other frivolous and ensnaring questions and much threatening, and, finding no colour to detain me, they dismissed me with much pity of my ignorance.  These were men of high flight and above ordinances, and spake spiteful things of our Lord’s Nativity. As we went up to receive the sacrament the miscreants held their muskets against us, as if they would have shot us at the altar, but yet suffering us to finish the office of communion, as perhaps not having instruction what to do in case they found us in that action; so I got home late the next day, blessed be God!” 

Notwithstanding the adverse acts of the Puritans, however, and the suppression of Christmas observances in high places, the old customs and festivities were still observed in different parts of the country, thought with less ostentation than formerly; and various publications appeared which plainly showed that the popular sentiments were in favour of the festivities. The motto of No. 37 of Mercurius Democritus, from December 22, 1652, begins: 

“Old Christmas now is come to town

Though few do him regard,

He laughs to see them going down

That have put down his Lord.” 

In “The Vindication fo Father Christmas,” 1653, a mock complaint in the character of father Christmas, he laments that treatment he had received for the last twelve years, and that he was even then but coolly received.  “But welcome, or not welcome, I am come,” he says, and then states that his “best and freest welcome was with some kinde of country farmers in Devonshire,” thus describing his entertainment among them:- “After dinner we arose from the boord, and sate by the fire, where the harth was imbrodered all over with roasted apples, piping hot, expecting a bole of ale for a cooler, which immediately was transformed into warm lamb wool.  After which we discoursed merily, without either prophaneness or obscenity; some went to cards; others sung carols and pleasant songs (suitable to the time), and then the poor laboring Hinds, and maid-servants, with the plow-boys, went nimbly to dancing; the poor toyling wretches being glad of my company, became they had little or no sport at all till I came amongst them; and therefore they skipped and leaped for joy, singing a carol to the tune of hey, 

“Let’s dance and sing, and make good chear,

Fro Christmas comes but once a year;

Draw hogsheads dry, let flagons fly,

For now the bells shall ring;

Whilst we endeavour to make good

The title ‘gainst a King.

“Thus at active games, and gambols of hot cockles, shooing the wild mare, and the like harmless sports, some part of the tedious night was spent.”

The National Troubles

Were not brought to an end by the execution of Charles I, on the 30th of January, 1649.  In addition to the rioting by law, the Lord Protector (Oliver Cromwell) had to struggle against discontented republicans and also against fresh outbreats of the Roayalists; and, although able to carry on the Protectorate to the end of his won life, Cromwell was unable to secure a strong successor. He died on September 3, 1658, having on his deathbed nominated his son Richard to succeed him.  Richard Cromwell was accepted n England and by the European Powers, and carried himself discretly in his new position.  A Parliament was assembled on January 17, 1659, which recognised the new Protector, but the republican mnority, headed by Vane and Haselrig, united with the officers of the army, headed by Lambert, Fleetwood, and Desborough, to force him to dissolve Parliament (April 22, 1659). The Protector’s supporters urged him to meet force by force, but he relied, “I will not have a drop of blood spilt for the preservation of my greatness, which is a burden to me.”  He signed a formal abdictation (May, 1659), in return for which the restored Rump undertook the discharge of his debts. After the Resotration Richard Cromwell fled to the Continent, where he remained for many years, returning to England in 1680. A portion of his property was afterwards restored to him.  He died at Cheshunt, Hertfordshire, in 1712.

On Richard Cromwell declining to uphold the Protectorate by force of arms, the only hope of establishing a settled form of government and of saving the contry from a military despotism seemed to be in the restoration of the monarchy; therefore, chiefly through the instrumentality of General Monk, to return to England.  He at once responded, and entered London in triumph as as Charles II., on May 29, 1660, having previously signed the declaration of Breda. By this declaration the king granted a free and general pardon to all “who within forty days after the publishing hereof shall lay hold upon this our grace and favour, and shall by public act declare their doing so,” excpet such as the Parliament of both houses should except.”




Adoration of the Shepherds


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